Gay rights champion aims to become Republican presidential candidate
Fred Karger has already launched a campaign for the nomination in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire
Paul Harris, New York
The Observer, Sunday 13 February 2011
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Fred Karger, a gay candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, campaigns at a town hall meeting in Keene, New Hampshire Photograph: Matthew Cavanaugh
Fred Karger walked into a coffee shop in Manhattan looking every inch the sort of man who wants to be a Republican presidential candidate.
The long-time “Grand Old Party” operative, who has served three different Republican presidents, had close-cropped grey hair and wore a sharp blue business suit. He clutched a folder of campaign literature and handed out a T-shirt emblazoned with “Iowa 2012”. But one key detail made Karger a little different in a Republican field swirling with names like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. On his suit lapel Karger wore a badge pairing the Stars and Stripes with the rainbow colours of the gay rights movement.
Karger, 61, whose 2012 presidential exploratory committee is perhaps the furthest advanced of any potential Republican candidate, is openly gay. When he officially declares his run, he will not only be the first gay Republican presidential candidate but also the first such candidate from any political party in American history. “I am a fighter and I am trying to change the Republican party and to open it up to everybody. If every gay person left the Republican party and went to the Democrats, that would be stupid. I believe in smaller federal government and personal responsibility just like my hero, Ronald Reagan,” Karger said over a chicken salad sandwich and a cola.
There is no doubting Karger’s Republican credentials. He has spent his life working for the party’s cause as a top strategist. Like Karl Rove, he was a disciple of the controversial Republican tactician Lee Atwater. Indeed, Karger played a key role in publicising the “Willie Horton” adverts that destroyed the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. Horton was a jailed murderer let out on a Dukakis-backed weekend release programme in Massachusetts who committed armed robbery, assault and rape while at large. Karger toured the country with relatives of Horton’s victims, dealing a fatal blow to Dukakis’s image. He does not regret it for a moment. “No, not in the least,” he said with a smile.
But there is, obviously, doubt over Karger’s chances in a field likely to be dominated by people with higher name recognition who are heterosexuals in a party with a dominant social conservative wing. Yet Karger is already at work in Iowa and New Hampshire, the key first states in the nomination process. He has visited Iowa five times and New Hampshire 11 times in the past year. He has had aired TV adverts (the only potential candidate to do so) and held town hall meetings, attracted volunteers and even hired staff.
He is bluntly honest about the fact that he is a virtual unknown. His campaign slogan adorning the T-shirts, badges and frisbees he gives out asks: “Fred who?” Yet it’s a strategy that has earned him a wave of positive press coverage, including a profile in the Washington Post. Karger knows that winning the 2012 Republican nomination as a proud proclaimed gay man is a long shot. But getting in the televised candidate debates might not be. By the spring he will probably have a ground operation, a media presence, campaign funds in the bank, a staff and a headquarters. That will allow Karger to put gay rights, including gay marriage, on the table in a party that usually contents itself with bluntly dismissing them. To say the least, it will make interesting viewing and unsettle the big names. “I will take the gloves off if necessary,” he said. He believes his campaign can raise $5m.
Since coming out several years ago, Karger has been a vocal campaigner for gay rights and a high-profile critic of organisations, especially the Mormon church, that oppose gay marriage.
Perhaps, then, it is no wonder the Republican establishment is trying its best to exclude him. Last week’s meeting of the influential Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington did not invite Karger to speak, though Karger used the snub to generate media attention to his cause. “I cannot help but think that I have been excluded solely because I happen to be gay… I am not some two-headed monster. I want to squash the anti-gay rhetoric,” he said.
During his trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, often speaking to gay student groups, Karger noticed that he was getting a lot of emails from young gay people saying his ambitions had helped their lives where they faced prejudice and bullying. Karger remembered feeling isolated when he was closeted for most of his life and does not want others to go through that experience. Having an openly gay man run for the presidency is vital, he believes, even if he fails.
He says the symbolism of paving the way is important, just like it has been with pioneering but ultimately unsuccessful women such as Hillary Clinton and black candidates like the Rev Jesse Jackson. Somewhere in America, Karger hopes, a young gay person will see his run and think: I can do that, too, one day. “I am doing this for younger people,” says Karger. “I am fine now. I am happy in my skin. But when I was growing up it was hell. I don’t want anyone to go through that. That is what motivates me to make my voice heard. No more Mr Nice Gay.”
