Features

Musicians as Politicians

by QROMay 28, 2007

Dave Rowntree of Blur

Labour Candidate for Westminster City Councilman, Marylebone High Street, 2007, & Church Street, 2008

Labour Candidate for Cities of London and Westminster Minister of Parliament, 2010

Brit-pop all-stars Blur had been big backers of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ in 1997, when it swept aside nearly twenty years of Conservative rule.  Along with pint-glass pub-rockers Oasis, Blur were at the center of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’.  Fast-forward ten years and Blur and Blair were still around, but ‘Cool Britannia’, and the warmth between them, are long gone: singer Damon Albarn turned down an invite to Number 10 Downing Street, proclaiming, “I am no longer a New Labour supporter.  I am now a communist.  Enjoy the schmooze, comrade” (no reports yet of any Albarnite income redistribution, or sharing of the means of Britpop production).

 Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, however, went the opposite direction, and became chairman of his local branch of the Labour Party.  Rumored influences include a traditional ‘rocker mid-life’ crisis, as well as his girlfriend, Michelle de Vries.  De Vries’ mother was a nurse in Iraq at the start of the first Gulf War, and de Vries had had to deal with Saddam Hussein, his psychopathic sons Uday and Qusay, and others in the dictatorial regime that were all removed from power thanks to the War in Iraq.  Blair’s New Labour supported that war, which drove the likes of Albarn and others away, but possibly brought Rowntree to run for Westminster City Council on May 3rd, 2007.

However, Rowntree lost, thanks to the unpopularity of Labour in the twilight days of Prime Minister Blair, and the Conservative bent of the extremely posh neighborhood, which includes one of central London’s most exclusive shopping districts, Marylebone High Street.

2008 Update: In July 2008, Rowntree ran for the Labour Westminster City Council seat of Church Street.  Unlike Marlyebone High Street, Church Street was considered a ‘safe’ Labour seat, having been a stronghold for the party since its creation in the 1960’s.  Yet the post-Blair, anti-new Prime Minister Gordon Brown, anti-Labour wave was at its height, and Rowntree again went down in defeat (along with London’s Labour mayor, ‘Red’ Ken Livingston).

But even this second, more significant loss has not dissuaded Rowntree from politics, or the Westminster Labour Party from Rowntree: he has been nominated to run for The House of Commons, against incumbent Conservative Minister of Parliament Mark Field, in the next general election.

2010 Update: The definite Conservative bent of the seat, plus anti-Labour swing in the 2010 elections, saw Rowntree go down in defeat by the widest margin for the seat since its creation in 1997.

2012 Update: In 2011, Rowntree ran to become the Labour candidate for Norwich South in the next general election, but loss.  Despite his continuing lack of success, Rowntree is already rumored to be competing to be the Labour candidate in Norwich North (both seats are far from London, instead in the main city of the East Anglia region).

Much more importantly, Blur’s long-rumoured reunion finally came to pass, with a massive Hyde Park show after the London Olympics closing ceremony.

Kinky Friedman

Independent Candidate for Governor, Texas, 2006

Candidate for Democratic Nominee for Agriculture Commissioner, 2010

Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys married the upswing in country music in the seventies and that decade’s sarcastic bent, with such numbers as “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In Bed”, “Asshole from El Paso”, and “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore”.  After touring with Bob Dylan and appearing on Saturday Night Live, his music career dried up in the eighties, wherein Friedman became first a successful detective novelist, then a columnist for populist political magazine Texas Monthly.

 But in 2004, Friedman launched the strangest gubernatorial campaign since Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura took off the boa in Minnesota.  With campaign mottos like, “How Hard Could It Be?” and “Why The Hell Not?”, Friedman entered into an already crowded field, challenging the man who was elevated to the office when George W. Bush left, Rick Perry: Alongside Kinky were former Democratic Congressman Chris Bell, who’d been gerrymandered out of the U.S. House of Representatives by Texas Republicans, Republican-turned-Independent Carole Strayhorn, the State Comptroller who’d objected to Kinky getting to use his nickname on the ballot but she couldn’t use ‘Grandma’, and a Libertarian sales consultant, James Werner.

