The candidate is clad in a black Stetson, dark pearl-buttoned shirt and blue jeans, like a shambolic outlaw in some spaghetti western. But if he is inhibited by the audience of corpulent, stony-faced sheriffs glaring out from beneath their ten-gallon hats, he does not show it. Within the first two minutes of his stump speech, the ageing cowboy with Frank Zappa facial hair and a history of substance abuse proudly confesses to lewd conduct and breaking a state law.
‘I’m a member of the Mile High Club,’ declares Kinky Friedman, the former country and western singer, to delegates at the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas conference, where stalls advertise professional ‘tragedy clean-up’ services and a commemorative handgun auction. ‘I’m a solo member.’
Allegations by political opponents that he had sipped from an open liquor can while driving at the head of a recent St Patrick’s Day parade in Dallas are true, he continues, clutching an unlit Montecristo No. 2 Cuban cigar. ‘It was Guinnessgate 2006. I admit I did drink the Guinness —but I did not swallow.’
Friedman, whose nickname derives not from any sexual antics, airborne or otherwise, but from his now-thinning ‘Jewish Afro’ hair, used to be best known first as the singer with the Texas Jewboys. Then he became a writer of off-beat detective novels (starring himself) with titles like Armadillos and Old Lace and Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned.
The Jewboys’ cult hits managed to upset just about every group imaginable. ‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More’ contained every ethnic slur imaginable. ‘Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso’ (a skit on Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’) cast aspersions on some Texans’ affinity with sheep. ‘Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed’ prompted campus protests from feminists.
Friedman is still doing his best to offend people but he is achieving new notoriety as an insurgent candidate for governor of Texas, the post held by George W. Bush for six years. On 7 November he hopes to achieve what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in California and the pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura did in Minnesota by winning a statewide election as a celebrity political neophyte. His pitch is encapsulated by his slogans ‘Why the Hell Not?’ and ‘I Can’t Screw Things Up Any Worse Than They Have’. Only 29 per cent voted in the last gubernatorial election, and those who stayed at home, disillusioned with politicians — not least the Republican incumbent Rick Perry — are his target audience.
Outside the Lubbock Civic Centre, where the sheriffs’ conference is being held, is Chris Bell, the Democratic candidate and a man so bland that it seems Friedman might have invented him just to prove his point. He is sipping from a can of Dr Pepper and adjusts his hair in the mirrored glass of the exit door as he talks. ‘Kinky’s funny and I like him,’ he says sourly. ‘But we don’t need a joke for a governor. I just think people will realise they need a governor who takes a serious approach to fixing problems.’
Friedman accuses his three rivals of having had a ‘humour bypass’ and cites their combined 88 years in politics as the reason. ‘Musicians can better run this state than politicians,’ he tells a crowd of some 250 crammed into Bleacher’s Sports Café in downtown Lubbock. ‘Now we won’t get a lot done in the mornings probably, but we’ll run late and we’ll be honest.’
Lubbock, the remote west Texas birthplace of Buddy Holly, is rock-solid conservative. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, another of its musical offspring, said she was ‘ashamed of being from the same state’ as President George W. Bush, Lubbock disowned her. ‘She stirred up a lot of s***,’ explains Tom Ward, a Friedman supporter. ‘Is she welcome here? Hell no, not at all.’
But high federal government spending and the running sore of Iraq make the national mood music for Republicans less than favourable. In the Lone Star state, the indictment on corruption charges of Tom DeLay, a Texan former Republican congressional leader, and Mr Bush’s willingness to compromise on immigration in order to woo Hispanic voters have also driven conservatives away from the Grand Old Party.
Friedman’s first action on becoming governor, he says, would be to list his phone number publicly so any Texan can call to shoot the breeze. Then he would legalise casino gambling and funnel the funds into education — ‘slots for tots’. The state lotto funds should also be redistributed. ‘What has six balls and screws Texas? The lottery. We’ve got to get these money-changers out of the temple.’
Single and 61, Friedman’s companions in the governor’s mansion would be his five mutts Mr Magoo, Perky, Brownie, Chumley and Fly. ‘Dogs can teach us a lot,’ he says. ‘How to be loyal, how to be friendly, how to love, how to be always ready for fun, how to forgive, all of that.’ On foreign policy he’s a neocon: ‘The Israelis and the Texans have a lot in common. They both have a John Wayne spirit.’
