Kinky Friedman is the only candidate for Texas governor whose campaign material includes a 13-inch talking-action figure and bumper stickers that read "My governor is a Jewish cowboy." The 61-year-old singer, author and satirical gadfly is also the only candidate who has written a country song about the Holocaust - it's called "Ride 'em, Jewboy" - and the only one who aims to place a mezuza on the door of the governor's mansion.
"Sure I will, why not?" he said, in a raspy Texas twang at the ranch in central Texas where he lives with five dogs - whom he calls "the Friedmans" - and a cat. "I'll even get a rabbi there to help."
The former front-man for the flamboyant 1970s country group called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, Friedman formally entered the gubernatorial race a year ago, stumping under the slogan "Why the hell not?" in a bid to unseat incumbent Republican Rick Perry.
At the time, most observers dismissed his run as a joke. Increasingly, however, the Kinky campaign has gathered force as a serious quest to shake up Texas politics, break down traditional party machines and reach out to a dramatically disaffected electorate.
"In the last election for governor, only 29 percent of eligible voters went to the polls," Friedman, known far and wide as "the Kinkster," likes to point out. "Seventy-one percent didn't vote - they didn't like the choice between paper and plastic."
Chomping his ever-present cigars, sporting his trademark mustache and soul-patch and signature black cowboy hat and outfit, Friedman has crisscrossed the state in recent months, speaking at schools, campaign events and fund-raisers and giving interviews to local, national and even international media.
"Sometimes what starts out as a joke has a nasty little habit of sailing dangerously close to the truth," he wrote recently. "Now, running as an independent, I intend to demonstrate that even though the Texas governor does no heavy lifting, he can still do some spiritual lifting, that is, inspire people, especially young people, to get involved in the health, education and welfare of their state."
Friedman's message is largely driven by a "throw the bums out" populism whose main targets are lobbyists and political hacks. Chutzpah is part of his pull, and he employs a stream of one-liners the way mainstream politicians use talking points.
"Trust me, I'm a Jew - I'll hire good people," he says.
He also highlights a few key issues, such as upgrading the educational system and backing the renewable energy industry. He is angered by the Texas penchant for capital punishment and says one of his first acts as governor would be to pardon Max Soffar, a Jew on death row he believes was incorrectly convicted of triple murder.
Friedman's new-broom-sweepsclean appeal has struck a chord. Thousands of volunteers have signed up to help with the campaign. Strangers come up to him on the street to declare their support.
Celebrities such as the country star Willie Nelson have joined the bandwagon, and campaign advisors include consultants who worked on pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura's surprise win as Minnesota governor in 1998.
"The Democrats and Republicans are not putting up any decent candidates," said Fort Worth lawyer Herman Morris, 78. Referring to Texas' capital, he says, "We need a breath of fresh air in Austin, not just someone who will march in lockstep with the national parties." Despite the apparent momentum, Friedman's campaign, financed on a shoestring, still faces an uphill battle.
The first hurdle is simply to get on the ballot. Texas law requires independent candidates to file a petition signed by 45,000 registered voters. All the signatures must be gathered in the two months following the Democratic and Republican primaries, which will be held March 7. Each signature must be notarized, and no one who voted in a primary may sign.
"The Kinkster" is confident that the signatures are there.
"We're getting strong grassroots support all over Texas," he says. "As I travel around the state, we find angry, disgusted people. It could be that we're just a little cult, but I don't think so anymore. I think it could be a real interesting race." Friedman's run for governor marks the latest twist in the long and checkered career of a man who views himself as "a serious soul whom no one takes seriously." Born Richard Friedman in Chicago in 1944, he moved with his parents to Texas as a baby and earned his nickname in college from his "Jewfro" hair. His parents were educators who ran a summer camp for mainly Jewish children at Echo Hill Ranch, the 400-acre spread where Friedman lives today in a small but rambling lodge crammed with photographs, posters and other memorabilia.
"We had services every Friday night, and Kinky would play the guitar," recalled Herman Morris' daughter, Ellen St. Clair, a 50-year-old banker, who spent four summers at Echo Hill. "I'll probably vote for him," she added, "he can't do worse than any of the others." Both of Friedman's parents are now deceased, and his brother runs the camp. The property is also home to the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, a home and adoption center for abused and abandoned dogs that Friedman helped found - about 50 dogs are current housed there.
Friedman served in the Peace Corps in Borneo in the late 1960s; after he returned, he formed Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. The band was notorious for satirical songs such as "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore," a raucous send-up of racism, and "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed," which poked fun at women's lib.
"Ride 'em Jewboy," though - which Willie Nelson has also recorded - is a haunting elegy on the Holocaust, and other songs dealt with social issues such as abortion and commercialism.
The Jewboys broke up in the mid-1970s and Friedman spent much of the next decade in a haze of drugs. In the mid-1980s he cleaned up, moved back to Echo Hill and began writing a series of successful, raunchy, comic mystery novels whose main character is himself. He's written about 20 so far, using a manual typewriter - he refuses to get a computer or Internet access.
He confesses to being concerned that, if and when he does get on the election ballot, opponents will try to nail him by publicizing politically incorrect passages from his songs and novels.
Friedman's personal heroes include Mark Twain and Will Rogers, and in his recent writings and campaign persona he clearly tries to emulate the mix of folksiness and wit those two great humorists embodied.
"My platform," he wrote recently, "is that I'm not a politician. My platform is that I'm not a bureaucrat. My platform is that I'm a writer of fiction who speaks the truth. My platform is to fight the wussification of this great state, to rise and shine and bring back the glory of Texas."
"On second thought," he added, "maybe I don't really want a platform. They might try to put a trapdoor in it."