Waiting for Friedman

Kinky works his charm on an undecided voter -- and her laptop.
Steven Devadanam

Hundreds of heads keep turning excitedly toward the door. At the packed Flying Saucer, longnecks and beer glasses thump on tabletops. Chairs skid on the floor. Is he finally here? Has he made it in?

Nope. On the big screen TV, the Astros have just gotten on base again against the Pirates. The 'Stros faithful at the bar are screaming for the team, hoisting their beer glasses in the air and whooping for every base hit.

Every time the fans cheer, it's another false alarm for the more than 300 people who have been waiting for Kinky Friedman -- raconteur and gubernatorial candidate -- to show up at the Saucer with his pal Jesse Ventura for a weekday meet n' greet. As the supporters bump elbows with the baseball fans and happy hour crowd, it's not hard to tell them apart -- these people aren't in baseball jerseys or office casual garb. They're wearing hot pink "Vote for Kinky" T-shirts or caps bearing the "K THE GOVERNOR" logo. Some look like young boho types; others look as if they've been plucked out of Kemah or Conroe (there's a few NASCAR-style mullets in the mix). They range from teen to twilight, longhaired to no-haired.


Houston Astros

There's hardly space to breathe -- let alone drink -- here, and being in the atmosphere of this tight, sweaty bar is like hanging out backstage at a rock concert, not a campaign stop. "I've got two shirts and a box of cigars for him to sign," says one guy. "I'm gonna ask him to sign my boot," says another, brandishing a brown roper. Friedman may be running for governor, but tonight he's a rock star, and his frenzied fans want a piece of him.

Maybe that's because Friedman, despite being called everything from a "joke" candidate to a racist (see "Kinky Stances" in HouStoned, the Houston Press blog, September 6), appeals to Houstonians of every walk. Indeed, this meet n' greet seems to be a microcosm of Friedman's support base. There are old liberals who look like conservatives, and young Republicans who look like card-carrying Dems, such as Dustin, who sports a close-cropped hairdo, sideburns and a hipster's stance. His Royal Crown Revue concert tee hangs off his wiry frame, as do his baggy jeans. "He's the only reason I registered to vote," says the UH student and part-time waiter. "I like him, man. He's not a bullshitter -- he is what he is, and you gotta respect that." Friedman's been criticized (especially by Texas governor Rick Perry) for being all hat and no cattle. Yet Dustin is able to fire off specific examples of Friedman's stances that he supports.

"He said he went around to other states and saw Texans in the casinos, and he figured if it's all Texans, why should the money go to those places? Why not bring it here? And he wants to help the schools, he's on to biodiesel fuels, healthcare for kids." Dustin's also not buying that Friedman, under fire for comments he made at a recent press conference about Katrina "crackheads and thugs" staying in Houston, is a racist. "A lot of what he says is true. We're thinking it, and he's saying it."

It's that kind of brutal truth and honesty that has made Trey, a bespectacled fortysomething who looks like he'd sell insurance or teach college history, a "fan for years." From the looks of it, this guy would be the prototypical moderate/conservative. Hardly. "What am I? Ha -- I'm a Southern Buddhist Socialist," he says. "And I want someone who's been through what I've been through -- someone who's done drugs, been divorced, someone who understands me. You gotta love a guy who says he remembers doing drugs with Led Zeppelin," says Trey of Friedman, who supports decriminalizing marijuana.

Tall, goateed and decked out in black jacket, jeans and big black cowboy hat, Doc Pepper looks like Kinky's doppelganger, or maybe the kind of decoy that Saddam Hussein would use to throw off would-be assassins. People do double-takes as he walks by. A research engineer at NASA, Doc Pepper remembers going to Friedman's shows at Rockefeller's in the early '80s. "I have his albums, and I have to laugh when they say he's a racist," says the lean look-alike. "I'd be called a racist if I named some of his song titles, but they're all in fun." The Doc, 49, says he's a thinking voter, and doesn't support Friedman blindly. "Look, I can't support everything he says point by point, but when you look at the big picture," says the man, who claims no political affiliation whatsoever, "you say, 'That's someone I want to support.'"

It's hardly surprising that this is a veritable Kinky lovefest. But there are a few people here who are on the fence. Slender and blond, Meagan looks every bit the informed college voter in her powder-blue shirt that says "Stop Sexual Assault," and clutching her white iBook. The 22-year-old, who "hates P.C." and describes herself as a libertarian, outs herself as a Carole Keeton "Grandma" Strayhorn supporter, and says she's here because "it seems like his campaign is kind of a joke." But still, she admits that she could be swayed by Friedman. "Young kids are sick of Republicans and Democrats," she says sternly, "and they want someone who won't lie to them."  