He is a keen environmentalist — he pledges to convert all 35,000 Texas school buses to biodiesel fuel — supports low taxes and has a strong libertarian streak, but he defies categorisation. He is probably the only candidate in America who supports both gay marriage and compulsory prayer in public schools. ‘My plan is to bring back the Ten Commandments and call them the Ten Suggestions. I’m for gay marriage — they have as much right to be miserable as the rest of us. I’m an independent thinker. Nobody tells me what to think and I haven’t sold myself to the highest bidder like a career politician.’
He expresses bemusement about some issues. ‘The death penalty? I’m all over the map. I’m not anti it but I’m anti the wrong guy getting executed. And I do ask the question, “When was the last time we executed a rich guy?” If I’m governor there won’t be anybody executed — except for the few that really need to die.’ His immigration stance is significantly to the right of Mr Bush’s.
Bleacher’s is decorated with homemade placards declaring ‘Kinky Time’ and ‘There is Something Kinky Going On’. Afterwards, Friedman spends more than two hours signing books, bumper stickers and anything else put under his nose, including a teenage girl’s sign that reads ‘I Prefer to be Erotic but Kinky Will Do Just Fine’, written in felt pen. The crowd is loud, in many cases drunk and decidedly mixed. There are bikers, students, a neuro-surgeon, an elderly lawyer who was once the town’s Democratic chairman and a Native American called Roger who ran for Republican chairman. Friedman is unfazed when a six-foot transvestite christened Bruce but calling herself Laura, complete with miniskirt, smeared lipstick and stubble, asks for an autograph.
Back in his room at Lubbock’s soulless Embassy Suites, Friedman is on the phone trying to persuade the actor Robert Duvall to do a radio spot for him. Without the money and backing of a party machine, he needs cash for advertising. ‘If we rob a bank, we can do it,’ he says, adding that he hopes his friend Bob Dylan will come down to lend a hand.
Like many funny men, Friedman’s string of quips masks a somewhat maudlin temperament. When people fail to take him seriously, he gets cranky — but it seems he can’t quite bear it when they do. He calls himself a ‘dealer in hope’, and there is an endearingly childlike quality about him, but also a cynical tinge to his anti-politician message.
He is at once supremely confident about winning (the latest polls put him at 21 per cent compared with Perry’s 35 per cent — still an outsider but definitely in with a shout) and racked with self-doubt. ‘The young people are really starting to inspire the Kinkster and the feeling’s mutual,’ he says at Bleacher’s. But later, pondering voter turnout, he confides: ‘I think the young people are going to f**k us. They always do.’
He mourns the decline of traditional values, an America gone by. ‘Texas is the last resort of wussification, which is the weakening of fibre, spiritual and moral,’ he says. ‘I’m a compassionate redneck. Someone who cares about the little fellers, not the Rockefellers, who follows not the easy way but the cowboy way. It’s honesty, leaving a place cleaner than you found it, knowing that courtesy is owed, respect is earned and love is given.’
As he walks me down to the hotel lobby, Friedman reflects on his life. ‘I was stoned a lot when I was a musician and I was involved with a lot of beautiful women. I raised a lot of hell and I don’t regret it. At least I never killed anybody. Even Ted Kennedy can’t say that.’ But he does seem regretful, even a touch lonely. The ‘love of my life’, he explains, was killed in a car crash in the 1980s — ‘she kissed a windshield at 95 miles per hour in her Ferrari’ — and a romance with Miss Texas 1987 fell apart. ‘I was too young to get married, then I was too stoned and now I’m old enough to sleep alone.’
Recently he has embarked on a romance with a British businesswoman he met while she was driving across the United States in a pick-up truck. ‘She’s a lady, a real one,’ he says. ‘I had hopes she was an extremely wealthy person.’ A future First Lady of Texas, perhaps? ‘Could be. But as I’ve waited this long I hope not to make a tragic mistake so late in the game.’
Toby Harnden is Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Telegraph.