Friedman made his appeal to the young and non-voters, and reached as high as second place in statewide polls, but in the end his support petered out and he only came in fourth, with 13% of the vote.  However, Friedman did bequeath the line that could underscore this entire piece:

“Musicians can run this state better than politicians. We won’t get a lot done in the mornings, but we’ll work late and be honest.”

2008 Update: Friedman has said that he is considering running again for governor in 2010 – but if he runs, will run as a Democrat, because, "God probably couldn’t have won as an independent".

2010 Update: Friedman shifted from the gubernatorial race to that for Texas Agriculture Commissioner, but lost in his race for the Democratic nomination to 2006 nominee Hank Gilbert.  Friedman supported Gilbert in the general election, but Gilbert lost to incumbent Todd Staples.  Friedman has stated that he will no longer run for political office.

2012 Update: Friedman endorsed Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry in the 2012 G.O.P. primaries.  Oops.

John Hall of Orleans

Democratic Representative, New York’s 19th Congressional District, 2006-

The 1970’s produced a lot of naked soft-rock bands, including Woodstock, NY’s Orleans.  Fronted by singer/guitarist John Hall, they hit #2 on the Billboard Charts with “Still the One”, but the success led to Hall’s departure and Orleans’ dissolution.  Hall remained on the Hudson River and became involved in local issues, from the construction of a nuclear power plant to the school budget.  But it was still “Still the One” that brought Hall back to a national stage, as he gained notoriety for demanding that President George W. Bush stop using the song at 2004 campaign events.  Hall won 48% of the vote in the four-way Democratic primary for New York’s 19th Congressional district in the following election, but was still considered a long shot, thanks to the district’s Republican tendencies and the strength of the six-term incumbent, Sue Kelly.

 But 2006 wasn’t just any election year, and possibly nowhere was that more the case than in New York’s 19th.  Thanks to corruption, mismanagement, and over and above all, the War in Iraq, President Bush and his Republican Party suffered from serious voter disgust, especially in the northeast.  The now infamous To Catch a Predator-style lewd electronic correspondence from Republican Representative Mark Foley to Congressional Pages reverberated more in NY’s 19th than possibly anywhere else in the country (outside of Foley’s own district), as Kelly had been the Chair of the House Page Board when the events had transpired.  Kelly then compounded her error by refusing to answer questions about her time as Chair, or really answer any questions at all: at one point Kelly literally ran from local news cameras, and refused to hold any debates (one was subsequently held with just Hall and an empty chair with a “SUE KELLY” placard).  Kelly also refused to appear on a humorous ‘Better Know A District’ segment for Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, which led to the show featuring Hall appearing in ‘Better Know a Challenger’.

Whether it was President Bush, the War in Iraq, Foley’s sexually explicit e-mails to minors, viral video of her dodging the press, or the ‘Colbert Bump’, Hall squeezed a 51% victory in one of the night’s biggest surprises, and gave hope to balding seventies one-hit wonders everywhere.

2008 Update: Despite that narrow victory and Republican bent of his district, the GOP were unable in their attempts to recruit a high-profile challenger – including (in)famous former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.  Instead it was Iraq veteran Kieran Lalor who was nominated – only to lose to Hall by a far wider margin.

That was in spite of the fact that Hall was the only Congressman who hadn’t returned the money raised for him by the now-disgraced, prostitute-loving ex-governor (and another Colbert Report regular) Eliot Spitzer.

2010 Update: With the wind now at the backs of the GOP, John Hall found he was no longer "Still the One" for the still Republican-leaning district, losing to well-funded Republican ophthalmologist Nan Hayworth, as The Colbert Report experienced its first-ever losses by Congressmen the pundit ‘Better Knew’.

2012 Update: Hall declined an opportunity for a rematch in 2012, to spend time with his family and tour the country with Orleans.  Redistricting after the 2010 census saw Hayworth running in the new 18th district, where she lost to Sean Patrick Maloney in a close race.

Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil

Labor Representative, Kingsford Smith, New South Wales, 2004-

In many ways Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett is not so surprising, as Midnight Oil was probably one of the most political bands ever.  Somewhat ahead of their time, the Sydney group started performing a blistering indie-rock sound all the way back in the seventies, and instead of adopting punk rock’s traditional “smash the state” pie-in-the-sky anarchism, they focused their anger on specific topics, all concerning their native Oz, like the U.S.-Australia military alliance (“U.S. Forces”) and nuclear war (“When Generals Talk”).  Even their two big international hits were laced with issue advocacy: environmental degradation in “Blue Sky Mine” and aboriginal rights in “Beds Are Burning”.

