Jun 2, 2011

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In Fred Karger’s Presidential Run, GOP Stands for Gay Old Party

The OC Resident and onetime Republican hatchet man hopes his quixotic campaign can push his party to become more gay-friendly

By R. Scott Moxley, Thursday, June 2, 2011

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Shortly after sirens alert residents to potential approaching tornados, an odd trio emerges from a Dallas hotel on a Saturday evening in late April: Fred Karger, an operative for three Republican presidents, an ex-Hollywood actor and Philip Morris spinmeister; Roy Ashburn, California’s most vociferously anti-gay politician until 2010, when he was caught driving drunk after leaving a gay bar with a boyfriend; and me. Though Karger and Ashburn spent most of their lives frantically hiding their homosexuality while serving anti-gay candidates and causes, they are now unapologetically out of the closet. Newfound freedom allows them to do what would have once been considered career suicide: After a day of political strategizing, they invite a reporter to accompany them to a gay dance club.

But we have a problem.

There are no taxis in sight at the exit to the Hilton Anatole. Ashburn, once called “the biggest gay hypocrite ever,” throws up his hands and asks, “What should we do?” He has to wake up at 6 the next morning to catch a flight, and he’s anxious to mingle. Karger, who in March became the first openly gay major party presidential candidate ever, is about to speak when, in the distance, headlights flash on and a vehicle slowly approaches. It’s a black stretch limousine.

“My presidential limo!” quips Karger, who has homes in Laguna Beach and Los Angeles. The driver—a portly, middle-aged man with a Mediterranean accent—asks for our destination. “A gay bar,” replies Karger, who gives an address and negotiates a low fee.

During the trip to Station 4, Karger and Ashburn joke about becoming running mates. Their White House-dreaming banter is so lively the driver tells them, “I like you guys. You are very funny.”

Perhaps the driver didn’t understand that Karger and Ashburn are serious about getting a gay person into the nation’s top elected office, or at least making sure an anti-gay candidate isn’t elected president. In their view, the Republican Party has allowed itself to drift too far to the religious right and, in the process, abandoned the principle of individual liberty. They’re in town for the convention of the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), the nation’s premier gay-conservative political organization. The perpetually jovial Karger, who headed the pro-gay-marriage Californians Against Hate campaign opposing Proposition 8 in 2008, is blunt about his goal.

“I want to open up the Republican Party,” says the man partly responsible for the “Willie Horton” prison-furlough TV commercial that helped sink Michael Dukakis‘ 1988 Democratic presidential campaign. “I want to send a message to young people and gay people: You can do anything you want to do.”

*     *     *

Among those gathered at the Hilton Anatole are conservative activists representing 17 national political groups. They’ve come to ridicule excessive taxes on the rich, Obamacare, Democratic Party socialism, reckless government spending and the liberal war on traditional values. It’s two days before President Barack Obama is to give Navy SEALs a license to kill Osama bin Laden, and this crowd is comfortable berating the president for his wimpy foreign policy.

And then there are the Log Cabin Republicans. Though it doesn’t always get respect from liberal gay activists, LCR has a daunting task: advance gay rights inside an often mean-spirited, anti-gay Republican Party. The group traces its roots back to the late 1970s in Southern California, when gay conservatives came together to oppose the Briggs Amendment—named for Fullerton state Senator John Briggs—that would have banned gays from teaching in public schools. Sean Penn‘s Milk, about the life of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, featured the Briggs drama.

More than 30 years after the Briggs proposal, society is still wrestling with what roles it will allow gay citizens to play. Inside one hotel conference room during that weekend, LCR meets to discuss the Pentagon‘s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy, which bans openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. military. Panelists agree that despite DADT’s repeal, the battle is—as LCR executive director R. Clarke Cooper notes—”far from over.”

Another panelist, Los Angeles lawyer Dan Woods, says, “They [military brass] still have lesbian-baiting. That’s when a male soldier hits on a female soldier, and if she doesn’t agree to sex, he can say, ‘Well, she must be gay. Otherwise, why wouldn’t she have sex with me?'”

LCR convention attendees, mostly male and ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, chuckle. Woods adds that the baiting is causing straight female soldiers to have sex with “alpha males” to avoid the lesbian label and potential discharge from duty.

