Review: ‘Kid Candidate,’ starring Hayden Pedigo

July 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

L’Hanna Pedigo and Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

“Kid Candidate”

Directed by Jasmine Stodel

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Kid Candidate” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the 2019 political campaign of Hayden Pedigo, who campaigned to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas.

Culture Clash: Many people doubted the legitimacy of Pedigo’s campaign because he was 24 at the time, he had no political experience, and he made the unusual decision not to accept campaign donations.

Culture Audience: “Kid Candidate” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in documentaries about local Texas politics and young people who run for political office.

Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

The documentary “Kid Candidate” takes a fascinating look at how a musician in his mid-20s launched an unorthodox political campaign to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas. What started as a joke turned into an experience that changed people’s lives. Directed by Jasmine Stodel, “Kid Candidate” is a lot like the independent rock musician Hayden Pedigo, who decided to become an unlikely political candidate: The movie is lean, scrappy and kind of messy with neurotic quirks. But there’s no doubt that its heart is in the right place, which makes this documentary inspiring to watch without it being overly sappy.

At 68 minutes long, “Kid Candidate” is a fairly brisk chronicle of Pedigo’s journey into Amarillo politics. What would cause someone with previously no interest in politics to launch this long-shot campaign? A longtime Amarillo resident, Pedigo had a strict upbringing by his parents, whom he describes in the documentary as people who used to have wild lifestyles but at some point decided to turn their lives in the opposite direction and became religious Christian conservatives.

Pedigo and his sister were homeschooled for their entire education. In the documentary, he talks about how music was his salvation and emotional comfort when he was growing up in a very repressive household. Pedigo’s biological family members are not in the documentary, because he was estranged from them at the time. He says that these family members (especially his parents) were embarrassed by his political campaign.

However, Hayden’s supportive wife L’Hanna Pedigo is in the documentary. She says that Hayden has had lifelong insecurities and a deep fear of failure because his parents were overly critical of him. From an early age, Hayden had a rebellious streak. He says that his father described him as a caged wild animal when Hayden was growing up. L’Hanna observes that when Hayden’s family disapproved of him running for political office, it motivated Hayden even more to continue the campaign, which she says was almost like a “fuck you” to his family.

Hayden gets emotional when he remembers a criticism that his father had for him that Hayden admits still hurts Hayden to this day: When Hayden was a child, his father would call Hayden an “unplugged alarm clock”—even when plugged in, it keeps blinking and information could not be retained because it’s not programmed correctly. It’s basically an insulting way of telling someone, “You’re not very smart” or “There’s something mentally wrong with you.”

In the documentary, Hayden admits that his political campaign started off as kind of a lark. He and his best friend Alex Fairbanks (who’s interviewed in the documentary) would make goofy short films inspired by eccentric director Harmony Korine’s 1997 avant-garde film “Gummo.” Hayden would portray a fictional Amarillo city council member as a recurring character and do spoofs of what city council members might do when they walk around the city.

A few of these videos would go viral on social media, including one that landed on the front page of Reddit. People began to wonder, “What if Hayden really did run for a seat on the Amarillo city council?” Fairbanks, who was one of those people, remembers saying to Hayden, “I was like, ‘Dude, maybe you should go for city council. People are really liking this. You could probably follow through and win.'”

The idea stuck, and in 2019, Hayden declared his candidacy when he was 24 years old. (He turned 25 during the making of this movie.) The documentary includes footage of him officially registering as a candidate for Amarillo’s city council. At the time that Hayden declared his candidacy, Amarillo (the largest city in the Texas Panhandle) had a population of a little more than 269,000 people, according to the Texas State Department of Social and Health Services.

Hayden explains the fundamental reasons why he wanted to run for political office in Amarillo: “I felt there was a lack of representation, especially amongst my age group … Even if I don’t get elected, I want this to at least inspire somebody—just to get them to vote would be a major step.”

L’Hanna, whose job in the documentary is described as a “theatrical scene and lighting designer,” says that Hayden definitely had doubts about whether or not he should go through with the campaign: “He asked, ‘Would I look stupid doing it?’ … To me, that’s the only qualification—that you’re genuine and that you care about the city and that you care about the people.”

“Kid Candidate” shows that Hayden learns, sometimes the hard way, that it takes more than enthusiasm and lofty ideals to connect with voters. He gets help from civil rights/criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn, a grizzled and sometimes gruff political expert who becomes Hayden’s friend, mentor and sometimes biggest critic during the campaign. Blackburn, who is a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, is an outspoken liberal in a city that is mostly politically conservative.

