In the middle of Texas’ wind-swept panhandle sits Amarillo, a city known for beef, cowboys and not very much else. Its population of around 200,000 skews older and is predominantly Republican — Donald Trump won close to 70 percent of the local vote in 2016. Ted Cruz pulled in about the same in his 2018 U.S. Senate race against Beto O’Rourke, whose insurgent campaign was at least able to yield a noticeable number of yard signs. But the Beto iconography was overshadowed by a billboard that went up a few miles outside of town last June. “Liberals, continue on I-40 until you have left our GREAT STATE OF TEXAS,” it read, drawing national headlines.
Amarillo’s pervasive conservatism doubles as a canvas on which the bizarre can pop. No one understands this better than Hayden Pedigo, a 24-year-old credit union worker and artist who is running for city council with a series of absurd, policy-free campaign ads. If David Lynch were in charge of a political campaign, it might look something like Pedigo’s. “We’ve had some interesting reactions,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Especially from older people, who are just absolutely confused.”
Pedigo’s city council bid was, at first, more of an art project than a subversive political movement. It began on a Friday night last summer, when Pedigo and his wife L’Hannah watched the 2012 Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers. Pedigo didn’t like it very much, but it got him thinking about Korine’s older movies, “the really raw and gritty ones that felt like a punch in the face,” as he describes them.
“I messaged one of my friends and I was like, ‘Hey, tomorrow I want to go buy a suit and a make a video,’ says Pedigo. “‘I want to go make something.’”
This wasn’t a new impulse for Pedigo, who in addition to working full-time as a supervisor at the Santa Fe Federal Credit Union is an experimental guitarist whose work has been covered by NPR, Vogue, The Fader and a handful of other publications that probably don’t spend very much time thinking about the Texas panhandle. He’s been finding ways to, in his words, “shake things up and defy expectations” since he was a teenager, whether through noise projects or guerrilla filmmaking. “In a small town you can make your own news, you can make your own stories,” he says.
The day after watching Spring Breakers, Pedigo bought a suit at Goodwill and got his friend to film him hurling a metal folding chair around a park while appraising its terrain with a tape measure. “I believe that a lot of local business owners are straight up getting bonked,” he said, his foot propped up on the chair, tape measure in his hand.
He went home and posted the clip to Facebook. “I was expecting maybe to get 100 likes just from my friends,” he says. “But then throughout the day, the shares were going up and it was at 4,000 views, then 10,000 views, then 70,000.” The local news picked it up. He made another video, this one featuring a lawnmower, a trip to the grocery store and a preview of how Pedigo planned to make his run, literally, at City Hall.
A few days later a local blog published a piece arguing that Pedigo may be able to win. He began to realize that locals were more curious than confused. He started thinking about his vision for Amarillo. Maybe he could mount a legitimate campaign and fight for change. “I definitely mulled it over a lot. It wasn’t a knee-jerk thing,” he says. “I wanted to do it but I was nervous. I talked to my wife and friends a lot. I eventually decided to do it and do it seriously.”
Every two years, Amarillo elects a mayor and four city council members. The city uses an at-large voting system, meaning officials represent the entire city rather than specific districts. This allows for the concentration of power in affluent areas that can afford to finance campaigns that will serve their interests. The system is not designed to prop up candidates like Pedigo, who advocate for neglected parts of the city, or candidates who say they’re not accepting donations in protest of money-driven politics, as Pedigo has done.
“He’ll be a good public servant, but he’s trying a different way of doing it and people aren’t necessarily embracing of different ways of doing things in this community,” says Mark Nair, who served one term as an Amarillo city council member, from 2015 to 2017.
Like Pedigo, Nair was an outsider when he ran four years ago. He campaigned by riding his bicycle around town and knocking on doors, ultimately winning in a runoff after his main opponent was revealed to have been involved in a suspicious real estate transaction that drew the attention of the FBI. Prior to Nair’s reelection bid, a pro-development PAC called Amarillo Matters formed and successfully raised enough money to oust Nair and other disruptive newcomers who joined the city council in 2015. “As much as Hollywood portrays different aspects of politics, how it’s a good old boys’ system, the back-scratching and all of that,” Nair says, “it’s absolutely true — that’s the sad thing about it.”
Later in August, after deciding to take the campaign seriously, Pedigo got to work. He started researching policy. He spoke with former city officials. He went to neighborhood meetings. A few days after he posted his fifth video, Pedigo was invited to speak at a high school government class. “One kid came up to me and said, ‘I have a question for you,’” he remembers. “He said, ‘I grew up in the rougher part of Amarillo and I see how downtown has been renovated and it’s beautiful, but I can’t afford to go to these places down there. Do you think Amarillo’s only getting better for a certain group of people?’”
