Five days before the primary, Kinky Friedman is eating breakfast in a diner in East Austin, holding forth on why movies like Blazing Saddles can’t get made anymore, how he came to view Henry B. Gonzalez as a hero, and Willie Nelson's favorite jokes. He’s also tweaking his campaign message. “Texas voters are ready to elect an outsider,” he says. “That’s the mood. I’m feeling it.”
The night-and-day contrast between the outsiders battling to be the Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner is starkly evident in what they'd do after winning the March 2 primary. “As soon as we get into the general," Whitehouse rancher Hank Gilbert says, "we’re going to start rolling out policies just like we did in the governor’s race.” Friedman, a musician and humorist, says, “I think we’ll have Bill Clinton campaigning for us.”
Gilbert and Friedman, who were both running for governor in those now-forgotten days before Bill White threw his hat in, may find themselves coveting the same job, but their notions of what that job is could hardly be more different. Gilbert emphasizes wonky expertise and hands-on experience, while Friedman is all showmanship — few campaign stops go by without him uttering his one-liner “No cow left behind!” or mentioning his desire for his ashes to be scattered in Gov. Rick Perry’s hair.
Before Friedman’s run for governor as an independent in 2006, he says Clinton told him, “Find a few issues that are close to your heart and hammer them relentlessly.” He took the former president's advice then and chose a couple things this time too, focusing on his passion for animal rescue and shelters. The rest, he says, he’ll leave to the experts.
“Clearly Kinky has no direction other than he wants animals to run free, and for those that nobody wants anymore he wants to build shelters in every county,” says Gilbert. “Those are noble ideas and a fairy-tale way to live life, but it’s just not practical.”
Friedman’s work for the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, the animal rescue facility located at his Hill Country property, is mostly promotional. He describes himself as “the Ghandi-like figure that doesn’t do much of the actual work around there.” Commissioner Friedman would be the same way. “A pitchman for Texas,” he says.
“That’s not the job we’re auditioning for,” counters Gilbert.
For what it’s worth, incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a Republican running unopposed in his party's primary, says the job is “100 percent promotional, 100 percent being an advocate for Texas, 100 percent promoting healthy lifestyles, 100 percent preventing unwanted pests and diseases from entering the state."
“What we’re asking the people of this state to hire us to do," Gilbert says, "is to run the agency that overseas agriculture in all aspects. If you’re not serious about that, then I have to question what is the true motivation.”
Friedman has heard this line of criticism before. “If my detractors are going to say that I promote books and cigars and salsa and that sort of thing and I’m this genius promoter type,” he says, “isn’t that exactly what you want in this office? Don’t you want somebody who can promote Texas goods to America and the world? You can’t attack me for that and not realize it’s a very important part of the job.”
But the entertainer-turned-politician pitch can be a tough sell. In its endorsement of Gilbert, the Houston Chronicle didn’t give Friedman a second thought, casting him aside parenthetically: “Kinky Friedman's jokey candidacy does not deserve serious consideration.”
Gilbert takes it a step further. “To say, 'Well, I want you to hire me at this job, and then I’m going to turn around and hire experts who know what they’re doing because I don’t' is fraud,” he says. “That is fraud of other people. If you don’t know what the job entails and how to run the agency, then you don’t need to be running.”
Friedman concedes that Gilbert knows a great deal about agricultural issues — but says that only gets him so far. “He’s got a lot of hands-on experience,” Friedman says. “but he doesn’t know about fisheries in South Texas. This is a big state. They have very different concerns all over the state, and you can’t think you’re an authority on all of it.”
Still, policy-wise, Gilbert is the one who knows exactly what he’d do in the job, and his agenda is bold. So bold, in fact, that the Dallas Morning News, objecting to Gilbert’s protectionist tendencies, endorsed Friedman, saying his was “not a great model for the job, but a better one than Gilbert proposes.”