At times, Blackburn expresses frustration at Hayden’s naiveté in running a political campaign. Among his criticisms of Hayden is that Hayden is willfully ignorant about certain issues that Hayden would need to be knowledgeable about if he were on the city council. Blackburn also admonishes Hayden for getting too caught up in thinking that social media “likes” and anonymous people giving praise in a comments section will translate into votes and other real support.

Hayden finds out this harsh reality in a somewhat embarrassing way, when he announces that he’s having a rally that he’s sure will be well-attended, based on all the positive responses that he got on social media. But in the end, less than 30 people showed up. Hayden also seems awkward when greeting people at his own rally. Like a parent reminding a child to be polite, Blackburn literally has to tell Hayden to say hello to individual people at the rally and thank them for attending.

However, Hayden’s strengths as a candidate are his compassion and his ability to clearly articulate his ideas (as generic as they might be) when he seems to have memorized what he is going to say. His biggest weakness as an aspiring politician is that he seems more comfortable addressing a crowd than having one-on-one interactions with strangers. While doing door-to-door campaigning, Hayden openly admits that he hates this type of campaign work. Blackburn bluntly asks why Hayden he’s running for an elected office, if he doesn’t want to talk to potential voters face-to-face at their homes.

Even though Hayden sometimes disagrees with Blackburn and often doesn’t take his mentor’s advice, they have genuine respect for each other. It’s not mentioned if Hayden belongs to any political party, but the ideas that he put forth during the campaign are for a moderate-to-liberal political agenda. He’s especially concerned about the economic disparities between the northern part of Amarillo (a low-income area populated mostly by people of color) and the southern part of Amarillo, where the city’s wealthiest (mostly white) residents live.

And speaking of the wealthiest Amarillo residents, the documentary frequently mentions Amarillo Matters, a politically conservative and highly influential coalition that donates campaign funds and endorses candidates that it wants to have in power in Amarillo. Claudia Stravato, a civil rights activist and political science instructor, describes Amarillo Matters this way: “The elites formed an organization, pooled their money, and made sure that their elitist friends got elected.”

The documentary mentions that Amarillo Matters declined to have any of its members or representatives interviewed for this movie. However, “Kid Candidate” does a good job of including a diverse group of people to get their perspectives on Hayden’s campaign and Amarillo’s ongoing issues. This variety of viewpoints and opinions make this a fairly well-rounded documentary.

But one of the documentary’s flaws is that it offers no explanation for why none of Hayden’s political opponents is shown in the film, except for brief footage of them in a “town hall” type of panel discussion. Four people, including Hayden, were running for Seat 1 of Amarillo’s city council in 2019. Hayden’s three other opponents were Elaine Hays (the incumbent candidate), Jay Kirkman III and Rich Herman. Even if none of these other candidates wanted to be interviewed for the documentary, the filmmakers should have included information on each of these rival candidates. It would give viewers a better sense of what these candidates were like and what type of campaigns that Hayden would be up against in this election.

One way that Hayden distinguished himself from his competitors and from most politicians in general is that he refused to accept campaign donations. Any campaign videos that he made had no budget or very low budgets. He had no staffers and no promotional merchandise for his very unusual campaign. As he says in the documentary: “I don’t need the money, I don’t need the [campaign] signs, I don’t need the T-shirts.”

Hayden’s main ways of promoting his campaign were by doing media interviews, speaking to groups of voters, and going on social media. He shows a sarcastic sense of humor when he privately mocks other candidates’ campaign wording. He’s also able to laugh at himself when he reacts to Amarillo Matters’ unflattering description of him in an Amarillo Matters statement where he was listed as a “not recommended” candidate. He considers this snub by Amarillo Matters to be a badge of honor.

Even though he got a lot of criticism for having no political experience, it’s very apparent that Hayden didn’t have a specific platform of policies for his campaign. He was running a campaign on general ideas of wanting to implement change, such as increasing diversity in the city’s government and giving better access to resources to Amarillo’s underprivileged residents. Because of his youth, inexperience and his refusal to take money for his campaign, Hayden was also running a campaign where he promoted himself as an “outsider” candidate who could think “outside the box,” shake things up in a positive way, and not be easily corrupted.

