Kinky the kowboy for what this time?
He hasn’t actually filed for office -- yet. But humorist/author Kinky Friedman says with Houston Mayor Bill White in the Democratic race for governor, the Kinkster will shift to agriculture commissioner.
Kinky follows another former gubernatorial candidate, Hank Gilbert, in making that switch. Gilbert was the Democrats’ ag commissioner candidate in 2006, losing to Republican Todd Staples, a former state senator and representative.
Kinky, the populist with the black (rather than white) hat may sell better for ag commissioner than for governor.
With his ever-present cigar and black mustache and man-in-black cowboy duds, Kinky looks like a cross between Johnny Cash and Groucho Marx.
Having an ag commissioner a bit different isn’t that big a stretch.
They have included a former air force pilot, a tall woman rancher/novelist, one who stuck his hand in a fire ant mound, one who told Texans to eat jackrabbits, and another writer/entertainer whose cowboy hat was white.
The Texas Legislature, displeased by the failure of the Bureau of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History to compile agricultural statistics, created the office in 1907.
The first ag commissioner, appointed until the 1908 election could be held, was Robert Teague Milner, who quit to become president of Texas A&M.
After three more ag commissioners (including the jackrabbit guy) freshman state Rep. James E. McDonald won the open job in a 1930 Democratic runoff (before Republicans mattered).
Although elected as a Democrat on the eve of the Great Depression, McDonald opposed the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, crop supports, and endorsed Republicans over Democrats like FDR and Harry Truman.
After a record 20 years, McDonald was challenged by John C. White, 25 – as loyal a Democrat as McDonald wasn’t. White, who picked cotton as a kid, joked later that the ag job appealed to him because it was “indoor work with no heavy lifting.”
White said new blood was needed -- but a few terms later said experience was key. In his 27th year, White was named deputy secretary of agriculture by Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1977. White later chaired the Democratic National Committee.
After 47 years with just two ag commissioners, the turnover pace picked up.
When White vacated, Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed his agricultural aide Reagan Brown to the job. Brown won election in 1978.
But populist and humorist Texas Observer editor and anti-big agriculture author Jim Hightower, seldom seen without his white straw hat, challenged Brown in 1982. Hightower had never stopped campaigning after his near-miss 48 percent in 1980 against incumbent Democratic Texas Railroad Commissioner Jim Nugent, and simply switched his target.
Brown inadvertently helped Hightower by 1) sticking his hand in a fire ant mound for reporters, on purpose, on TV, and getting stung 32 times; and 2) referring in a speech being recorded by Dallas TV station WFAA to renowned agricultural educator Booker T. Washington as that “great black nigger.”
Oops. Brown turned white.
“I mean, the black, uh, educator,” he stammered. Damage done. After the tape aired, various groups withdrew their endorsements of Brown and Hightower beat him with almost 60 percent.
Enter the Republicans. State Rep. Rick Perry, D-Haskell, switched to the Republican party and ran against Hightower, who had drawn the ire of the agricultural establishment, in 1990.
Hightower, who had strongly hinted at a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Phil Gramm in 1990, instead at the last minute chose to seek re-election. Hightower also had clasped hands aloft in much-photographed endorsement of African-American Jesse Jackson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.
Hightower spent no money on ads on what he called “the electric TV,” while Perry -- coached by Republican guru Karl Rove -- spent $400,000. Perry beat Hightower by more than 44,000 votes.
Perry, a pilot, spent much of his ag commission tenure flying around Texas making appearances, and in 1998, after staring down multimillionaire would-be officeholder David Dewhurst, became the first Republican lieutenant governor since just after the Civil War.
Perry’s successor as ag commissioner was another former state representative, Republican Susan Combs of Austin, whose family owns a West Texas ranch. After eight years, she was elected state comptroller.
Her successor, Staples, is seeking re-election.
Whether Kinky can win the Democratic nomination – much less the general election, in what is considered a “red” state -- remains to be seen.
But Kinky, whose political mentor is former ag commissioner Hightower, and whose marketing of books, cigars, salsa, and campaign paraphernalia continues along with his campaign, probably will stay with the slogan the late Molly Ivins gave him for his 2006 governor’s race:
“Why the hell not?” Jackrabbit, anyone?