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Kinky's Run For Governor Of Texas

This story originally aired on Jan. 22, 2006.
There has been no shortage of great characters in the governor's mansion of the great state of Texas.

There was Ma Ferguson, who, on the subject of teaching foreign languages, said if English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for Texans. And there was Sam Houston, who beat an opposing politician, literally throttled him with his cane.

There was Ann Richards, who described George Bush senior as "Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Well, the latest eccentric with his eye on the prize may be the oddest ball of all, a man who boasts he never held a real job, did have a real drug problem, gets his biggest kicks from offending people, yet maintains a surprisingly large following. As Morley Safer first reported last winter, Texas's leading singing Jewish cowboy, Kinky Friedman, is campaigning as an independent to be the next governor of the Lone Star State.

"Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get," says Friedman. "And I think musicians can better run this state than politicians. And, hell, beauticians can better run the state than politicians."

When he was reminded that musicians are not known for their excellent work habits, Friedman replied, "OK, so we're not gonna get a lot done early in the mornings. All right? But you know what [musicians] are? They're honest. They're honest. And I want people, in this administration, that don't care about the Republicans and don't care about the Democrats, but care about Texas. That's what I passionately care about."

Does he think Texas is ready for a Jewish governor?

"Absolutely. Listen, I tell people, trust me, I'm a Jew, I'll hire good people," Friedman says.

Friedman is optimistic, but before he assumes office, he has one minor item on his to-do list: beating a sitting Republican governor - Rick Perry - in a heavily Republican state.

It sounds impossible, except for one fact: in the last governor's race only 29 percent of voters showed up at the polls, making Texas fertile ground for a popular outsider.

Friedman admits he is going after some part of that 71 percent, the people who didn't make it to the polls in the last gubernatorial election. "And we're going after the young people. The teachers. Every crazy redneck in Texas is already supporting me. It is not Kinky Friedman versus Rick Perry. It's Kinky Friedman versus apathy," he says.

His two main issues are illegal immigration — he wants to close the border until Mexico cracks down — and education. He's running as the teacher's best friend.

On the campaign trail, Friedman is one candidate who needs no introduction. Everybody, it seems, wants to get a little Kinky.

For decades, Friedman has had a cult following, singing about subjects no one else would go near, like the Holocaust and racism. His band's name, "Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys," was designed to offend. For Friedman, the country cliché of lost love was never enough. Among his greatest hits: "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore."

That song led to threats by both Jewish groups and anti-Semites, though they all failed to see he was trying to point out the ignorance of bigotry.

Was anger what motivated him as a songwriter?

"No, I don't think that was. I think telling the truth is what did," says Friedman. "Telling the truth is what I do and as, you know, the old Turkish proverb … 'If you tell the truth, have one foot in the stirrup.' "

Friedman recorded 11 albums and hit it almost big, touring with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. He fully embraced the wild life, which he readily admits included mountains of cocaine.

"I think you have to find what you like and let it kill ya, you know? You struggle with your demons and you conquer them," he says. "I mean, I haven't done drugs in what? Twenty-five years or more. Been a long time. When I left New York. I was there for awhile in '85 and came back here when my mother died. I lived here at the ranch and that pretty well cleansed me, and I think the Texas Hill Country cured me."

It's country he knew from childhood. His parents were teachers who ran a summer camp, not poor enough, he says, to lead him to country music stardom, not rich enough for him to get into the quaint and colorful oil business.

He lives mostly alone with his immediate family — his dogs he calls the Friedmans. Lots of dogs. Down the road from his house, he's got 60 of them, all stray and abused and waiting in a kind of utopia to be adopted. In the past seven years, Friedman's Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch has helped 1,500 find new homes.

"And you know what I say, 'Money may buy you a fine dog, but only love can make 'em wag his tail,' " Friedman says.

Friedman, 61, says he thinks he will have a wife and family one day.

"I'd like to have a first lady, yeah. We'll see," he says. "I mean, there's no hurrying. I've waited this long. Why make a tragic mistake at this time, you know? Plus, I'm gonna be workin' for the people of Texas and it's gonna be fun."

Fun for Friedman and his pals. He has the support of some big names in country music, including Willie Nelson, who threw a fundraiser at his golf course with entertainment by Billy Joe Shaver.

And there's the literary Kinky Friedman, hit of the Texas book festival. He has written 23 books. Some are mysteries with a detective named Kinky Friedman. Others feature his wit and wisdom. The latest is called "Texas Hold 'Em : How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad." And for years, he wrote a column for "Texas Monthly" magazine.