For some activists in the room, talk of gay sex in the military visibly lifts them from a pre-lunch slumber. The majority of participants is wearing business suits, which makes it easy to spot pro-gay activist Kevin Miniter when he enters the room and looks for a seat. Eyes shoot away from the panelists onstage and stay focused on Miniter. The 27-year-old Karger campaign researcher is wearing a shirt-and-pants outfit that tightly grips his tall, slender body. His well-developed pecs and firm buttocks cause several attendees to audibly gasp in appreciation.

Attention returns to the stage when Woods notes that despite the pending official mothballing of DADT, military officers continue to target soldiers found in possession of “pictures from a Dinah Shore golf tournament, k.d. lang posters or Melissa Etheridge CDs.”

The crowd explodes in hearty, lingering laughter at the absurdity of such discrimination.

At LCR events, military service is cherished. Indeed, a handful in attendance served in the military, including Cooper, a decorated combat veteran. He says his group is determined to fight efforts to “repeal the repeal . . . [of an] arbitrary and capricious” DADT policy.

But, according to LCR members, there are enemies in the Republican Party—including fellow gay conservatives—who thrive on sabotaging any gains. They also say some GOP officials privately express support for gay rights, but they vote with the right wing because of electoral fears. It’s becoming conventional wisdom that a way around this problem is to put natural allies in key government jobs.

“We are stepping up our game,” says Cooper. “We need Log Cabin Republicans to run for public office.”

*     *     *

Karger—a “proud” LCR member—isn’t a typical wannabe politician. Most candidates, especially ones aiming for the nation’s top job, are guarded; spew nothing but canned, poll-tested answers; try to appear invincible and brilliant; and nervously keep an army of professional PR flacks nearby to intervene at the slightest hint of trouble.

Within minutes of my meeting him, Karger tells a self-deprecating story, shares his personal calendar (kept in a Ziploc bag inside a black-leather satchel), asks for campaign advice, admits he’s “still forming” policy positions, describes a campaign supporter as “so cute,” and—though he’s wearing a suit—eagerly agrees to play Frisbee inside the hotel’s hallways.

“Other campaigns say Fred is having too much fun,” observes Miniter. “They are all so stuffy.”

My Frisbee toss sails high and wide. Karger darts 12 feet, jumps while yelling, “Yes!” and makes a remarkable fingertip catch.

“See?” Miniter intones.

Later, Karger—who created a colorful-if-unsuccessful 2006 effort to prevent the closing of the Boom Boom Room, the famous oceanfront gay bar in Laguna Beach—admits, “I like to have fun.”

The theme of his campaign T-shirts and first TV commercials spoofs his anonymity: “Fred Who?”

But this lean, 61-year-old Chicago-area native who has never held elective office says campaign objectives are earnest. Karger rolls his eyes at the mention of Bob Dornan, an angry homophobe and, in 1996, the last Orange County resident to seek the GOP nomination. Running as a gay man is “a gigantic step” that “sends a powerful message,” especially if he appears in televised forums.

Frank Ricchiazzi, who helped to start LCR, is cheering on his friend.

“Fred can break down stereotypes that all gay men are big, liberal lefties,” he says. “He’s a fiscal conservative who happens to be gay.”

So far, however, establishment Republicans have blocked Karger from forums—even though nobody has campaigned more than he has in Iowa and New Hampshire, the sites of the first two 2012 presidential-nominating contests eight months from now.

Conservatives in South Carolina told Karger they might allow him to participate in an early May presidential debate if he got at least 1 percent in national polls. (He was ultimately not included in the May 5 debate.)

Polling firms weren’t mentioning Karger’s name in surveys. But Miniter convinced FOX News to include his boss in a late April poll. The result? “I got the 1 percent,” Karger crows.

“Who would be happy with 1 percent?” he asks. “Well, me! It’s a start!”

(He was right. In later weeks, he cracked 1 percent in three other national polls: CNN, Zogby and ABC News/Washington Post.)

Says Ric Grenell, an LCR member and the longest-serving U.S. spokesman at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, “You’ve got to love Fred. He’s out front for us.”

Karger attributes his upbeat attitude to Ronald Reagan.

