by Maggie Fisk
Arnold Schwarzenegger is so 2004. The new celebrity candidate? Kinky Friedman.
Friedman, currently running for governor of Texas, is the latest in a string of career-stalled celebrities converting to politics and running for public office. His previous career was as a musician with his band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. They performed such songs as “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed,” “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews like Jesus Anymore” and “Asshole from El Paso,” the latter being his most famous, though not his most controversial. Friedman has carried humor and controversy into his campaign, to the delight of some and the disgust of others.
While the seriousness of his campaign is a frequent and easy target, Friedman is no doubt shaking up a traditionally polarized and rigid system. Typically, the fixed two party system does not allow for much deviation from the norm. In this system, issues tend to be black and white, and each party picks a side. But Friedman, running as an independent, is all over the board. He claims Bush hasn’t put enough troops on the border with Mexico, calling for 10,000 troops from Texas alone, 4,000 more than Bush proposed for the whole border. (There are currently 1,500 troops at the Texas border.) He favors the Ten Commandments and prayer in schools. (“The Ten Commandments shouldn’t be reduced to the Ten Suggestions,” he says.) He supports gay marriage. He wants Texas to become an international (not just national or regional) leader in utilizing and harvesting renewable energy, namely in using biodiesel fuel. He favors the legalization of marijuana. He wants to revamp the health insurance and education systems. (“We’re 49th in funding public education,” he says. “We’re in a race with Mississippi for the bottom, and we’re winning.”)
His campaign has strong grassroots support, running an effective campaign online. He has an extensive Facebook group and a well-kept MySpace page, the latter of which has “Kinkytoons,” in which an animated Friedman discusses the issues and lists the 10 reasons to elect him governor of Texas. Neither the Democrat, Chris Bell, nor the incumbent Republican, Rick Perry, has such an extensive online connection with voters.
Encouraging a largely uninvolved population to register and actually vote is a noble cause. But is he actually involving the people or just entertaining them?
Friedman and his close friends and advisors claim with a straight face that he is entirely serious about the campaign and optimistic about his chances (though recent polls give him only eight percent of the vote). Some of his comments and proposed policies, though, raise doubts. One of the reasons listed on his MySpace page as a cause to vote for him is that he has no political connections and won’t give out patronage jobs. (“I’m a Jew; I’ll hire good people.”) Yet the single person to whom he has promised a job, Willie Nelson, does not necessarily seem qualified for the position of Energy Advisor.
Friedman has also playfully named his strategy to legalize gambling and give the revenue to the schools “Slots for Tots.” His plan to deploy 10,000 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico has been criticized by Perry because of questions about whether that number of troops is even available. He has also proposed dividing the Texas border into five districts and giving each to a Mexican general along with a multimillion-dollar bank account. Anytime an illegal immigrant is let through to Texas, Friedman would deduct $5,000 from the account.
Are these ideas actually workable? They range from sincere and interesting to laughable. Is this making a joke of the governor’s office or radically trying to transform it? Will the people who are coming to his campaign events now come to the polls in November and actually cast their vote for Friedman? Will they vote at all?
Especially in the media coverage of the election, Friedman’s witty remarks are viewed as more interesting than his ideas about what he would do once in office. He creates controversy with his remarks about the state of politics, letting go a one-liner that can be mashed into a clever sound bite to be played over and over again in the media. But is anyone interested in his policies?
Friedman claims that with his alternative policies and ideas, he is appealing to the indifferent, unsatisfied portion of the voters in Texas. According to CBS News, an embarrassing 29 percent of the registered voters in Texas made it to the polls in the last gubernatorial election. “It’s Kinky Friedman versus apathy,” Friedman has said.
Even if Friedman doesn’t win – and it’s fairly clear that he won’t – the fact that he is running and is visible on the campaign trail is enough to influence the stagnant Texas political scene. Approaching the election, Friedman’s poll numbers were cut in half after a poor showing in a televised debate. But his inclusion in the debate – uncommon for third-party candidates – demonstrates his impact on the campaign.
Despite Friedman’s nosedive in the polls, he could serve as an example of a third party candidate getting some attention and articulating different ideas. Nicole Ruestle, a politics major at Ithaca College, lives in Texas and worked on Kinky’s campaign this summer. “Texas has a lot of money, power, and population, so people should pay attention,” she said. The early success and attention Friedman’s campaign received suggests that the alternative voice has an audience, even if ultimately it’s not electable.
Maggie Fisk is a sophomore English major who plans to work for Dom Delouise’s 2008 election ticket. Email her at email@example.com