Ron Paul Wins CPAC Straw Poll
February 12, 2011 5:46 PM
Posted by Stephanie Condon
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.
(Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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WASHINGTON – For the second year in a row, libertarian Congressman Ron Paul won the unofficial presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. As CPAC organizers announced the results, the Texas Republican’s young supporters jumped to their feet and cheered, while some in the audience sat quietly resigned and others shook their head in exasperation.
Paul was boosted by organizations affiliated with the libertarian icon, which gave some financial assistance for his college-age supporters to attend the conference. Paul’s supporters made up a significant portion of the approximately 11,000 attendees at the event this week and made waves by butting heads with the social conservatives and neoconservatives present.
The Texas Republican made a splash in the 2008 Republican primary by gaining the fervent support of libertarians but ultimately won minimal support.
Paul won 30 percent of the 3,742 votes cast in the straw poll. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in second place with 23 percent.
About half of the votes were cast by CPAC attendees between the ages of 18 and 25. Fifty-six percent said they were generally satisfied with the names that have been floated as possible GOP presidential candidates; 43 percent said they wished there was a stronger field of contenders.
CPAC attendees are much younger and more libertarian than the Republican party in general — thanks, in part, to Paul’s supporters. CPAC chairman David Keene commended Paul for attracting young people to the Republican party.
“I’m not a Ron Paul supporter, but he energized kids,” he said. “And I want those kids, because they believe in most of the things I believe.”
“People here argue about every damn thing you can think about, and that’s part of this movement,” he continued. “The result is a more energized, bigger, more effective” conservative movement.
There were 15 Republican candidates in all listed on the straw poll – including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has emphatically said he’s not running for president in 2012. Christie tied for third place in the poll, at 6 percent, with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Christie did not attend CPAC, nor did former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who won 3 percent of the straw poll vote. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also absent, won 2 percent of the vote.
Paul wasn’t the only Republican at the event to run an active campaign for the straw poll – Rep. Michele Bachmann, head of the House Tea Party Caucus, passed out Bachmann jerseys and beer Thursday night in an apparent attempt to gain support. Bachmann won 4 percent of the vote.
Among the other candidates listed on the straw poll, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won 5 percent of the vote. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty won 4 percent, as did Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Conservative media personality Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Gov. Rick Santorum and South Dakota Sen. John Thune all won 2 percent. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour won 1 percent, as did former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
There were also write-in campaigns for other potential candidates, such as businessman and entertainer Donald Trump — who pointedly remarked this week at CPAC that Ron Paul “cannot get elected.” Openly gay Republican Fred Karger also ran a write-in campaign.
Fred karger (r) is considering a run for president of the u.s. …. and he’s openly gay
Monday, February 7, 2011 at 5:17AM, Kate Morgan West, Executive Editor
For link to Story, Click Here
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Fred Karger, an openly gay Republican, who has over 35 years of experience in politics and governmental affairs. He has been a consultant on numerous campaigns and an LGBTQ activist in recent years, founding Californians Against Hate to fight the passage of Proposition 8 in California and then launching a major investigation into the donors for the Yes on 8 campaign including the Mormon Church. His complaint against the church ended in 13 findings of guilt against members of the Latter Day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, for illegal campaign activities. He has filed a similar complaint against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), accusing the group of money laundering and other campaign irregularities as the group worked to repeal Maine’s marriage equality law. That investigation is still on-going.
Mr. Karger announced at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last year that he was considering a run for President of the United States. He would be the first openly gay candidate to run for the office.
I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, but my readers are going to wonder . . . how can you be gay and a Republican?
It’s a good question. I have been fighting within the Republican Party for change pretty much my entire lifetime. One of the reasons that I’m considering running [for President] is that I think I can effect change much more successfully if I have a higher profile. And the fact that pretty much all the gay bashing, all the bad laws and everything, have generated from Republicans, having an openly gay Republican be the first candidate for President, if I run, sends a message to other Republicans that they need to be conscious of this. They need to be more sensitive and I think it will help in the debate. It will force the front runners, like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin to deal with this issue, and those who are very opposed to LGBTQ civil rights like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee will be forced into discussion of this issue. I’ve put those people on notice that if they want to start bashing gay people they have to go through me. I’ve already done two Washington Post pieces very aggressively against Mike Huckabee when he compared gay marriage to incest, polygamy and drug abuse. I let him have it. It’s effective often to work for change from within.
