When Kinky Friedman decides to do Texas Democrats a favor, he sure has a funny way of doing it. I guess that’s what makes him a “humorist.” In 2006, Kinky was blamed by many Dems for staying in the governor’s race as an independent, helping make it possible for Rick Perry to win re-election with just 39 percent of the vote. This year, his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor was threatening to throw the contest into a runoff that would suck money and energy from the eventual nominee (who would clearly be one of the other two candidates). So his withdrawal from the Democratic contest on Monday was cheering news for most partisans, making it likely that Houston Mayor Bill White can win the March primary outright and then turn his immediate focus to the Republican nominee (which looks more and more like Perry). But Kinky’s blessings come mixed. Instead of running for Land Commissioner, a key spot (with a seat on the redistricting committee) that Democrats so far have no candidate for, Friedman decided to simplify one primary race and turn another one into a bar brawl. He’ll be running for Agriculture Commissioner, which pits him against Hank Gilbert, the Democrats’ nominee and top statewide vote-getter four years ago.That might not sit well with harmony-seeking Democrats. But for the rest of us, it creates the potential for one hell of a show. Gilbert, an East Texas rancher who’d previously dropped out of the governor’s race to run for Ag commissioner, was—shall we say—none too pleased about Friedman’s switcheroo. “Here we have a candidate who is running for office—any office—solely because he wants to promote his books and personal appearances,” Gilbert said, and went on: “Since exploring a race for governor, Kinky has had a cigar promotion tour, a book promotion tour and a documentary released about his last run all in an attempt to promote his publishing and business interests. He doesn’t care about running for office for the sake of helping people.” My, my! Ladies and gentlemen, we may just have ourselves a race worth watching. While the stakes are obviously lower—and the spotlight far dimmer—Gilbert vs. Friedman should be a much more entertaining skirmish than Perry vs. Hutchison. While Gilbert has stronger credentials and more fully developed ideas for the job, Friedman has the edge in star power and name recognition and (almost surely) money. This will be a battle between two candidates trying to occupy similar turf as homespun, hat-wearing, populist Democrats who speak their minds and damn the consequences. I can’t wait to watch the hat-feathers fly. Kinky’s battle with the feisty Gilbert promises what no other political contest in 2010 can offer: sheer, mad fun, as long as Kinky stays engaged and doesn’t get distracted by all those activities Gilbert was so eager to mention. In a serious vein, the candidate who emerges might just benefit from the attention this free-for-all could stir up. If you asked 20 random Texas to name the incumbent Republican Friedman or Gilbert will face (hint: it’s Todd Staples), I doubt you’d get an answer from more than one. With White giving Democrats some heft at the top of the ticket in 2010, it’s conceivable that Gilbert or Friedman could join him in breaking the Democrats’ 16-year curse of losing statewide offices. Meanwhile, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll put on a good show. And what is Texas politics, folks, if it’s not entertaining? Damn depressing, that’s what.
Do you think free access to journalism like this is important? The Texas Observer is known for its fiercely independent, uncompromising work—which we are pleased to provide to the public at no charge in this space. That means we rely on the generosity of our readers who believe that this work is important. You can chip in for as little as .99 cents a month. If you believe in this mission, we need your help.