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A Kinky campaign

Smoking an illegal substance, Kinky Friedman heads for the Flying Saucer.

Kinky – nobody calls him Friedman – is a comic country singer, mystery novelist and Texas humorist. The illegal substance is a fat, stinky Cuban cigar. The Flying Saucer is the Fort Worth bar where Kinky is about to deliver a speech in his campaign for governor.

But first he removes the cigar from his mouth and reveals the wisdom that his old friend, country icon Willie Nelson, imparted when Kinky began his campaign: “No pedophile jokes ’til after the election.”

So far, Kinky has followed that advice, and it has served him well. The pols and the pundits said he was a clown who could never collect the 45,540 signatures necessary to get on the ballot as an independent candidate. But Kinky showed them: He got 137,154 certified signatures.

He ambles down the sunny street, wearing his trademark outfit: black cowboy hat, black shirt, black leather vest, blue jeans and black cowboy boots. Those duds, along with the Frank Zappa facial hair and the Groucho Marx cigar, make Kinky look like the bad guy in a bad western. They also make him instantly recognizable all over Texas.

“Kinky!” yells a guy who recognizes him from across the street. He gives a thumbs-up sign. “I’m votin’ for you!”

“May the God of your choice bless you,” Kinky replies.

When Kinky steps into the Flying Saucer, the crowd erupts in cheers. The place is packed, with several hundred people sitting at tables and others filling the aisles. Nearly everybody is drinking beer, which is good preparation for any political speech, particularly one of Kinky’s.

“Well, folks, it looks like the election is getting more and more interesting,” he says. “The other three candidates seem to have humor bypasses. If you’re a politically correct person, you should vote for one of them. You have to be politically correct to be a politician, and the three of them are. Me, I’m a compassionate redneck.”

The crowd cheers, and the man President Bush once called “a Texas legend” launches into his stump speech, a zippy combination of Borscht Belt humor and populist politics.

“As you know, I’m 61 years old, which is too young for Medicare and too old for women to care,” he says. “But I care about Texas, and I want to fix what’s wrong with it. We are probably the richest state in the country, but we got potholes in the roads, we can’t pay our teachers, we can’t provide health insurance for our kids, and they’re trying to sell off the state parks!”

Kinky promises big changes. He’ll legalize casino gambling and use the proceeds to fund public schools – “slots for tots.” He’s the only candidate in the race – or maybe anywhere – who supports both school prayer and gay marriage. (“They have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us,” he explains.) He’ll clamp down on illegal immigration. And he’ll run the state’s school buses on the biodiesel fuel that Willie Nelson uses to propel his tour bus.

“We can make Texas No. 1 in renewable fuels – which is a hell of a lot better than being No. 1 in executions, toll roads, property taxes and dropouts!”

The crowd cheers, and Kinky tells them he can win this race. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, he says, only 29 percent of the voters even bothered to show up.

“Last time, they spent $100 million just to drive 71 percent of us away from the polls,” he says. “This time, that 71 percent is coming roarin’ back – with pitchforks! – to throw the moneychangers out of the temple!”

After the speech, Kinky’s supporters swarm the merchandise table to contribute to his campaign by purchasing posters, T-shirts and a $29.95 Kinky doll that utters a couple of dozen of his one-liners when you push a button on its back. “How hard can it be?” the doll asks. And: “I can’t screw things up any worse than they already have.”

An hour later, Kinky is still autographing these items for a long line of fans. It’s hot, and he’s sweating in a shirt he’s already worn for two days. He turns to Jeff Shelby, his childhood friend and campaign chauffeur, and whispers, “Man, I just smelled my shirt – whew!”

Shelby laughs – he had told Kinky to bring more shirts – then Kinky sticks his cigar back into his mouth, lays his wilted black sleeves across the shoulders of two middle-age women and smiles for a cell-phone picture.

Drawing stares

Kinky Friedman is just a part – one-quarter, to be exact – of what Texas Monthly recently called “The Weirdest Governor’s Race of All Time.”

The Republican candidate is the incumbent, Rick Perry, whose amazing anchorman coiffure inspired the nickname “Governor Good Hair.” In 2002, Perry won election with 58 percent of the vote. Since then his popularity has plummeted, the victim of an unpopular school finance plan and a new business tax. Recently, 15 longtime Republican contributors expressed their displeasure over the business tax by writing him checks – for a penny or two.

One anti-Perry Republican, state Comptroller Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, is running for governor as an independent. She’s a formidable candidate: In 2002, campaigning for comptroller on the slogan “One Tough Grandma,” Strayhorn – the mother of former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan – won 246,000 more votes than Perry. But her name was Rylander then, and her new name doesn’t have the same recognition, so she asked to appear on this year’s ballot as Carole Keeton “Grandma” Strayhorn. The elections folks declined that request, ruling that “Grandma” isn’t a nickname, it’s a slogan.