How serious is Friedman about his run for governor?

"I think he's dead serious. I think that if you ask him whether this is a joke, if you even suggest it's a joke, he'll lunge at you," says Evan Smith, the editor of "Texas Monthly," and one of the top political commentators in the state.

What does Smith think are Friedman's strengths as a candidate?

"His strengths, I think, begin with his independence," says Smith. "He's independent of everything and of everybody. And sometimes he's independent of his own brain. His mouth is independent of his brain. But I think the fact that he's willing to take on the establishment, however he defines it on a given day. Republicans, Democrats, you know people in power. He has tapped into a dissatisfaction with the accepted order."

"The Democrats and Republicans are the same guy admiring themself in the mirror," says Friedman. "And if an alternative is on that ballot in Texas, I guarantee you, Texans are gonna take it. The politicians don't know this yet, but the people do."

The one predictable thing about Kinky Friedman is that he's unpredictable.

"The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments being taken out of the public schools. I want them back," says Friedman.


"I want them back, they belong there," says Friedman. "Maybe I'll have to change their name to the Ten Suggestions, you know. But they were taken out, not by separation of church and state, but by political correctness gone awry. One atheist stands up and says, 'I don't like the Ten Commandments,' and suddenly out they go. And, of course, we all know what happens to an atheist when he dies. His tombstone usually reads, 'All dressed up and no place to go.' "

Friedman has at times spoken irreverently about Jesus. Does he worry that religious voters in the very religious state of Texas might be offended?

"Well, I just said that Jesus and I were both Jewish and that neither of us ever had a job, we never had a home, we never married and we traveled around the countryside irritating people," says Friedman. "Now, if that's comparing myself to Jesus, I don't really think it is. But, the Jesus in my heart is a Jesus with a sense of humor. And, personally, I think he's enjoyin' my campaign as much as anybody right now. I think he is."

The issues Kinky Friedman will have to address may include headline issues such as gay marriage and prayer in schools.

"I'll tell you right now. I'm for prayer in school," he says. "I say what's wrong with a kid believing in something? I don't care if it's a tree or a rock or something, he should believe in something. I also support gay marriage. I say they have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us. And I'll tell you another thing, you won't find any candidate that supports prayer in school and gay marriage. For that reason alone, people should vote for an independent-thinking person."

Such independence led him to a campaign manager who helped turn Jesse Venture into the governor of Minnesota. Dean Barkley loves underdogs.

"I've been through this before. I've been through the, you know, this, 'Ha ha, you can't win,' and all this other stuff. This guy can win," says Barkley of Friedman.

Is Barkley concerned that some of Friedman's songs, such as "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," might offend religious Christian voters?

"I mean, Kinky has never been one too worried about offending people by telling 'em stuff," says Barkley. "And I've told him, 'Don't change.' I mean, be who we are. Don't turn into a typical politician and start telling people what they wanna hear. Because I think it's style as much as anything with Kinky. Just keep on being you."

Which may mean appearing dressed as the Queen of England on the cover of "Texas Monthly" — Friedman did that back in 2004. But this outsider has been an insider enough to have been invited to the Clinton White House and the Bush White House.

How does he explain his unique relationship with the presidents?

"Well, that should be easy," says Friedman. "Bill Clinton was a fan of my books. And he wrote me, wrote me a letter here, which the postman of Medina thought was from the White Horse Saloon in Nashville where they do line dancing. And it was really from the White House. And George W. Well, he wrote me first too. And I don't know why these guys write me. But, he wrote me and I wrote him back and he invited me to the White House. I guess it's alarming that the president has time for this sort of a pen pal relationship. But, everybody needs a laugh."

The first lady is also a fan, a proud supporter of his dog pound, though as far as we know, not his political aspirations.

His candidacy does raise the delicious possibility of Gov. Perry having to debate the Kinkster.

But Perry might welcome him into such a debate, in order to split the opposition vote.

"Well, I hope he does welcome us into the debate, 'cause that's what they thought in Minnesota," says Barkley. "And guess what happened?"

The odds are long that this outsider will get to hang his hat in the governor's mansion, but Friedman is pushing ahead one voter at a time.

"Me winning, an independent winning, in Texas would be great for the governorship itself, great for the people of Texas and great for the Kinkster," says Friedman. "I'm gonna win, win, win all around. And we'll put a smile on everybody's face in America and it would send a shiver up the spine of career politicians everywhere."

In closing, Friedman likes to repeat his trademark one-liners. "May the God of your choice bless you," he says. "Criticize me all you want, but don't circumcise me anymore!"

By Alden Bourne

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