 Garrett left Midnight Oil in 2002 to focus on his work as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, forcing the band’s effective dissolution.  Two years later, Labor Party head Mark Latham tipped Garrett to be the party’s candidate in the safe Sydney suburb seat of Kingsford Smith, over local party branch candidates (even though it had been Labor which had maneuvered the then-Green Party Garrett out of a New South Wales Senate seat in 1984).  Unsurprisingly, Garrett has been given high profile responsibilities, and last year, new party leader Kevin Rudd picked him as the party’s lead spokesman on the environment.  Also unsurprisingly, many of Garrett’s fans and former fellow travelers have denounced him as a ‘sell-out’ for mainstreaming his beliefs, such as accepting the U.S.-Australia alliance, or abandoning the farther-left Greens.

The hairless head is still atop the lanky, imposing body, albeit without the maniacal grin or spitting rage that made him such a memorable presence on stage, but Garrett says he’s still pushing for many (if not all) of the causes he once championed as part of Midnight Oil.

2008 Update: In the 2007 federal election, Labour was swept to power – despite gaffes by Garrett, including saying to a journalist, in what Garrett later dismissed as a "short jocular conversation", that his party would simply change all their policies once the got into power.  Still, Garrett was re-elected – gaining five points over his first run – and was named Minister for Environment, Heritage and Arts.  His responsibilities did not, however, include climate change, a major issue upon which Rudd ran.

Instead, Garrett has followed his own ‘jocular’ advice, doing such things as withdrawing all of the government’s funding for the Australian National Academy of Music (which is responsible for training the nation’s most promising classical instrumentalists), approving a controversial plan to dredge Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay, and greenlighting a major expansion of South Australia’s Beverley uranium mine – something that was praised by the uranium industry, but criticised by Garret’s own Australian Conservation Foundation.  Any comparisons to "Blue Sky Mine" are purely coincidental or alphabetical.

2010 Update: Garrett’s work as a ‘team player’ couldn’t save him from being demoted to Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and Arts in response to Garrett’s administration of the Home Insulation Program, an energy-efficiency program that was linked to fraud, house fires, and four deaths and whose administration was taken away from Garrett.  Many considered him a scapegoat by Ruud, and Garrett likely shed no tears when the increasingly unpopular Ruud stepped down from leadership of the Labour party in June 2010.

The 2010 Australian elections produced a near-parity between the two main parties, with new Labour leader Julia Gillard only retaining the Prime Minister office by securing the support of independents, including the Greens.  Garrett was returned as well, albeit with a very reduced majority, and was appointed Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, where he will hopefully prove less controversial and more successful, not to mention given less of a chance to be compared to his music.

2012 Update: Garrett’s new ministerial position hasn’t kept him completely free from crossovers (and conflicts) with his lyrics.  He helped expand the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM), a controversial program under which parents of indigenous students in the Northern Territory can have their welfare payments suspended if their children are not attending or enrolled in school.  While it is said to improve school attendance, it is also considered by punitive and paternizing by indigenous leaders.  So the beds are still burning.

Peter Wishart of Big Country, Runrig

Scottish Nationalist Minister of Parliament, Perth and North Perthshire, 2001-

The Highland folk-rock of the Hebrides’ Runrig sort of predicted that one of the clan would make a name for himself in Scottish politics, but no one would have guessed it would be one of its keyboard players, Peter Wishart.  An original member of Big Country in the early eighties, he was there when the band was kicked off Alice Cooper’s tour for being ‘too weird’, but missed out on the band’s later success.  Instead, in 1986, Wishart replaced the original keyboardist in Scotland’s Celtic-rock outfit, Runrig, and stayed there through the nineties.  Many Runrig fans say the band never recovered from lead singer Donnie Munro’s departure ten years later, while others say it allowed the band to grow in new directions, but what they cannot disagree about is the irony of his split with the band.  Munro left the group in the run-up to the creation of Scotland’s new regional Parliament after Labour’s massive 1997-election victory, but when Munro ran on the Labour ticket for the assembly’s inaugural election in his native Skye constituency, he lost to another Munro, Liberal Democrat John Farquhar Munro (no relation).