The Democrats, who haven’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, nominated Chris Bell, an obscure former one-term congressman from Houston. Bell doesn’t have a nickname, but he’s frequently referred to as “What’s-his-name, the Democrat.”

And then there’s Kinky, the author of 23 books and dozens of country songs as leader of the 1970s band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Kinky’s repertoire included the classic anti-bigot anthem “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” which not only contains nearly every ethnic slur imaginable, but also manages to rhyme “Aristotle Onassis” with “ethnocentric racist.” (His sidekick, Shelby, played piano in the Jewboys under the nickname “Jewford,” and he became semi-famous in Texas himself.)

The campaign is a bizarre, four-way slugfest that has, the Dallas Morning News recently noted, “transformed what probably would have been an easy run for incumbent Rick Perry into a wide-open race.”

Some polls show Kinky running second to Perry. Does that mean the Kinkster might actually win?

“I don’t think there’s any chance of that,” says Jason Stanford, who is Bell’s campaign manager.

“He’ll come up woefully short,” says Mike Baselice, Perry’s pollster.

“He won’t win,” says Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Monthly, “but he’ll affect who wins.”

Kinky’s campaign manager, Dean Barkley, the architect of Jesse Ventura’s successful 1998 race for governor of Minnesota, is more optimistic. “If 40 percent of registered voters turn out,” Barkley says, “Kinky will win.”

Barkley figures Kinky’s image as a straight-talking outsider will appeal to angry, alienated folks who seldom vote. Kinky’s campaign has raised more than $3.4 million – more than Bell but far less than Perry or Strayhorn – while enlisting an army of volunteers who gathered the signatures that put him on the ballot. Now all Kinky has to do is get one more vote than anybody else: The election is winner-take-all, with no runoff.

“Kinky’s gonna win,” says John McCall, a hair-care products mogul who has donated $1 million to his old friend Kinky’s campaign. “I have a business that deals with hairdressers. People talk to their hairdressers. And what I’m hearing is: Kinky’s gonna win in a landslide.”

One-liners a plenty

Jewford stuffs their suitcases into the campaign’s rented Chevy Trailblazer, then gets behind the wheel. Kinky rides shotgun and fires up a cigar.

For the next several hours, he keeps up a steady stream of jokes, gripes and stories. He calls Democrats and Republicans “the Crips and the Bloods.” He grumbles that election law forbids campaigns to pay the candidate. “And my staffers,” he adds, “are such officious, honest (bleeps) that I can’t suck any bucks out of the campaign.” And he complains about people who complain that his speeches are full of one-liners: “All politicians speak in one-liners and sound bites. They’re just not as funny as mine.”

He quotes Mark Twain. He quotes Oscar Wilde. He quotes a pig farmer he met while campaigning: “You ain’t worth a damn,” the farmer told Kinky, “but you’re better than what we got.”

He puffs on his cigar a while, then lets it go out and stuffs it into his pocket. A few minutes later he retrieves a different half-smoked cigar from his pocket and ignites it.

“Churchill said cigars are ‘gamier when resurrected,’ and he was right,” he says.

Not like the rest

Chowing down on eggs Benedict, Kinky grumbles about his shirt.

It’s the morning after his speech at the Flying Saucer, and he’s wearing the same black shirt that he’d found a tad too fragrant last night. It’s a problem: He packed only one black shirt, and he can’t very well appear in public out of costume. They need to go to a drugstore, he tells Jewford, to buy some of that Febreze stuff that you spray on shirts to de-funkify them.

It’s crucial to get Febreze today, Kinky says, because the next day he’ll be addressing a Dallas convention of the National Association of the Blind.

“They’re blind,” Kinky says. “That means they have a heightened sense of smell.”

Maybe he’s joking. But he looks serious.

Anyway, there’s no time for shopping now. They’ve got to hustle down the highway to join Nelson for a news conference on biodiesel fuels.

A couple of hours later, the news conference begins at Carl’s Corner, a biodiesel gas station off Route 35. But Nelson is a no-show, and a panel of earnest environmentalists drones on about renewable resources.

“This is stupefyingly dull,” Kinky says, watching from the back of the crowd.

But he’s got exciting news: He just thought of a great new line to use in his stump speech. He pauses dramatically, then reveals it: “I’m not like them.”

He’s smiling. He loves this line. He whips out his notebook and writes it down in big block letters: “NOT LIKE THEM.”

He’s right about that. No matter who “them” is, Kinky’s not like them. If Texans want to elect a certified non-them as governor, they’ll know where to find him.

Source: Fort Wayne Journal Gazette