Every LGBTQ person who is a Democrat can see what happens, where there is not much action in the Congress, where we have a Democrat majority in both houses and a Democratic President, and we barely eked out the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal. That was great, but it was only because of the lame duck [session]. In the previous two years all we got through, though, was the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes [bill]. So sometimes the Democrats are more responsive, but if I can effect change within the Republican Party I will have accomplished a huge deal. The fact that 8 Republicans in the United States Senate stood up and opposed the leadership for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and 15 Republicans in the House . . . there’s hope. Just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was very bipartisan, so it takes both parties. I want to fight and make change from within.
You’re running as an Independent Republican. What does that mean? What is an Independent Republican?
Fred Karger at the Iowa State Fair
Well, it’s my own term. I am an Independent. I support both Democrats and Republicans. I’m more socially progressive and I’m much more of a centrist, mainstream individual. In New Hampshire, for instance, 42% of all registered voters are registered independents. You can do that in that state, so I’m of course appealing to them and their sensibilities. In Iowa it’s 37% that are registered independent. In those two states particularly they are unhappy with the Republican Party and have left, and some with the Democratic Party too. So I’m not sure in Washington State . . . it’s a much more progressive state anyway so I’m guessing the numbers aren’t quite as high. But we’ve seen this in the national polls. There is a lot of unhappiness with the two political parties. Younger people particularly, which is my target audience of 18-29 year-olds, are much more independent.
What made you decide to look into running for President? You haven’t decided for sure whether you’re doing it yet – is that correct?
Yes, for me it’s a three step process. Once you do declare you have to live under certain rules and they’re pretty complex. So it’s a big consideration. I’ve been probably the most aggressive possible candidate by making commercials and travelling to Iowa five times. I haven’t announced that I’m running but I’m leaning very strongly in that direction.
Could you talk about some of the political campaigns that you’ve worked on? I’ve read that you were an advisor on several different campaigns?
I started out as a young man handing out campaign brochures. I worked through college on various political campaigns, and when I started there wasn’t really a procession of campaign consultants. They would have a neighbor run it for them or a spouse or something. Then it became a fairly big industry with big money being spent on campaigns. I was very fortunate and soon after I moved to California I became a campaign director with a man named Bill Roberts who worked on many big Presidential and Senate campaigns. Well he hired me for his new company call The Dolphin Group for a 3 month special project. And I stayed there for 27 years until I retired. It really changed my life and helped save it. I was pretty lost, didn’t know what I wanted to do like a lot of young people. Anyway it was just my passion and I spent almost three decades working on a lot of political campaigns and a lot of corporate efforts. We did a whole array of activities, but my true passion was political campaigns. And I worked on dozens and dozens from city council to mayor to Congress. We did several governors races and Senate. I always wanted to run for office but never could.
As I’ve read your LGBT record of activism and what you stand for, I’ve personally really started to like you. Could you talk a little about your platform?
Well thank you! My first priority, and I said this when I announced in New Orleans my intention to look into running, is that I want to be a very strong, if not the strongest, advocate for LGBTQ full equality. And coupled with that, HIV/AIDS, in pursuit of a cure and a vaccine and to bring that back to the forefront and make sure more funding is there. I’ve branched out into many other issues. My priorities include education reform, and I’vebeen meeting with experts across the country including teachers and private sector individuals, to come up with solutions for that. Immigration is an issue—living in southern California it’s a big issue, securing our borders and a pathway to citizenship for those who are in this country illegally and their children. I’m also, of course, very concerned about the economy and jobs – I’m calling it Jobs First. We need to save the jobs in this country and I’m working on a platform of ideas to do that. One thing I’ve said I want to do from day one is that I don’t want to just list my positions. I want to come up with ideas and solutions. That’s what I did as a political consultant. You get a candidate with certain positions, but you need to communicate what a candidate will do when he or she is elected. I have been working on that, among a number of other things, but I want to make sure that it’s solid and well thought out. I will be giving ideas for solutions to these problems. Those are the issues that I’m very interested in.
What is your stance on President Obama’s economic and health care reforms?
Well I said before health care passed, I would rather it would be left to the states with federal inducement and incentives. There are only a couple of states that have done anything without prodding. But now that the law has passed I think it should stay and I even think the Massachusetts experiment that Mitt Romney did, even though I don’t agree with him on a lot of issues, I think he took the right approach in Massachusetts. I think that’s actually the best solution. But we need changes in this system. The prices are astronomical and the insurance companies are making out like bandits. We need to come up with solutions for that crisis.
