Singer, novelist, detective - and governor?
In Texas, where character is king, a cult figure sets his wit on high office.
The crowd grows restless as the man they've been waiting to see enters the room and begins to mingle with friends. He's shaking hands and telling jokes and taking far too long for many of these anxious admirers.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
You'd think he was a politician or something.
Finally, he emerges, dressed all in black with a cowboy hat to match. His signature Cuban cigar is lit - violating city code - and he waves it around the room without regard.
His friend and former band member, Jeff "Jewford" Shelby, bellows an introduction: "Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the next governor of the great state of Texas: Kinky Friedman!"
The Kinkster acknowledges the wild applause with a wink: "Little Jewford is very hopeful of becoming the first lady." The crowd is already in stitches and the book signing has only just begun.
But it's no joke. Kinky Friedman, country musician, mystery writer, animal lover, and "the oldest living Jew in Texas who doesn't own real estate," is running for governor. Ask him why, and he repeats his campaign slogan: "Why the hell not?"
This is Texas, after all, where colorful characters are cherished above all else. And Mr. Friedman is one of the state's most colorful. His politically incorrect outlook and irreverent humor has turned him into a Texas icon or, at the very least, a cult figure.
"Kinky is in the tradition of the true Texas character. He's colorful, he's funny, he's larger-than-life, he's always smoking an enormous cigar," says Stephen Hardin, an expert on Texas culture at Victoria College. "We love guys like this."
And while many fans say they will vote for Friedman in 2006, Dr. Hardin admits Kinky is probably better suited to be an ambassador for Texas than its leader.
But if world federation wrestlers and Hollywood superstars can do it, why not a Jewish cowboy?
"We're a very colorful, independent state and we need a colorful, independent governor," says Friedman, when asked to expound on his candidacy at a recent book signing. "We know that the governor of Texas does not do any heavy lifting. So I'll let the lieutenant governor do all the heavy lifting; he'll deal with the legislature and I'll be involved with anything that has nothing to do with politics."
For instance, "I'll go to the governors' conference in Hawaii," he says as the crowd screams in laughter. "But most importantly, I will fight the 'wussification' of Texas. I will rise and shine and bring back the glory of Texas."
His platform includes the support of nondenominational prayer in schools because "What's wrong with children believing in something?" He's calling for the creation of a Texas Peace Corps (not an oxymoron, he insists). And he backs gay marriage because "I think they have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us."
But for the most part, he steers clear of talking about volatile issues such as gun control and abortion, saying simply: "I'm not pro-choice. I'm not pro-life. I'm pro-football."
To get on the ballot as an independent, he and his army of volunteers will need to gather 65,000 signatures. But he's no newcomer to the political process.
In 1986, he ran for justice of the peace in Kerrville on the promise that he would keep his fellow "Kerrverts" from war with nearby Fredericksburg and reduce the 60-mile-an-hour speed limit to 59.50.
He was defeated.
Friedman, whose first name is Richard, was born in Chicago and moved to the Texas hill country as a child. He joined the Peace Corps in the mid-1960s and was sent to Borneo, where he says he introduced the natives to the game of Frisbee. It was there he began to write country music.
When he returned to Texas, he formed the Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys band and began performing across the United States with such artists as Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.
Some of his more famous - and infamous - songs include: "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," "Ride 'em Jewboy," and another title that earned him the National Organization for Women's "Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year" award in 1974.
While his songs may have angered a fair number of people, fans say his goal has always been to poke fun at society's hypocrisies and sacred cows.
By the mid-1980s, he had given up trying to be a country-music star and began writing mysteries featuring Kinky as a jaded former musician and fledgling private eye.
Both President Bush and former President Clinton are admirers of his novels, and he is often a guest at White House dinners.
His campaign will have a lot of support from other big names, including Johnny Depp, Robert Duval, Billy Bob Thornton, and Dwight Yoakam. He already has positions in his administration for Willie Nelson, as head of the Texas Rangers, and Farouk, his Palestinian hairdresser, as his ambassador to Israel.
For Michelle Moore, a Houston native who's been laughing hysterically most of the night, voting for Friedman is a real possibility.
"He tells it like it is. He's uniquely Texan, even though he wasn't born here," she says, clutching his latest novel, "The Prisoner of Vandam Street."
"I mean, if Minnesota can have a wrestler, we can have Kinky."
Others at this Houston bookstore are waiting for autographs on posters, bumper stickers, and T-shirts that read: "Kinky for governor. How hard could it be?"
Friedman says that his campaign began as a joke and he never takes anything seriously, but many here think he could actually win.
Others aren't so sure.
"He's not a serious candidate; he's a fun candidate. And I think he's having a good time with all of this," says Hardin. "I think we'll all have a good laugh on our way to the polls, and then end up voting for someone else.
"But I will say this: If he is elected, he won't be the worst governor we've ever had."