Jewish cowboy comedian a contender in Texas governor race

AUSTIN, United States – A Jewish cowboy for Texas governor? “Why the hell not,” answers Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping entertainer who has become surprisingly competitive in the contest for President George W. Bush’s old job in the Lone Star State.

It’s a campaign long on one-liners, crude jokes and outrageous antics.

He backs same-sex unions because “gays have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us.” He smokes banned cigars not to flaunt the US embargo on Cubans but to “burn their fields.” And did he mention he once wrote a song called “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore?”

To be sure, Friedman’s whole campaign can seem like one big stand-up comedy routine. And pundits still give him little chance of winning in November, even less so now that he has deeply offended blacks after refusing to apologize for using a racial slur in the 1970s.

But Friedman keeps insisting he’s a serious candidate, and he has proven it by rising in opinion polls and hiring top talent from the last celebrity independent who shook up the two-party system: former wrestler Jesse Ventura, who beat better known Democrat and Republican candidates to win the race for Minnesota governor in 1998.

Ventura has already helped Friedman raise money and is expected to come to Texas again this week to campaign with the fellow independent on college campuses.

Born in 1944, Friedman’s real name is Richard, but nobody calls him that, and voters will see the name “Kinky” on the Texas ballot this November.

He has more titles than any man should: country music singer, salsa salesman, novelist and comedian, to name a few. He lives in the central Texas Hill Country and oversees the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, which provides shelter for abandoned pets.

The author of 17 mystery novels, Friedman once ran for justice of the peace in the 1980s but he has never held elective office.

He’s a longtime friend of country singing legend Willie Nelson – a campaign supporter and fundraiser. According to Friedman, who likes Nelson’s stands on renewable fuels, the pot-smoking crooner will also become the next energy czar of Texas.

Friedman’s maverick stands and brash talk have struck a chord with independent Texas voters. And thanks to the sagging popularity of Republican Governor Rick Perry, Friedman has found a wider opening than many thought possible.

“I think he is a voice of refreshing truth that this stifled society has missed for a long time,” said Texas engineer Jim Hart, a voter who supported Perry in 2002.

Friedman favors both gun rights and casino gambling. He’s also pro-abortion and wants to legalize marijuana. The humorist also talks tough on illegal immigration, even if some of his ideas are unconventional – like putting Mexican army generals in charge of border enforcement and deducting money from their bank accounts every time an illegal immigrant gets through.

A recent Survey USA poll had Perry at 35 percent and Friedman tied for second place with the Democratic candidate, at 23 percent. But Friedman’s trademark phrase about the relative ease of becoming governor – “how hard could it be?” – is being put to the test these days.

The trouble started a couple of weeks ago when Friedman blamed a Houston crime wave on the thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, disproportionately black, who sought shelter there.

“The artists and the musicians have gone back to New Orleans,” Friedman said. “The thugs and the crackheads have decided they like Houston.” Black leaders demanded an apology from the man who calls himself a “compassionate redneck,” but Friedman refused.

A week later, Friedman was in hot water again for saying negro was a “charming word,” and then last week he was fending off more attacks after an old audio recording showed he used the racial epithet “nigger” in a comedy routine 26 years ago.

The revelations brought condemnations from the sitting governor and all the other major candidates, not to mention leading black lawmakers and the Texas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But Friedman, true to his unapologetic form, said his comedy, songs and language were actually a satirical slam against racism, not a promotion of it, and that the criticism was simply “political correctness run amok.”

“Anybody who feels that anything is offensive about this should definitely vote for one of the other three candidates,” Friedman said.

Critics, including Perry, said even Friedman wouldn’t be able to laugh his way out of that one. “You can shade them by calling them politically incorrect if you want, but it’s not lost on men and women of color that people make remarks that are clearly racist,” Perry said.