Fred Karger in the 2010 L.A. Pride Parade
Why do you think the Iowa Christian Alliance is so scared of letting you participate in the debate to be held in Iowa in March?
I’m not sure. This is a man [Steve Scheffler] who sent me a personal email last May threatening me. He’s the #2 ranking Republican in that state besides being the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance. Four years ago in an identical situation he would not allow Ron Paul, who was then a serious candidate, a Libertarian/Republican running, in that debate then. He arbitrarily excluded me. He said I’m a single issue candidate and I’m not a legitimate candidate. Well I’ve known for a long time those are code words for homophobia. He said in the Wall Street Journal that anyone who has the slightest interest in running would be invited. Well that wasn’t truthful because he didn’t invite me. I don’t know if he’s afraid of what I might say. I think he doesn’t understand gay people. I sent him a letter last May after he threatened me, a very nice respectful letter, asking to meet with him to get acquainted. He didn’t know me when he sent this email to me, didn’t know my background and never met me. I get along with people and I pride myself on that. I’d very much like to sit down with him. I’ve never heard back, and I don’t know if he’s afraid of me, maybe that’s it. It’s interesting, as I’ve gone through this exercise, I’ve been through literally hundreds and hundreds of meetings, and in my career thousands of meetings there, and I was not out and everything was fine. Well I guess this is why I stayed in the closet so long! Now I go to meetings and people react, they’re very different. It creates a certain level of uncomfortableness in many meetings. Some are kind of sitting way back from me like they’re going to catch it and others give me a hug and everything in between. It’s very interesting. I’m an observer of people so to see the different reactions has been interesting. I would like to meet with people. And this effort, if I do it after the exploratory phase, will be very different. No openly gay person has done this with good Republican credentials. Of course, I’ve thought long and hard about this and I think I can effect change and make people change their minds. I think it can help in all of our civil rights.
Some Republicans out there may change their minds. I had this radio talk show host, I’ve been on five times now, very conservative, very anti-gay marriage, invite me on after this flap last May . . . . he’s even convinced being gay is a choice . . . and he said to me, “I don’t like gay people, but I like you. You’re welcome on my show any time.” He’s a wonderful guy, he’s actually a really nice guy, very funny and very bright. So those are the kind of changes, and people listen to his show every day.
Are you making plans to come to Washington State any time soon?
I have no plans yet but I certainly will. I’ve heard good things from there and I have friends there who have offered to help me. So yes I will be coming!
Crashing the party: Republican strategist turned gay rights activist ponders a White House run
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011
For link to story, Click Here
ON ROUTE 202, N.H. — The candidate can’t find his lane. The road is a crunchy carpet of snow. The candidate drifts too far to the right. The rumble strip rattles his car. The candidate drifts too far to the left.
“I can’t tell where — ” he says, squinting into the swirling void.
“We’re in the middle of the road,” says his research assistant calmly.
The car stereo belts the Act 1 finale from the Broadway musical “Wicked,” which is about the Wicked Witch of the West and how she chose Evil to get ahead but then chose Good because that’s how all fables end.
The candidate — the man behind the wheel, the man who can’t find his lane — is a guy named Fred. He’s exploring the possibility of running for president of the United States.
Fred Karger campaigns at a town hall meeting in Keene, NH. Karger is considering a presidential run as an openly gay Republican candidate.
He is doing this as an openly gay Republican who’s never held elective office, using money he amassed as a conservative consultant who helped torpedo Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton ads in 1988 and worked for the tobacco industry to stave off smoking bans in California in the ’90s.
Fred Karger, 61, is a nice guy.
He wants his country to see that. He wants young gay people to see him run for president. He’d be the first-ever openly gay presidential candidate for a major party if he formally declares. He can see himself as the moderate voice in a debate crowded with hard-liners.
He has visited New Hampshire more than any other presidential prospector in this young election cycle. This skiddy late-night ride from a gathering in Keene to his Concord hotel is part of his 11th trip to the state in the past year. He’s slingshotting around, hosting tiny town halls, collecting volunteers one by one and arranging coffee dates with policy experts, academics and state politicians.
This is not a stunt, Fred insists.
