Thursday, May 25, 2006

AUSTIN — The Texas governor’s race is likely to get pretty wacky as November draws closer. Some might even say pretty kinky.

It’s likely to be the most expensive campaign ever, and some predict it’s likely to get mean at the edges. When the dust settles on Nov. 8, it seems certain Texas will have elected a governor who polled less than half the vote.

Petition drives to get two independent candidates — state comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and musician/humorist Kinky Friedman — on this year’s ballot have made it all but certain that both will be factors in the race. Both are running against the incumbent Republican, Rick Perry.

On May 16, Mrs. Strayhorn turned in 223,000 signatures of those who want her on the ballot. Two days later, Mr. Friedman turned in almost 170,000. “Of course she got more signatures than me,” he said. “She got all her ex-husbands to sign.” That probably describes the tone of what’s coming.

The emergence of two strong independent candidates has substantially altered the landscape. Sam Houston was the last independent elected governor, and that was in 1859. For an independent candidate to get on the general election ballot, state law requires him to submit petitions with the signatures of 45,540 registered voters who did not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries in March.

Secretary of State Roger Williams, a Republican, will determine whether the signatures submitted by the Strayhorn and Friedman campaigns are legitimate. His office hired a Houston firm to validate the petitions, which may take several weeks.

Mr. Williams has been accused of helping Gov. Perry by demanding that every signature be checked. In the past, a statistical sample was used to determine whether enough signatures qualified to get a candidate on the ballot. Before the March primary, Mr. Williams began an unprecedented and expensive television campaign, urging voters to cast ballots in the March primaries — which would make them ineligible to sign up for Mrs. Strayhorn or Mr. Friedman.

Republicans dominate Texas politics, holding every statewide elective office and controlling both houses of the Legislature. Mr. Perry is in his sixth year as governor since taking over when his predecessor, George W. Bush was elected president.

The November prospects for Democrats seem so bleak that the party’s gubernatorial candidate — former congressman Chris Bell of Houston — could finish fourth in the governor’s race, behind both independent challengers. The most recent statewide poll shows Mr. Perry with 40 percent and Mrs. Strayhorn at 22 percent.

Mr. Friedman’s rallying cry, “Let’s get the politicians out of politics,” is obviously catching on, however, drawing young people and disaffected voters to his rallies. Dean Barkley, the man who successfully ran professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s successful independent gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota a few years ago, is managing Mr. Friedman’s campaign here. He contends that pollsters can’t successfully chart this year’s Texas contest.

“They just don’t know how to begin polling with a decent independent in the race,” he said

Mr. Friedman, 61, is an eloquent, irrepressible and sometimes profane wit — he once called his nightclub act “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys” — dresses like something out of a 1940s grade-B western: cowboy boots, black Stetson, vest and an ever-present cigar.

He often appears as if he never found his way home from the McGovern campaign, as do many of his volunteers, but he can’t be easily put into a category. His views of immigration, for instance, are well to the right of those of President Bush.

He has garnered much press attention outside the state, and Texas newspapers generally have lauded his campaign. The San Antonio Express-News captioned a recent editorial: “Friedman a serious politician? Why not?”

Mr. Friedman hasn’t yet outlined a comprehensive governing agenda; he suggested, perhaps not entirely seriously, that he might appoint singer Willie Nelson as head of the Texas Rangers. But his campaign managers say an agenda is coming soon.

“We’ve been rather busy collecting signatures. But Kinky has definite ideas, and we will have strong position papers on all major issues.”

He amuses Texans with his outrageous one-liners, but he can be serious and sometimes both at once: “Mrs. Strayhorn and us together represent a lot of people. And a lot of people are very unhappy with what’s going on in Texas. I really want this state to be No. 1 in something besides executions, toll roads and property taxes.”

Mr. Perry recently pushed the legislature to work out a new school finance plan after the state Supreme Court had ruled the current system unconstitutional. Mrs. Strayhorn — who has raised bundles of money, mostly from long-time Republican backers — had made school financing her No. 1 issue. Now, that issue may have become moot.

“Carole Strayhorn can’t win this race,” Bell campaign worker Jason Stanford wrote May 13, “because she doesn’t have a statewide infrastructure and now she has no issue, no reason to be here. She’s the priest who showed up to give last rites to a patient who rebounded. All that’s left for her to do is excuse herself politely.”

As she handed in her petitions Tuesday, Mrs. Strayhorn remained feisty. She called Mr. Perry’s administration “mean-spirited and for the special few.”

“This is a two-person race,” she said. “It’s me — one tough grandma — and it’s Rick Perry. And the people of Texas are going to overwhelmingly vote for change in November.”

Mr. Perry’s camp made fun of the Strayhorn petition effort, with a press release last week that noted her total number of petition signatures amounted to just 1.9 percent of the electorate and declared: “98 percent of eligible voters don’t buy what Strayhorn is selling.”

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