So does Meagan's friend Kathryn, a 21-year-old UH photography major. She says she's a Strayhorn supporter, too, but she's here to see what the Kinkster is all about. Most of her friends tend to be conservative and don't take Friedman seriously. "But as a voter, I have a responsibility to check out all the candidates." Like Meagan and Kathryn, Jonathan, a moppy-haired college student from Lake Jackson, is a Strayhorn supporter but drawn to Kinky's persona. "He's not bipartisan, he's no partisan," he says. "I think his influence on this race is profound." Jonathan rants about the state's TAKS testing and the state of Texas's educational system. "We don't have enough money to fund educational programs," he says. "You want to know what young people care about? That. They want to go to college and get good jobs, and whoever gets elected better focus on our education."

There's a commotion at the door. Fans shriek as Jesse Ventura, whose bald head is now accented by long strands of hair and dreadlocks, saunters in. He nods to the crowd, his long, braided beard dangling under his chin. Friedman follows him, pumping his fists in the air and inciting a near riot. The shouts are unanimous: "Go Kiiiink-eeeeee!!!"

So off he goes, up to a stage at the back of the bar that's adorned with a big Texas flag. He makes fun of Rick Perry for bringing up Ventura's criticism of organized religion in a 1998 Playboy article. "I'm shocked and appalled that Rick Perry reads Playboy," says Friedman. He adds that he's "really close to winning this thing," and closes with his tried-and-true mantra describing the difference between a statesman (who thinks about the next generation) and a politician (who only thinks about reelection).

Next up is the hulking Ventura, who calls out Lone State voters. "We're trying to build democracy around the world, and only three out of ten Texans come out to vote in that last election? Come on, Texans, you're better than that," he growls. He then drops the gauntlet: "Do you have the courage of the Minnesotans? If you want Kinky to become governor, then each and every one of you take it upon yourself to go out and recruit ten more people to vote for Kinky. We're talking about your state of Texas here. Now's the time to ask, what can you do for the state of Texas?"

At that, folks charge the platform, pushing toward Friedman. Women fix their hair. Men call to him and give him the thumbs up. Security guards push them back. It's got the makings of a mosh pit -- all that's missing is a political supporter taking a stage dive into the bar tables. As the crowd finally forms into a line, Friedman presides over the chaos like a lead singer between rock songs.

"I haven't really decided who I'm going to vote for, and I came out here mainly to find out what you're about," says Meagan, who has finally made it to the front of the line to meet the Kinkster.

"What's your name?" says Friedman, in perfect cowboy gentlemanly tone.

"Meagan Barkley," she responds, going from hardened voter to schoolgirl. She seems surprised that he asked her name. Kinky begins to stump for Meagan. He tells her he's not caught up in political correctness, and she lights up. He's clearly struck a chord, but she still has questions.

"I'm just not sure where you stand on certain issues. Like, I heard you're against, like, guns."



"Well," says Friedman politely, "I'm not sure where you heard that, but that's definitely wrong. What else?"

"Well, where do you stand on education?"

Friedman tells her that Rick Perry is more concerned with banning gay marriage and cheerleading than focusing on improving education. "Yeah, he's really wasting a lot of time and resources," she says. The crowd behind Meagan and her friends is starting to get impatient. She continues to query him on his stances, with Friedman summing up his positions in one sentence or less. In less than two minutes, she's gone from guarded to enamored. It seems like a scene from those History Channel documentaries that show John F. Kennedy mesmerizing young voters with his charm and "er-ah" Boston dialect, or Bill Clinton luring denim-clad college kids with his aw-shucks Bubba demeanor.  

"Would you mind taking a picture with me on my computer?" she asks demurely. "Well sure," drawls Friedman, putting his arm around her and posing in front of her white iBook screen. She shoots the picture and grins at him like she's just gotten an autograph from Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a PR gem of an image: Kinky Friedman standing with a young Texas voter, snapping pics with a white Mac laptop.

"I can't say that I'm a hundred percent switched over to him," Meagan says as she steps down from the platform and joins Kathryn and Jonathan, "but he's definitely opened my eyes. I think it's awesome that he took the time out to talk to me and answer my questions. Nobody else has done that -- or made themselves available in that way." Friedman helps her down off the stage, tipping his hat and offering a flirty shalom. The night is young, and this rock star has to tend to his crowd.


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