* * *
A vital and misleading amendment to the American dream is “Anyone Can Grow Up to Be President.”
The reality, of course, is that anyone can run for president. Initially, it costs $0, plus the time required to file with the Federal Election Commission. The list of 2008 presidential candidates is 366 people long. It includes Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democratic Party), who’s followed by Temperance Alesha Lance-Council (party: Unknown); Rudolph W. Giuliani is just ahead of His Royal Majesty Caesar St. Augustine de Buonaparte, who, according to news clippings, declared himself emperor of the United States in 1996.
But to become president, one needs money (Barack Obama raised over half a billion dollars) and mantras (“change,” “hope,” etc.) and the media (your message here).
Fred has frisbees.
And stickers featuring his slightly airbrushed face. Fred has retirement money, which he’s burning at a rate of between $20,000 and $30,000 a month on his almost-campaign. And T-shirts featuring a New Hampshire license plate that reads “FRED WHO?” And customized pins that cross the American flag with the rainbow one.
Fred Karger and campaign aide Kevin Miniter raise one of his “Fred Who” banners.
And Fred has pizza. Where there is pizza, there are college students.
He draws 25 of them to a basement meeting room at the University of New Hampshire in Durham last Tuesday, and about a dozen Dartmouth College Republicans to a conference room in Hanover the following night. His tortoiseshell glasses, gray wool suits and previous acting experience might win him a walk-on part as John Slattery’s older brother on “Mad Men.” He runs through his biography, outlines his rickety platform (a 28th amendment to lower the voting age, education reform to make school “more interesting”) and compares himself to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, who ran for president in 1972.
Chisholm : Obama :: Fred : The first openly gay president of the United States.
“I know this sounds crazy,” he acknowledges to the students, who regard him with arched eyebrows and the occasional nod. “Why am I here?”
Because the GOP needs a pro-choice, antiwar, freedom-for-all, spendthrift compromiser inspired by Nelson Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt, he says.
The actual delivery of this message isn’t as clean. His stump speech is more of a meander that always boomerangs back to his retirement hobby: crusading against Prop 8, the Mormon Church and the National Organization for Marriage.
The students who show up for Fred seem nostalgic for a big-tent GOP they haven’t experienced in their lifetimes. But the tent Fred imagines may be a little too big.
“I think he’s a fascinating candidate,” says Dartmouth senior Katie Pine, 21, a government major who stopped by the Hanover event because she wonders where all the moderates have gone. “He’s charming and charismatic, but he sounds like a Democrat to me.”
“I consider myself a moderate like my boss and mentor, Ronald Reagan,” Fred is fond of saying. “You’re never going to agree 100 percent with any candidate. I’m more toward the center, and New Hampshire is a centrist state.”
It also rewards long-shot candidates who log miles and shake hands. Jimmy Carter, a virtual unknown before the 1976 campaign, turned New Hampshire into a launching pad with a “Jimmy Who?” strategy. Pat Buchanan, who’d never been elected to public office, won the primary in 1996. John McCain and Hillary Clinton, hampered by establishment baggage, staged comebacks here in 2008 by dropping their guards and reveling in retail politics.
That’s what Fred is doing. His goal is to get into a debate and nudge the GOP’s conversation, like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) did in 2008. He wants to make other candidates answer for their statements (or lack thereof) on gay rights. He wants to crash the party.
* * *
On April 10, 1972, Fred ganked a security badge, talked his way into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and walked onstage with a herd of celebrities to salute Charlie Chaplin. Fred stood between Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret as the silent film star received an honorary Oscar.
Typical Fred. Fred likes a challenge, and the spotlight. He likes to find a way around the word “no,” to network above his paygrade. As a high schooler growing up in Glencoe, Ill., Fred would dress up, take the train into Chicago, waltz into formal banquets and enjoy a fancy meal as if he belonged.
“He loved to be the center of attention, but also the engineer behind the scenes,” says his good friend Gary Wolfson, who attended high school and the University of Denver with Fred. “He always tells people he was a class clown. I think of him more as the class instigator.”
He wasn’t a standout student or athlete, but his Eddie Haskell nature was a fit for politics. He phone-banked for Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential campaign and worked for Charles Percy’s 1966 and 1972 Senate campaigns. Intent on cloaking his sexuality from his Chicago life, he bought a red Cougar convertible at age 23 and drove it to Los Angeles under the guise of becoming an actor.