“I was kind of blown away,” says Pedigo, who speaks about Amarillo with a pent-up idealism that’s hard to find in establishment lawmakers. “This high school kid in a government class hit the nail on the head of what is going on here.”
That exchange and others like it helped shape Pedigo’s platform, which centers around doing what he can to keep Amarillo from turning into “a giant Dallas suburb,” overrun with slick renewal projects that zap the character out of what he praises as a historical and culturally diverse city. The transformation is already in progress. This spring, Amarillo will open a new minor league baseball park that was financed with tens of millions of dollars of public money. Meanwhile, immigrant-rich and low-income areas of the city are suffering. In December, the city announced that the 87-year-old Thompson Park Pool would be closing over safety concerns. “Everyone was outraged,” says Pedigo. “Why are we spending millions on a ballpark that none of us wanted? If we’re ruining a neighborhood or taking money from a neighborhood and giving it to another neighborhood, then we’re failing as a city.”
City council candidates don’t typically announce that they will be running until the year of the election, which will be held in May 2019, but a few incumbents did so last fall. Pedigo thinks it may have had something to do with his videos jumpstarting the conversation. (In October, the first one was featured on Adult Swim.) “I think originally they thought it was a joke, and now I’m wondering whether they’re getting a little nervous because it has gained a lot of traction,” he says. “I’ve been getting approached everywhere I go — getting my oil changed, at the bookstore, at restaurants. It’s been absolutely surreal.”
People who have been involved in Amarillo politics have told Pedigo he has no chance to win if he doesn’t raise money and go tit-for-tat with Amarillo Matters, which in addition to raising money has been known to employ questionable tactics like sending out mailers with factually incorrect claims about candidates they oppose. Pedigo isn’t fazed. “I have the passion and drive to do this,” he says. “There are a lot of things I think I can change in Amarillo but I want to try doing it this new way. If I can win doing it the way I’m doing it, it could change Amarillo politics and, beyond that, the way local politics can be done anywhere.”
Part of what Pedigo wants to change is the way young people in Amarillo relate to the city. Pedigo and his wife recently bought a house, and he wants others in his generation to feel comfortable investing in the city rather than relocating somewhere with more opportunities for young people.
Spurring an interest in local politics is a start. “I think it’s been inspiring to a lot of people my age that otherwise didn’t pay attention,” Pedigo says of his campaign. “I do think you need to change the rules, and if I’m successful in doing this, I think it can change the rules for city government across America. If someone younger does want to run for city council, you can do it. Do an outsider video. Scare the older people that don’t think you can do it. Because I guarantee if they see one person do it, it could change the rules of local politics.”
In this sense, Pedigo’s campaign has tapped the same vein — albeit in radical fashion — as those of national figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke and other upstart candidates who took unconventional paths to success in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez went door-to-door, refused to accept corporate donations and pulled off a massive upset en route to becoming one of the most influential voices in Washington. Despite his narrow loss to Ted Cruz in the Texas senate race, O’Rourke is road-tripping through the plains and blogging about his feelings while polling as one of the favorites to win the Democratic nomination for president. (On Tuesday he told Oprah Winfrey that he expects to make a decision about 2020 by the end of the month.)
“I’m just an average guy,” Pedigo says. “I drive a 2001 Oldsmobile. I work an average job. I’m not wealthy in any regard. But I think people might want to see someone who is younger and genuinely interested in making Amarillo a little better for everyone. People are frustrated and want to see something happen. Sometimes you just do something crazy and it ends up resulting in that change.”
Pedigo submitted his paperwork to be listed on the ballot for May’s election earlier this week, making his candidacy official. Despite writing “Place 2” in some of his earlier videos, he’ll run against Place 1 incumbent Elaine Hays, who declared her intention to seek re-election earlier this month. Hays is backed by Amarillo Matters, which means Pedigo is in for a hard fight. Nair still thinks he has a chance. “I think [his chances are] very strong,” he says. “I don’t know percentage wise, but I’ll just say I think he has a very, very good chance.”
Regardless of the outcome of the election, Pedigo feels like, in a way, he’s already won. “I think one of the most beautiful things, at the end of this, is knowing that I made a video of myself throwing a chair off a cliff and it could influence Amarillo policy,” he says. “And that’s incredible.”