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Governor Kinky?

Times Staff Writer

Kinky FRIEDMAN, country singer turned mystery writer, is still jazzed. He’s in a car hurtling from Houston to this small oil-and-tourism town on the Gulf of Mexico, and he’s a talking jukebox. Put in a question and listen to him riff about himself and other musicians, about politics and politicians, about books and his beloved Texas. A fat -- and illegal -- Cuban stogie is wedged between his fingers, and you can just forget (he uses a slightly shorter word) the two small “no smoking” stickers pasted on the dashboard of the rental car.

It’s an hour’s drive to Friedman’s noon gig, and Kinky, the self-proclaimed Jewish Cowboy of Texas, among other less savory descriptions, talks for all but maybe six minutes of it, the topics as varied as the coastal plain here is flat. But slouched in the passenger seat, Friedman keeps circling back to the same point: the more than 200 people who wedged themselves into Houston’s Murder by the Book bookstore the night before to hear his half-hour spiel.

And to hear Friedman, an enigmatic blend of Johnny Cash and Mel Brooks, talk about why he’s running for governor of Texas.

His campaign slogans sound like a Catskills comedy shtick. “Kinky Friedman: Why the hell not?” And: “How hard can it be?” Yet Friedman insists he’s a serious candidate, more in the spirit of Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger than Pat Paulsen or Alice Cooper, the shock-rocker who once ran for Arizona governor as “a troubled man for troubled times.”

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“I’m not running to make people think I’m making fun of it, like Gary Coleman was” in the California recall, Friedman says. “I’m running to win this thing. I’m going to roll the dice, to bet on Texas. I’ve traveled all across this state as a musician, as an author, and I know it better, I’m more in touch with the people than any politician out there. That’s the point.”

But are the people in touch with Kinky, who published what he says is the last of his 17 mystery books, “Ten Little New Yorkers,” last month? Bruce Buchanan, a political analyst at the University of Texas at Austin, believes Friedman faces a tough road converting his celebrity status -- which is not A-list to begin with -- to political support.

“He is not known in any widespread way; he’s going to need media on steroids,” Buchanan says. “What really matters is can he get on the ballot, which requires signatures, and get media coverage, which is possible but not certain. If he can do either or both of those things, he can introduce some uncertainty” into the race.

And there is some room to maneuver. Recent polls show incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry with approval ratings of around 50% -- a vulnerable showing in political terms. Democrats rarely do well here in statewide races, but popular Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been sounding out a primary challenge, which could leave the two major candidates bloodied and susceptible to a newcomer’s challenge.

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Independents don’t have much of a track record in Texas, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for one, Buchanan says.

“There is a combination of apathy and mild distaste for politics that, even in this red state with instinctive conservative impulses, might respond to just a light tweaking,” he says. “The question is, can he provide that?”

Friedman’s instincts are less political than comical, and he follows his heart and funny bone like personal lodestars. “I’m a serious soul no one takes seriously,” he says. He’s done no polling and avoids policy analysis like he would an old girlfriend. He supports gay marriage because “they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us.” At the Houston appearance, someone asked him about tax reform and Friedman answered: “Read my lips: I don’t know.”

In a state with an assembly-line approach to executions, Friedman questions the death penalty -- “I’m anti the wrong guy getting executed” -- but has no answers other than that he would appoint an oversight board to review cases. Texas schools are a shambles, which he thinks can be fixed by replacing political appointees overseeing the system with professional educators.

A few days earlier someone asked about the right-to-die debate that had been going on over Terri Schiavo in Florida. “I’m running for governor,” Friedman blurted, “not God.”

When pressed for political solutions, Friedman falls back on a one-liner: “I’m a Jew. I’ll hire good people.”

So far, the lack of specifics hasn’t hurt him in an election that is still nearly a year away.

“We have some real serious issues here with school funding and healthcare, and he hasn’t spoken to that yet, so it’s a question,” says Jeff Ryan, 59, an architect who showed up for the Houston appearance in a Friedman-for-governor T-shirt and cap. “It will be fun to see him talk seriously about these issues.”

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What Friedman has going for him is name recognition, a fan base that is quickly turning into a volunteer base -- some 10,000 had signed on by the end of the week -- and plenty of celebrity connections to raise money. He’s taken in more than $110,000 so far but is just beginning to get serious about fundraising. In the last gubernatorial race here, more than $100 million was spent -- $70 million of it by the independently wealthy Democrat Tony Sanchez, who lost.

One early decision Freidman made was to run from the outside. He disdains both major parties as “paper or plastic” in a state in which more than 30% of voters identify themselves as independents. And to qualify for the November ballot as an independent, Friedman will have two months after the March party primaries to gather about 50,000 signatures of people who did not vote in either primary.