In a span of three years, he was a passenger in “Airport 1975” and a model for an Edge shaving cream commercial directed by John Hughes, and he won a recurring role on a “Welcome Back, Kotter” spinoff that never aired.
His heart was in politics, though, and he got a foot in the door at the Dolphin Group, a feared and revered consulting firm for conservative candidates and causes. For 27 years he specialized in opposition research, digging up unsavory facts that could sink opponents and sway public opinion. He worked on Reagan’s ’80 and ’84 campaigns alongside firebrand Lee Atwater. He toured the relatives of William Horton’s victims around the country in ’88 to spin an exaggerated narrative about Dukakis’s stance on crime. Fred fought anti-smoking ordinances for big tobacco in the ’90s by peddling polling data that was criticized by some elected officials and academics for being unscientific and deceptive.
“Fred doesn’t smoke, but he would show up at these Philip Morris-related events with a fake cigarette in his mouth, kind of tongue-and-cheek, keeping a sense of humor,” says Nicholas Thimmesch II, a senior writer in the Reagan administration and longtime Washington media consultant. “He may not even have thought smoking was a good thing, but he did believe Philip Morris had a legitimate gripe against ridiculous tobacco lawsuits and restaurant smoking bans. I think Fred embraces freedom, and that goes for the freedom to be married.”
But he led a double life for decades: Savvy, straight-acting strategist at work, gay man who had long-term relationships and wrote checks to LGBT causes at home.
“It was hell,” Fred says. “I was so uncomfortable and so cautious. . . . I would go to gay pride parades and always look for cameras, and hide in the background. I had a fit if my picture was taken.”
These two lives didn’t unite until a couple of years after he retired at age 53. He wanted to “give back” and do something “significant,” so in 2006 he organized a local coalition to save a historic gay bar near his residence in Laguna Beach, Calif. In 2008 he formed the nonprofit Californians Against Hate to battle Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He used his opposition-research skills to launch a boycott of San Diego hotelier Doug Manchester and shame the Mormon Church for funneling cash to advance Prop 8.
“Fred in his fiber understands coalition building and leverage,” says Rick Jacobs, chairman of the Courage Campaign, an equality advocacy organization in California. “One of the reasons I think his presidential candidacy is a little less than quixotic is because he’s so focused, so good at getting his message out.. . . If you mix together someone who really knows politics and has a point to make, and someone who’s a relentless optimist, how do you dismiss that?”
During the Prop 8 fight, he divined the ultimate party crash, the splashiest way to make a point, the biggest idea of all: a run at the White House. He crashed the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in April to announce the possibility of his candidacy. In July he incorporated his exploratory committee and started meeting with the leadership of any LGBT, Democratic or Republican organization who would see him.
“This is uncharted territory,” says R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. “From a historic standpoint, you could look at his candidacy as a bridging of different generations. . . . Maybe his mere presence will tone down potential rhetoric. It’s very difficult for someone to talk negatively about another person or entity if they’re in the room.”
But Fred is most comfortable when there’s an enemy to fight. For years, the opposition was his candidate’s challenger or his client’s economic foe. These days, his chosen nemesis is Brian Brown, executive director for the National Organization for Marriage, which is pushing for a repeal of New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage bill now that the state house has a Republican supermajority.
The timing is perfect, Fred says. The repeal effort will likely crescendo as 2011 turns to 2012. By then he’ll have dug his trenches in New Hampshire, adopting local and state issues as his own: He’s keeping tabs on businesses affected by the planned closure of the Sagamore Bridge in Portsmouth, and last week he released a commercial warning the state of NOM’s repeal tactics.
Karger talks to citizens at the Golden Egg, a diner in Portsmouth, N.H., about his potential presidential candidacy and the planned closure of the nearby Sagamore Bridge, a vital conduit for commerce.
“History has proven that time spent here equals primary votes,” says New Hampshire strategist Mike Dennehy, John McCain’s national political director in ’08. “With the exception of Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, most of the possible candidates have next to no name recognition in the state and are starting at about the same level [as Fred]. . . . There are significant amount of center and left-of-center Republicans here who I think would be open to a candidacy like Fred’s.”
There is one small problem. When people ask Fred how he’d balance the budget, he smiles and steers the subject back to gay marriage and NOM and the Mormons. When people ask him how he’d fix health care, he says “I still need to look into it.” There is something refreshing — if entirely unpresidential — about his in-progress grasp of issues. After a lifetime of faking it, he’s finally not.
