The Trib talks to Kinky Friedman, making another run for Ag Commissioner as a Democrat, and his new signature issue.
Friedman, 69 — a singer, humorist, novelist and hawker of tequila — has tried, frequently, to add “elected official” to his résumé. But his celebrity status and unique charm have not translated into success at the ballot box, and that seems to be an itch he cannot help but scratch. He has tossed his iconic black cowboy hat into the ring for the race for agriculture commissioner with what he calls a clearer focus.
The campaign is his third run for statewide office in three cycles. A 1986 bid for justice of the peace in Kerrville is his fourth overall. In 2006, running as an independent, he placed fourth in a six-way race for governor. Four years later, he came up short in his first bid for the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner.
This time, he said, his campaign has a sense of mission that he lacked in 2010. Its central issue will be the legalization of marijuana, which he predicted could be the state’s biggest cash crop, financing solutions to a variety of the state’s problems.
“It’s a nonbinding referendum,” he said of his candidacy. “It’s bigger than just another conniving politician trying to worm his way into office. That’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening is, if I actually win this thing, the heat on this issue on the Legislature and whoever the governor is will be enormous.”
His two primary opponents are not taking the bait.
“I’m interested in grass, but it’s not that kind,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a Democratic contender who raises grass-fed bison in Carrizo Springs. “To me, we have some serious, serious problems, and it’s primarily centered around water.”
Jim Hogan, a Cleburne farmer, responded similarly. “I don’t smoke it,” he said. “I don’t have anything to do with it. That’s the last I want to talk about it. I want to talk about raising cattle, trees, goats, tomatoes and peppers.”
No Democrat has won a statewide race in two decades, so whoever emerges from the primary will be considered an underdog against the winner of the Republican primary, which has five candidates. Two Libertarians are currently locked in a primary of their own.
Friedman speculated that having two primary opponents might aid his prospects by splitting the anti-Kinky vote — the existence of which he is aware.
“Politicians like the word gadfly,” he said. “They use it as a negative. They use it with me sometimes — usually Democrats who don’t take me seriously. But if you had a gadfly buzzing around some of this, it wouldn’t hurt a thing. It might help.”
As you know, I have been a member of the anti-Kinky caucus. This year, as you also know, I’m somewhat more willing to hear what he has to say. Back in November, the Houston Press had a cover story on Friedman and his pot-centered candidacy for Ag Commissioner. Reading it at the time, I had to admit that so far at least he’s saying the right things.
Of course, Friedman’s sincerity was immediately questioned. The day of his official announcement, Republican candidate Eric Opiela quickly issued a press release that characterized Friedman’s candidacy as a joke, saying, “The issues facing Texas are serious. Our Agriculture Commissioner should be too.”
“We need an agriculture commissioner,” added Opiela, “who will focus on jobs, not jokes; drought, not drama and water lines, not punch lines.”
Yes, it was that scripted and wooden.
Eye roll from Friedman, who says he expected GOP candidates would take a dismissive tack in responding to his candidacy.
“But if they really weren’t worried about me, I don’t think they’d have started attacking me immediately.”
“Look, I’m 69, I don’t have time for stunts,” the musician, novelist, cigar and salsa salesman, tequila distiller, former Peace Corps volunteer and maverick politician explains as he walks up the Drag in Austin puffing his trademark cigar. “I’m dead serious about this run and about pushing for legalization. Marijuana is at the heart of a crucial matrix that, if we can get it straightened out and in motion, will become a great economic engine we can use to solve some of the biggest problems we face as a state.
“It’s time Texans asked themselves: Are we going to secede or are we going to lead?”
As long as he’s using his one-liner power for good and not for self-aggrandizement, it’s a win. I would also point out that marijuana has more to do with the office of Ag Commissioner than abortion has to do with the office of Railroad Commissioner. And if there’s anyone on the statewide ticket that I’d be okay with talking about pot, it would be Kinky. Again, he’s saying the right things.
“The governor and his cronies want to talk about reducing the size of government?” says Friedman. “Well, why are they all for these for-profit prison operations? How does putting 70,000 people in those private jails help us? Keeping pot illegal and jailing users for profit, this doesn’t help the people of Texas; this helps the outlaws who operate the illegal drug business and don’t pay taxes. How smart is that?”
“Look at history, look at what happened when Prohibition was lifted,” he continues. “The turf wars were over because the criminals lost their source of revenue. The legitimate liquor companies got stronger, and that’s a vigorous, profitable industry today that results in significant tax revenues. I think the same thing will happen when we legalize marijuana.”
As for how it plays out if he actually wins the election, Friedman sees a fairly quick move by the legislature to legalize the drug.
“Politicians move with the voters,” he observes. “If I win this running on legalizing marijuana, I think you’ll see a lot of position-shifting on the issue and a scramble to see who gets a bill onto the Governor’s desk first.”
I’m not sure about that, but I am sure that a larger push to at least decriminalize pot is coming, and it’s just a matter of time before the politicians realize they need to get on board with it. That could be a long time from now, of course. If you listened to my interview with Sen. John Whitmire, he thinks legalization won’t happen during his lifetime, and he’s a few years younger than Friedman. I personally think Sen. Whitmire is a bit too pessimistic – I mean, back in 2005 when we were enshrining a ban on same sex marriage in the state constitution, who thought we’d be where we are on that issue now? – and Friedman is a bit too optimistic. Where the truth is between those two, I don’t know. And again, credit where it is due, Kinky is saying the right things.
The rest of Friedman’s economic engine involves farming hemp (a non-potent form of marijuana) for industrial use and export while realizing significant water conservation gains due to hemp’s low water requirement vis-à-vis cotton; reducing insecticide use — hemp is essentially a weed and insects aren’t interested; and opening casinos so Texas money stays in Texas.
“I’ve never understood why we give all this money to other states,” Friedman shakes his head. “We’re just waving good-bye to the money for school improvements and roads, for mass transit, money we can put into drought remediation, into water-conservation projects, stuff this state is crying out for. What are we thinking?”
Friedman says the last couple of years, all the governor and attorney general have done “is rant about Obama” and spend hundreds of millions of dollars in state money challenging federal laws to appeal to their right-wing voting base.
“They can call my campaign a joke, but if the Republicans have any answers to the great problems this state faces, why haven’t they implemented them instead of obsessing about women’s reproductive systems or gay marriage?” he notes. “They’ve had total control of this state almost 20 years now, but nothing is getting fixed.”
I’m a realist. I haven’t forgotten 2006, and I haven’t forgotten the many instances of Kinky Friedman saying ugly things. He’s a risk to go off at any time, and if he does so as a Democratic nominee, you can be sure the Republicans will use that against the rest of the ticket. Given the racial nature of some of his past comments, I’d be very concerned about Friedman turning off voters of color, who Dems need to turn out in droves this fall. If he sticks his foot in his mouth the Republicans will be all over it, and will force Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte to renounce him in a way that Greg Abbott will never do with his more controversial supporters. It’s a risk putting him on the same ballot with Davis and LVdP. By the same token, Friedman will have vastly more name ID and potentially more crossover appeal than whichever low-wattage Republican wins that primary. He’ll generate news like that Trib story by virtue of who he is and the under-rated support for the issue he’s flogging. If Davis were a solid favorite to win in November, I wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole. But underdogs need to take risks, and Kinky has enough upside to at least be worth considering. Hugh Fitzsimons is clearly a serious candidate that’s worth a good look, but as of today I am leaning towards a vote for Kinky Friedman, which is not something I would have said four years ago or eight years ago. That could change tomorrow, so check with me again before early voting begins.