During his campaign, Hayden did some traveling outside of Amarillo. He went to Los Angeles to be interviewed on Tim Heidecker’s Talkhouse podcast. Hayden also went to the SXSW Festival in Austin, to perform as a musician. His SXSW rehearsals are briefly shown in the documentary, whose soundtrack has several original songs written and performed by Hayden. Like most unknown musicians, Hayden has a day job—he was a supervisor at Santa Fe Credit Union at the time this documentary was filmed—but that part of his life is not in the movie.

Some of the other people interviewed in the documentary include Amarillo mayor Ginger Nelson, a lawyer/artist who gets tearful when she talks about what she says is the unfair and inaccurate criticism that she’s gotten as mayor. Nelson says that one of the misconceptions about her is that she’s a rich elitist who doesn’t care about the people of Amarillo. Nelson, who is endorsed by Amarillo Matters, says that it’s untrue that she comes from “old money” and that she actually came from a middle-class background.

Nelson says she decided to run for mayor of Amarillo because “I felt that God was asking me to step into an arena of influence to love people.” Nelson mentions God multiple times when she talks about how it relates to her political career, and how she will always take the high road when it comes to her critics and opponents. Meanwhile, her husband Kevin Nelson says in the documentary that anyone who goes into politics has to be prepared for others being ready to tear them down.

Hayden is shown meeting with various groups of people to get their support for his campaign. These groups include ultra-conservative Tea Party supporters (Hayden experiences some hostility at this Tea Party meeting when he says he has “progressive” plans for Amarillo); members of a South Sudanese church; and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. But the one campaign event that he says was the most meaningful to him was when he was invited to an all-night cultural celebration held by people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community.

The event, which looks like it was held at a public community center, is not a large celebration (only 10 to 20 people seem to be in attendance at any given time), but Hayden says it was the first group of people he met with during his campaign that didn’t laugh at him. Hayden and L’Hanna, who are the only white people at this event, are shown mingling with the sparse crowd and dancing past midnight, when Hayden gave a brief speech of gratitude to the approximately six people who were left in the room.

After the event, L’Hanna talks about how getting to know people in the South Sudanese community was eye-opening for her and Hayden. She begins to cry when she talks about how she found out that even though life in Amarillo might be difficult for the South Sudanese refugees, many of them told her that they were grateful to live in a place where they could sleep at night without fear of being killed by marauding military soldiers.

Hayden was invited to this event by a mass communications student/South Sudanese refugee named Agol Aloak, who became an ardent supporter of Hayden because he wasn’t a typical politician. Aloak says she has this opinion of most politicians: “You don’t know my struggles. You don’t want to help me … I really want change.” She also describes how many people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community work for corporate meat company Tyson Foods in dead-end factory jobs with unsafe and grueling conditions. She describes it as slightly better than “slave labor.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary are residents of Amarillo’s economically troubled north side, such as Tremaine Brown, owner of Shi Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food Cafe; Bol Ngor, chairman of Amarillo’s South Sudanese community and assistant supervisor at Tyson Foods; David Lovejoy, KGNC radio program director and first vice-president of the Amarillo chapter of the NAACP; and “self-employed” hip-hop artist Randolph Sims, also known as Koola. They all talk about the discrepancies in how the Amarillo city council treats their part of the city, compared to the wealthier southern part of the city.

The documentary interviewees also include dentist/Amarillo city council member Eddie Sauer; The 806 Coffee + Lounge owner Courtney Brown; Six Car Pub and Brewery owner Colin Cummings; local businessman Craig Gualtree; Hayden’s friend Grayson Carter; Texas Monthly senior editor Randy Barkett; HITTS magazine president Karen Glauber; and Hayden’s friend/street artist Malcolm Byers, who paints an impressive street wall mural of Hayden, just days before the election.

“Kid Candidate” doesn’t sugarcoat that this campaign at times took a heavy emotional toll on Hayden, who seems to have bouts of anxiety and depression. In one scene in the movie, a conversation of text messages between Hayden and “Kid Candidate” documentary director Stodel is shown, where Hayden sounds like he’s in such an emotionally dark place that he doesn’t want to even be seen on camera. Later that night, Hayden ends up going to the South Sudanese cultural event, which he says lifted his spirits considerably.

Hayden is certainly not the first person in the world to run for political office before the age of 30 or with no experience in politics. However, his unique journey as a political candidate can be used as a memorable example of someone who decided to not just talk about change but tried to make change happen—even if it meant stepping outside of personal comfort zones and risking a lot of humiliation and rejection. Regardless of how people might feel about politics, anyone watching “Kid Candidate” will appreciate that having the right to express opinions and other personal freedoms shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Gunpowder & Sky released “Kid Candidate” on digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.