In race for Agriculture Commissioner, Texas Democrats lack good options

Noah M. Horwitz

In a recent Daily Texan column, I bemoaned the “race to the right” that had emerged as a general Republican strategy and lamented the fact that ugly purity tests of “true republicanism” had become so common in the state’s primary contests. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing the same tactics on the other side of the aisle in the primary contest for the Agriculture Commissioner Democratic nominee. 

That primary is dominated by Richard “Kinky” Friedman, a former musician — known for performing such gems as “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” — turned politician. He ran for Governor as an independent in 2006, finishing in fourth place in the contest where Rick Perry was re-elected with a slim 39 percent plurality. Because of Friedman’s past — not to mention a few off-color comments he has made — this has stilled an unshakeable suspicion among many of the Democratic top brass.

“It’s impossible for me to view Friedman as a serious candidate,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic strategist and lobbyist. “In fact, given that he’s run as a Republican, an independent and a Democrat, it’s impossible for me to view him as anything other than a rank opportunist.”

State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, D-Bexar County, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, took it a step further by actively campaigning against Friedman in the primary. 

Her preferred candidate, Hugh Fitzsimons, received a plethora of establishment support but finished dead last in the election. Friedman and Jim Hogan, a dark horse candidate who has made no attempt to campaign, advanced into a runoff election that will be held at the end of May.

Hogan, who has no website, no cash, no desire to campaign and was recently called a “ghost” by Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, is not a serious candidate. However, this has not stopped many Democratic activists from supporting him by default because of an irrational hatred of Friedman. My requests for comment from Hogan were firmly rebuffed.

“My concern with Friedman is that he does not take the duties of Agriculture Commissioner as seriously as Hogan,” said Huey Fischer, a State Democratic Executive Committeeman and a former President of the UT’s University Democrats, of which I am a member. 

“I think Hogan could do a better job than Kinky in November. His strategy is a unique and interesting experiment in Texas politics.” This position was affirmed by many other members of the University Democrats. The group looks likely to endorse Hogan in the runoff. 

However, Hogan’s “strategy” is to refrain from any campaigning whatsoever. Hogan has stated that both raising money and creating an online presence, two hallmarks of modern campaigns, would be “silly.” His complacency with mediocrity is damaging to the party and the State.

Friedman, mind you, is no perfect candidate. He stumbles in interviews when asked about the more complex nuances of the job and he does not have a strong background in agriculture. But he shows up and has an actual interest in a campaign. And he is certainly not the first democratic candidate to have a bipartisan history. David Alameel, the likely Democratic nominee for the US Senate, has given thousands to Republicans over the years. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for Governor, both donated money to George W. Bush and voted in Republican primaries as late as 2006. Purity tests stink in general but they are especially rancid when applied arbitrarily and capriciously among candidates.

Friedman, for his part, is not confrontational about the lost love. 

“I think [Democrats] get very frustrated when they realize for some candidates how difficult it’s going to be to beat the Republicans in November,” he said. “So maybe it is just human nature to pick on someone on your own side.”

“I’m an old-time, Harry Truman, blue dog Democrat,” Friedman said on the question of his Democratic credentials. But my main concern is that he has credentials at all. If Hogan is nominated, the battle for Agriculture Commissioner will surely be lost for the Democrats, but we should not forget this situation next time around. Democrats will not win statewide if they maintain ridiculous standards for their candidates.

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston. Follow him on twitter @NmHorwitz.