That means Friedman has to build a large and disciplined grass-roots system. To do that, he has tapped Ian Davis, a field organizer for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, who is trying to set up volunteer committees in each of the state’s 254 counties. And Friedman has been courting notable political operative Bill Hillsman, an advisor to Ralph Nader in 2000 whose political acumen helped Minnesotans Paul Wellstone win a U.S. Senate seat and Ventura win a governorship.

Friedman, a nonpracticing Jew who lists Jesus Christ among his heroes, describes his campaign as spiritual and a natural attraction for unaligned and disenchanted voters. Texas has taken an image beating, he believes. The cowboy has become an international symbol of recklessness, not the stoic rider of the purple sage Friedman sees.

He wants to rally his fellow Texans to a new level of confidence in their state.

“What I’m trying to do is maybe use a little humor to knock down the windmill that is politics as usual, and to get all of us together and make that Lone Star shine again,” Friedman told the Houston gathering to sustained applause. Later, Friedman acknowledged that his biggest challenge is to get people to take seriously the man who wrote such songs as “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and his chauvinism-laced “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.”

Even he isn’t sure how serious he was at first.

“It’s the Bee Gees kind of thing, you know, ‘I Started a Joke,’ ” Friedman says, citing the 1969 pop song. “Maybe it was that at one time, maybe not so much a joke but certainly an impossible dream.... But you know, I believe we can do this.”

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A Texas boyhood

Friedman was born in Chicago in 1944 while his father was serving as a World War II bomber navigator in Europe. After the war, the family moved to Houston, where Friedman started school, and then to Austin, where his father was a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas.

Friedman’s parents founded the Echo Hill boys’ and girls’ summer camp in 1953 on 400 acres of ranchland two hours northwest of San Antonio, and Friedman worked there as a counselor. The camp is still overseen by Friedman’s brother, and Friedman, who never married, lives in an old lodge on the grounds as “the oldest living Jew in Texas who doesn’t own property.”

While a liberal arts major at Texas, Friedman joined civil rights protests to desegregate Austin businesses. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he is a marquee figure for the Utopia Animal Rescue near the Echo Hill camp, which tries to find homes for abused animals. One of Friedman’s few specific campaign pledges is to make cat declawing illegal in Texas.

Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, who has known Friedman since boyhood and worked with him at the camp, says the cynical songs and gruff persona mask a warm heart.

“If he can work a cabin full of adolescent children, he can work with the Legislature,” Kessler says as Friedman signs autographs for 200 fans at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, the last stop on his book tour. “A sensitive person who cares deeply about people and animals wouldn’t be a bad person for the governorship.”

Besides, Friedman says, he needs the job. Once he announced he was running, Texas Monthly suspended his regular magazine column until the election -- or the campaign -- ended. Friedman had already ended his career as a mystery writer, killing himself off in “Ten Little New Yorkers,” the last of his books featuring a Texas country singer turned detective named Kinky Friedman, books better known for jokes than plots.

The new book, published last month, ends with the fictional Friedman and a suspected murderer falling off the Brooklyn Bridge, a scene reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty’s fall from Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eventually brought Holmes back from the dead, something Friedman says he wouldn’t contemplate unless, he jokes, the literary world demands it.

Friedman’s transformation from mystery writer to politician began with a cliffhanger. He was vacationing at a friend’s Cabo San Lucas house in 1998 when a rogue wave swept him up and stranded him at the bottom of a cliff for more than 24 hours.

“I was lost on this cliff, and nobody could find me,” Friedman says. “I had a bathing suit and a cigar, no matches. I was on this cliff with the lizards and the iguanas all night. I could see the village, but I thought I would have died if I tried to get there.”

Friedman says he and his friends had talked about how easy it would be to disappear, so initially they “thought it was a stunt.” By the time Friedman decided the next day to chance crossing back along the bottom of the cliff, a full search was underway.

Stuck on the rocks, he decided “that if I got out of this thing I’d like to do something more.... I’ve achieved a lot of my dreams, and I would like to see other people, especially younger Texans, get a chance to achieve some of theirs. That’s basically the reason I’m running. And besides, I need the closet space.”

If there is a constant in Friedman’s campaign, it’s humor, often scatological and sophomoric. But Friedman sees that as a plus. “I’m trying to show that politics can be fun and funny and still be important.”

But campaigns can also be won and lost on symbolism and public perceptions. The end of Friedman’s campaign might be found in its beginning. He announced his candidacy in February in front of Texas’ most enduring landmark, the Alamo, carried live over Don Imus’ radio show and simulcast on MSNBC.

The Alamo, of course, was the ultimate last stand. Friedman, chewing on his cigar, mulls that for a moment, cautious optimism ceding ground to realism as he envisions the long climb ahead.

“To go down in a great cause,” he says, “would not be bad.”


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