A political campaign for the ages gets a full treatment

Hayden Pedigo and his wife L’Hannah

Is it possible to tell the story of a place through a single chapter of one person’s life? In Kid Candidate, that’s exactly what is accomplished in looking both at the city of Amarillo, Texas, and its most famous young political aspirant, Hayden Pedigo, during his 2019 run for city council.

Who is Hayden Pedigo? On paper, he contains multitudes. He’s a fantastic musician, having released well-regarded albums and been invited to SXSW. He has worked as a bank teller. He was raised a Christian and even called himself a Republican at one point. He also likes weird art and even got into making off-kilter videos at one point. That’s how this whole thing started.

After putting on a thrift store suit, Pedigo went to a one of the only places in that flatland that had any hills and made a fake campaign video. Well, it was fake until it wasn’t. After getting some viral goodness via the internet, Pedigo decided to make it real and formalized a run for office. Luckily for us, a crew from Gunpowder & Sky, including director Jasmine Stodel, flew to Amarillo to document this journey.

Both of our outfits are pretty tough.

Full disclosure: Your humble writer also grew up in Amarillo, though a couple of decades before Pedigo. As local lawyer and provacateur (and latter campaign advisor) Jeff Blackburn says about the city, “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the United States, physically, with some of the ugliest people who happen to be in it.” That about sums it up. While I can attest, and Hayden would surely agree, there are lots of amazing people in Amarillo, several of whom make it on screen in Kid Candidate, there’s some truth in this harsh assessment of the local populace.

For Pedigo, it all comes down to money. Amarillo has an insane amount of wealth for a city its size, and just like in most places, it is concentrated in a relatively small number of families. It started off as farming and ranching money, and then when oil was struck, it became farming and ranching and oil money, enough to have multiple country clubs and lots of million-dollar houses. (There’s a ballroom at the Metropolitan Opera named after a patron from Amarillo.)

In politics this money has recently started to be funneled through a PAC called “Amarillo Matters.” This group’s preferred candidates usually win, and according to the documentary, advance the pet causes of the elites of the city at the expense of those without.

One of the absolute gems of this film is the exposure the “other side of town” gets. Pedigo is concerned with the plight of North Heights, a historically African-American part of town that is also home to large communities of refugees, from Vietnamese and Laotian familes that came in the 70’s and 80’s to more recent transplants from Bangladesh and South Sudan.

The high point of the film just might be Pedigo’s interactions with that latter group. As the stress of the campaign starts to weigh on him, he visits a South Sudanese church, something I’m sure very few white Amarilloans have every done (including yours truly). Later, he attends a party of theirs in which he is welcomed with open arms, something this group doesn’t experience from the larger community.

The ugly truth is, while the migration of these refugees is noble in many ways, the end result has been low-cost workers to man the meat-packing plants for which Amarillo is infamous. Just within the last year, these workplaces fill with harsh conditions–think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle–were the source of COVID-19 outbreaks in Amarillo, making it one of the hardest hit in the country. This is a tale as old as time, as those on the bottom rung of society are used for their manual labor while another tennis court gets built across town.

Kid Candidate showcases a wide variety of people involved in Amarillo politics, a real boon to understanding the situation. People from the outside might be surprised at just how much religion, and specifically Evangelical Christianity, influences every aspect of life in this Panhandle city, but hearing from both Mayor Ginger Nelson as well as a potential voter on just how much they literally rely on the God of the Bible to help them make decisions in real time will be an eye-opener to some and elicit a shrug from those of us in the know.

The beauty of the narrative arc in Kid Candidate is seeing Pedigo transition from a Harmony Korine-inspired street artist to a thoughtful, caring candidate for office who wants to do right by those on the margins, including people in his age group.

This documentary isn’t without its biases, but it lets every side of this story speak for itself and the end result is a film that tells the story of small town that isn’t so small any more, grappling with its place in the world, with one earnest young man at the center trying to make a difference. And if he has a little fun along the way, all the better.

Kid Candidate screened at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and is production of Gunpowder & Sky, in association with XTR.

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