Friedman views his model as a modern approach to the position, and he chafes at questions about his sincerity. “I’m damn serious about it,” he says. “I’m serious like Ann Richards was serious, like Winston Churchill was serious. We’re witty people. Would you rather have a public official who can tell a joke or one who is a joke?”
Expect the word “joke” to stay in the race no matter who wins the Democratic primary next week. Staples has studied both of his potential general election opponents and says he's noticed a theme. “The Democrats may be in a quandary with their candidates,” he says. “One makes a living telling jokes, and the other one is someone who thinks our laws are a joke.”
It's true that in 2001, Gilbert pleaded guilty to a Class C misdemeanor theft charge, which he blames on an accounting error that arose when he moved his business. In the same confusion, he failed to pay three-months worth of payroll taxes, and the IRS got involved. His driver’s license lapsed in 2008 and had to be renewed on the campaign trail (his fine for the expired license exceeded the fine he paid for the theft charge). At the time, he told reporters that he never wears a seatbelt. “I never claimed to be perfect,” says Gilbert. “I can’t think of any mistake that I didn’t learn from.”
Gilbert would prefer to talk about substance — and to attack what he says is Friedman's lack of it. "He's never come forward with any substantive policy," he says. "Never in this race has Kinky agreed to a debate."
Actually, Friedman did issue a press release agreeing to debate, but only if Gilbert would first return to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Farouk Shami what Friedman called "his bribe money": $150,000 that Shami donated to Gilbert's campaign shortly after Gilbert switched races and endorsed Shami. Gilbert hit back with a press release of his own, titled "Kinky's Caveats Reek of Desperation," shrugging off the accusation and charging Friedman, who received Shami's backing in 2006, with hypocrisy. "I'll take contributions from anybody," says Gilbert, who expects the general election will be an uphill climb financially. "Since I'm not a big supporter of corporate agriculture, I'm not going to get the kind of dollars that my Republican opponent will get."
If Friedman and Gilbert can agree on anything — so much so that they put it in the exact same words — it’s that Staples “wants to be Rick Perry when he grows up.” Considering both still rail against Perry on the stump even after leaving the gubernatorial race, that's no compliment.
“We need to break the life cycle of the parasite,” Gilbert says. “These people are parasites on the system. They’re parasites on people of the state. They don’t want progress. They want whatever their corporate sponsors that back them want.”
“I don’t think Staples will be hard for me to beat,” Friedman says. “He would be very impossible for my opponent to beat, because this will be a tough year. The only way we win is with independents and Republican cross-over.” In a letter to his fellow Democrats, Friedman supporter and former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower argued that Friedman would give the Democratic ballot a 7-point bump in the general election.
In his 2006 campaign for governor, Friedman made inroads with the independent community, but some of the colorful comments he made and the perception that independent candidates may have helped Perry win reelection left some Democrats smarting. Gilbert was on the ballot, too — as a Democrat running for agriculture commissioner, as he is now. “It’s a race and industry that I’ve devoted my life to, a race I’m familiar with, and an industry I’m familiar with,” he says.
That may be true, but he couldn’t beat Todd Staples once before, taking in just under 42 percent (1,760,402 votes) to Staples’ nearly 55 percent. Friedman, who now believes it was “a mistake” not to run as a Democrat, got 547,674 votes in the gubernatorial race that year.
Gilbert views himself as the only serious candidate, and says of the current primary race, “I don’t think it’s ever been neck and neck.” Perhaps he isn’t taking the polling seriously either. The University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, released earlier this month, has Friedman beating Gilbert 32 to 27 percent. Both were behind the undecided vote, which weighed in at a hefty 41 percent.
Friedman’s name I.D. in Texas may be bested only by political A-listers like Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. However, Gilbert has the cash advantage thanks in large part to Shami's generosity. Friedman has “tepidly” endorsed frontrunner Bill White and says he would be willing to endorse Gilbert if he doesn't beat him on Tuesday.
Gilbert’s not so magnanimous. “If my opponent wins, he says, “All I can say is, 'Heaven help us.'”