“Reagan had a huge influence on me,” says Karger. “I ran his PAC, helped his inaugural committees and worked on his election campaigns. My campaign theme is very Reaganesque. It’s ‘Bringing Back the American Spirit.’ He would have liked it. It’s about optimism and the ability to get along.”

He’s espousing a platform that’s pro-gay, low-tax, pro-choice and limited-government, heavy on “fiscal conservatism with a libertarian bent.” During a campaign stop, a Christian Coalition-supporter sarcastically told Karger, “I’ll pray for you.” At other times, he’s encountered “chilly, cold” receptions.

“A lot of people in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender] community don’t like me because I have a big R on my forehead,” says Karger. “And a lot of the Republican establishment aren’t too keen on me because I have a big G on my forehead.”

Karger isn’t shy about taking digs at Democrats or Republicans. He says Obama “is taking the country in the wrong direction” and, a big no-no in Karger’s book, “is uninspiring—depressing, really.” He also slams potential opponents such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He’s proud that an April college straw poll in New Hampshire put him on top over Romney, the presumed GOP frontrunner. “I bet that got under his skin,” he says, laughing. “Beaten by the gay guy.”

In February, a Washington Post profile described Karger as “nice.”

“I wear that as a badge of honor,” he says. “I happen to think of myself that way. Unless you cross me and my community.”

*     *     *

In the past decade, nobody crossed the gay community in California more than Roy Ashburn. As a state assemblyman and later state senator from Bakersfield, the feisty, 5-foot-4-inch Ashburn enjoyed the label that he was “to the right of Rush Limbaugh.” He voted against 40 gay-rights laws, earning himself a 0 rating from gay activists. In 2005, he organized a “traditional family values” rally.

Ashburn nowadays concedes he didn’t care about the gay community. He was married to a woman, had children and dreamed of becoming a member of Congress. “I was really cocky,” he says. “The Log Cabin table at conventions—that’s the one I avoided because I had a dark secret: a double life.”

Though rumors swirled for years about Ashburn’s sexuality, he thought that he’d done “a masterful job hiding it.” His wife figured it out, divorced him in 2003, but remained mum. His anti-gay voting intensified even as he took more risks cruising gay bars. Then, at 2 a.m. on March 4, 2010, the state senator’s fake persona imploded.

“Fourteen months ago, I was arrested for DUI after leaving a gay club that had just had the Ms. Latino Drag Show contest,” he recalls. “I wasn’t a participant, but I was so inebriated that I could have been.”

The firestorm accelerated when it leaked that the passenger in Ashburn’s government-issued vehicle had been a 29-year-old San Jose gay man; they were on their way to a hotel.

“I was terrible, really terrible,” he says.

Four days after the incident, Ashburn revealed his homosexuality. “It was the most incredibly liberating thing in my life,” he says.

His announcement wasn’t welcomed everywhere. News outlets called him “shameless,” “self-loathing” or “a Machiavellian careerist.” Jay Leno slammed him in a Tonight Show monologue. Somebody created a Facebook page titled “1,000,000 Gay Men and Allies Against Roy Ashburn Having Sex Ever Again.”

From an establishment GOP point of view, Jon Fleischman—a Republican Party operative based in Orange County—told reporters the gay disclosure was like “hammering nails into” Ashburn’s political coffin.

But Ashburn says not everyone abandoned him. “The reaction of my Republican teammates [in the Legislature] was great,” he says. “They were very loving.”

Karger calls Ashburn “a courageous hero” and named him the guest of honor at a June 1 Sacramento fund-raiser. His admiration soared after he saw Ashburn address a liberal gay crowd. “It was a room full of angry people,” Karger recalls. “Roy did such an amazing job telling his story that he defused 90 percent of the animosity. Everybody walked away with a better understanding of the extreme acts many of us do in the closet to cover up our [gay] existence.”

Ashburn, 57, isn’t covering up much anymore. He’ll freely discuss his romantic interests with the enthusiasm of a teenager. He sighs in appreciation after describing one boyfriend, a much-younger Latino man.

“All the anti-gay things that I did were because of selfishness,” he says. “I can’t lie about that. I am truly sorry and am trying to make amends now as a conservative, openly gay Republican.”