 What’s more, (Donnie) Munro had even missed out on becoming the first member of Runrig elected to parliament: Wishart left the group two years later and won national election to the United Kingdom’s parliament in Westminster – for the independence-minded Scottish National Party.  Representing his Scottish constituents in a parliament that his party ostensibly wants no part of, Wishart served in the weighty role as the SNP’s Chief Whip, which involved getting the party’s seven MPs to vote together, corralling over 1% of the almost six hundred seats in Westminster.

But Peter Wishart hasn’t abandoned his musical side – he’s even formed a band with three other ministers (‘MP4’).  Wishart also recently called for musical copyrights to be extended, not for the benefit of big name musicians, but for the little people, like “Cliff Richard’s percussion player … Robin Gibb’s bass player” – or the second keyboardist in Runrig…

2008 Update: SNP won the most seats in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, and formed a minority administration.  And Wishart got another friend in Westminster, as a July 2008 by-election saw his party pick up the seat of Glasgow East from Labour, to the grand total of seven.

Donnie Munro, meanwhile, has returned to music, performing a series of live shows – with a 40-piece ensemble in the run-up to the release of a live album, from the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.

2010 Update: Wishart was returned in the 2010 election, including beating two other candidates named ‘Peter’ (though no Munros) – even a ‘Peter Barrett’, to rope in Australia’s contribution to this list into the name confusion.  The Glasgow East seat was lost by SNP, returning their parliamentary presence to just six.

2012 Update: The SNP won a big victory in the 2011 Scottish elections, and has scheduled a vote on Scottish independence (which would put Wishart out of a job). 

Sonny Bono

Republican Representative, California’s 44th District, 1994-1998

The godfather of today’s musician-politicians (and, strangely, Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis), Sonny Bono took the Californian tradition of actor-politicians to the music industry.  The lesser-known half of the ‘Sonny and Cher’ juggernaut, he’d had hit singles like “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On”, and then a variety show on CBS.  But it was the difficulty he had with local bureaucracy that led him to run and win election as mayor of Palm Springs, and then to become part of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 ‘Republican Revolution’, as the newly-elected Representative for southern California’s 44th District.

 In many ways, Sonny Bono didn’t fit the GOP mold, like in his efforts to protect the endangered Salton Sea.  He was the first to tell Speaker Gingrich that the Speaker’s public profile was becoming a problem (advice the Speaker unwisely did not heed).  And Bono was the first-ever Scientologist in Congress (he claimed to still be Catholic on campaign literature).  Maybe the only way he resembled Newt and other allies was that he had been married four times, including Cher, Home & Garden Television host (and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo star) Susie Coelho, and his last wife Mary, who succeeded him in his seat after Sonny Bono’s fatal skiing accident in 1998.

However, when he served, Sonny Bono did prove his Republican bona fides in the major piece of legislation that bears his name, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.  Extending the life of artistic copyrights to almost a hundred years, it was dubbed the ‘Mickey Mouse Act’ by its detractors, who pointed to the massive lobbying support the act was given from, and the massive financial windfall the act gave to, the Disney Corporation.

Mary Bono-Mack2008 Update: On December 15, 2007, Mary Bono married fellow Republican congressman Connie Mack IV of Florida, the son of former Florida Senator Connie Mack III, great-grandson of fomer Texas Senators Morris Shepard & Tom Connally – and great-grandson of his namesake, Connie Mack, famed manager & ownerof the Philadelphia Athletics.

Now ‘Mary Bono Mack’, she survived the anti-GOP, Obama wave and was re-elected in 2008, despite her district having the highest percentage of gays and lesbians of any district represented by a Republican.

2010 Update: Bono Mack was easily returned in the 2010 elections – but will she match her 2008 status as the ‘Seventh Hottest Politician in the World’ by Maxim?

2012 Update: Bono Mack was not so lucky in 2012, where she was narrowly defeated in her race for reelection (in one of the last races to be called).  Election night was a doubly tough night in her house, as her husband was defeated in his own race for Senate in Florida.  Bono Mack’s stumping for her husband across the country became an issue in her own race, as it was perceived to be abandoning her constituents.