It’s for voters to judge the merits of his gambit, to determine if it’s worthy of the presidential nominating process, or if it’s merely the brilliant tactic of a seasoned operative who’s fixated on a single issue rather than a whole country.
* * *
I really think of him as a Republican Harvey Milk. He’s very funny and very smart and has a great ability to connect with all kinds of people. . . . There’s not the slightest possibility that Fred Karger is going to become president, but if he could be part of that dialogue — I see real value in that.
— Cleve Jones, gay rights activist
A total farce . . . unconstructive . . . unstrategic . . . self-absorbed . . . a fantasy . . . neither thoughtful nor conservative . . . We don’t want to be special. And Fred’s campaign is calling attention to the fact that he’s special.
— a sampling of how some representatives of gay rights organizations describe Karger’s presidential ambitions
* * *
In 48 hours he’s hit two college campuses, a Mexican restaurant in Keene, a radio station in Manchester and Portsmouth’s Golden Egg diner, where candidates of yore have poured coffee to demonstrate their folksiness. Under a leaden sky frozen by single-digit temperatures, Fred zips around in a slush-spattered Lincoln Navigator, passing homes crowned with icicles, trailing a red rolling duffle bag full of frisbees and T-shirts.
Radio host Charlie Sherman at WGIR in Manchester, N.H., interviews Karger.
He’s shadowed by his full-time research assistant, 27-year-old Los Angeles resident Kevin Miniter, who was captivated by the notion of transpartisanship, which allows a politician to revere the Clintons (Fred was a maxed-out Hillary donor in 2008), espouse the word “progressive,” vote for Ralph Nader in 2004 (to protest George W. Bush) and 2008 (to protest Obama), and still call himself a Republican.
“I remember thinking ‘This is genius,’ and I immediately got what he’s trying to do: He wants to change the political dialogue,” says Miniter, who met Fred last year at a fundraiser.
The country keeps time by its pendulous centrists. In the midterm elections in November, 31 percent of self-identified gays and lesbians voted Republican, up from 24 percent in 2006. Forty-two percent of all voters in New Hampshire are “undeclared,” or independent. These are the people Fred’s counting on, the people who show up to his events.
“The Republican Party has gotta be tweaked,” says retiree and independent Kevin Healy at a Portsmouth gathering hosted by a friend of Fred’s. “They need to focus on issues, not ideology. . . . [Fred is] kind of an equivalent to a Mama Grizzly. He’s a Grizzly Gay.”
At the Golden Egg , retired accountants Sheldon and Doreen Kaplan praise Fred’s sentiment but remain suspicious of his lack of executive experience.
“We’re the people in the middle no one cares about,” says Sheldon, a Clinton Democrat who voted for Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). “I’m not voting for [Obama]. I want someone who won’t change his stripes.”
Fred, of course, changed his stripes. He propped up an establishment that was unfriendly to gay rights and then burst out of the closet into a possible presidential run. To some, this sounds like penance.
He doesn’t see it this way. He says he was supportive of gay rights anonymously all along, and that if he decides to run for president he will be a candidate for everyone, not just gays who want to quash the National Organization for Marriage.
“It’s much more meaningful than that,” he says. “I want to be a messenger for my community within the public discussion. . . . I may ask every Republican looking at running to go have lunch, to meet and chat. If I can make headway with someone running for president, and be perceived as ‘just another guy,’ I think I would’ve accomplished something.”
Though dry and didactic on the stump, Fred’s a winsome shmoozer. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington next week, he plans to ingratiate himself with conservatives, the media and other potential candidates like Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He’s struggling to get into a March 7 candidate forum in Iowa, where the state’s Republican National Committeeman vowed to “work overtime” to extinguish his “radical homosexual” candidacy. He’s awaiting the criteria to participate in the May 2 debate at the Reagan Library in California. He’s hoping donations take the weight off his wallet by the spring (his first official fundraiser at his second home in Laurel Canyon, Calif., netted $10,000 Sunday night, and his goal for the campaign is a “frugal” $5 million).
By the spring he plans to rent a five-bedroom house in the north end of Manchester to establish a headquarters for campaign precinct walks. The only thing that stands between his name and the New Hampshire primary ballot is a $1,000 fee. Anyone, after all, can run for president.
This is crazy, Fred knows, but he’s never felt more sane.