*     *     *

According to an April poll by the Pew Research Center, while only 64 percent of staunch conservatives oppose abortion in “all/most” cases, a whopping 85 percent of them oppose gay marriage. It’s a sentiment that has led Republicans in Texas to demand a return to anti-sodomy laws and to make gay marriage a felony punishable by prison time. Other conservatives across the nation have blamed natural disasters and terrorist attacks on God’s wrath for America’s undeniably growing acceptance of gay citizens.

Karger says he often faces that type of hostile climate and kooky opinions. He praises Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus and party chief of staff Jeff Larson for treating him with respect. “They are great,” he says.

But Karger—who worked with Lee Atwater, the legendary brass-knuckles GOP/Reagan strategist—notes that not all party bigwigs are happy that an openly gay Republican has entered the presidential fray. He says Steve Scheffler, an RNC member and “Christian Coalition type” from Iowa, didn’t just block him from participating in a presidential-candidate forum earlier this year. Scheffler also sent Karger an email: “You and the radical homosexual community are not welcome in Iowa. I am going to work overtime to abort your candidacy and make sure you are defeated here.”

“At first, I thought it was a joke, but then I realized this guy was serious,” Karger says.

Openly gay West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, a Democrat, doesn’t share Karger’s politics, but he supports his foray into the race.

“I think it’s healthy to have Fred in the GOP primary because it shows his party there are openly gay conservatives,” says Duran, who has known Karger for 15 years. “That’s a good thing.”

*     *     *

During an LCR convention session on April 29, a gay Republican in the audience expresses frustration that “unions and blacks” in California helped right-wing efforts to ban gay marriage during the Prop. 8 election in 2008.

“My point is that Log Cabin Republicans have called out our enemies in our party, but the gay Democrats don’t,” the man says.

For Evan Wolfson—perhaps the nation’s most relentless gay-marriage advocate and a panelist—those assertions aren’t just “wrong,” they’re also boneheaded.

“Unions have been extremely helpful to us,” Wolfson says. “And I take offense at the implication of your statement. It’s not helpful to label whole groups. . . . We need to grow the climate of empowerment where people respond [to gay marriage as an issue] of fairness.”

David Lampo—a convention panelist, employee at the libertarian Cato Institute and LCR official in Virginia—concurs. “The successes we’re going to have is when Log Cabin develops great relations with other LGBT organizations,” Lampo says.

But because LCR has worked closely with liberal gay groups on issues of common cause—gay marriage, DADT and anti-discrimination in the workplace—a dissatisfied splinter group formed two years ago. GOProud members say the gay community is best served by championing Republican policies. For example, the group’s top six priorities are “tax reform”—lowering capital-gain taxes and eliminating the “death tax,” “health-care reform” that focuses on privatization, “social-security reform,” “respecting the proper role of the judiciary,” “holding the line on spending,” and “fighting global extremists.” After those issues, the group’s seventh priority isn’t gay-marriage advocacy, but rather “return the [issue] to the states.” Conservatives Andrew Breitbart and Ann Coulter support GOProud.

Meanwhile, Wolfson insists a “united strategy” among Democratic and Republican gay groups is responsible for orchestrating “a momentous shift” in public opinion since the enactment of the anti-gay 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was written by conservative Republicans and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“Four recent national polls showed that a majority of Americans now support the freedom to marry by either 52 percent or 53 percent,” Wolfson declares. “That’s up from 26 percent in 1996. We are helping people understand that the question about gay marriage isn’t a fringe question, but a significant failing of the United States and its commitment to freedom.”

*     *     *

“I was a good juggler,” says Karger, when asked about hiding his sexuality until his mid-50s. “I was good at faking it, acting like I really wasn’t gay.”

His closet door is now shattered. For example, when angered by anti-gay attacks, he has described himself to a straight audience as “no more Mr. Nice Gay.” Even when he’s serious, he has a sense of humor.

He says he had a boyfriend “several years ago,” but is single now.

“I’ve put dating aside for now to focus on the campaign,” he says, “and there’s really no time for anything else.”

He pauses, smiles and adds, “But I also know how life works. You never know when you’ll find someone.”

Minutes later, Karger orders a skim-milk latte at a Dallas café, sizes up his crowd—two shop employees, one twentysomething male and one twentysomething female—and makes his pitch.

“I’m Fred Karger,” he says. “I’m running for president of the United States.”

The employees stare at him, as if wondering whether Punk’d is already back on the air.

Karger adds, “I’m the first openly gay presidential candidate.”

The male employee blushes, but 30 seconds later, he proudly wears a Karger campaign pin.

“See?” Karger says. “You’re now part of history.”

History is important. Karger has a filmmaker shooting a documentary of the campaign. He’s hoping his run for the White House will serve as inspiration for a series of future openly gay candidates. Based on his own life, he knows that “anything is possible.”

While working for high-ranking Republicans, as well as championing conservative causes, he managed to keep a “deep, dark secret” gay life that involved well-known, historic people. In fact, he says he was “lucky” to have “healthy gay relationships,” and even became friends with Hollywood superstar Rock Hudson, who lived in the closet before dying of AIDS.

“I was at Rock’s 50th-birthday party,” he recalls. “I had a ball.”

Karger once dated Jon Epstein—the late, Emmy-nominated producer of Hudson’s McMillan and Wife and Peter Falk‘s Columbo television shows.

When I press him for details about this period of his life, Karger replies, “I don’t want to tell too much. Read my book.”

Karger is in the final stages of self-publishing his memoirs with a ghostwriter. “I’ve had a really interesting life,” he says. “It’s a great read.”

It was during the 1970s when Karger, who is Jewish but says he’s “not very religious,” tasted a degree of national fame. His face was used in the Edge shaving-cream commercials shot by director John Hughes, who’d go on to do Home Alone, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “The ad ran for years,” he says. “Cha-ching!”

Karger, who is holding a June 18 fund-raiser in Laguna Beach, hopes to raise $5 million for his campaign, but so far, his seven-member staff is largely operating off his retirement nest egg. For example, his “D.C. office” is the condo of his part-time communications director, Rina Shah. “We’re a lean, mean fighting machine!” he declares. “I have to start raising more money. That’s my weakness.”

*     *     *

At the podium of the Hilton Anatole’s Wedgwood Ballroom on April 30, Bob Barr—the former Georgia Republican congressman and 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidate—faces nearly 150 Log Cabin Republican members, their spouses and boyfriends. For years, Barr put himself at the forefront of the national battle against gay activists, who were, he once said, committing “an outright assault on the fundamental structure of our society.” In 1996, Barr wrote the Defense of Marriage Act, which codified anti-gay bias into federal law.

Yet no rotten eggs are lobbed at him.

Barr raises his glass of red wine and says, “Hear! Hear! Standing for maximum individual freedom!”

Members of the audience stand, raise their glasses for the toast and enthusiastically bark, “Hear! Hear!”

It’s an odd scene, but Barr explains his newfound conversion to pro-gay-rights advocate. “My views have evolved over time—especially since 9/11,” he says. “Government is reaching out to control every aspect of our lives. The sphere of liberty has shrunk.”

He praises LCR for teaching the Republican Party “lessons about liberty.”

“To license is to control,” he continues. “This brings us to the essential question when discussing whether same-sex marriage should be legal: Why do individuals need the government’s permission to marry in the first place?”

Though a semi-bored Karger spends most of the speech answering emails on his cell phone, Barr wins a standing ovation. Several gay Republicans circle him to shake his hand. But one nearby person isn’t satisfied.

“He didn’t apologize for DOMA,” says Ashburn. “He should have said he is sorry. Why didn’t he? He blew it.”

*     *     *

Christopher Buckley‘s satirical 1995 novel, Thank You for Smoking, spoofs the adventures of the tobacco industry’s top PR flack, who has a reputation as a “Gucci Goebbels” for shamelessly arguing that scientific evidence proves there is no link between cancer and smoking cigarettes.

Karger has read the book, thought it was “funny,” but denies that his real life as a Philip Morris PR flack fighting anti-smoking laws served as inspiration for Buckley’s main character, Nick Naylor. He does, however, admit, “That was my life for a while. Buckley nailed it.”

He’d rather discuss Al Franken‘s 2000 novel Why Not Me? “It is absolutely hysterical,” says Karger. “It’s about a single-issue candidate who beats Al Gore and becomes president. He won because all he talked about was high ATM fees.

“As funny as the book is, it’s reality in politics.” he stresses. “In politics, you can be quickly propelled to the top on a single issue. A message can catch on, and then, who knows? Franken’s book planted the seed for my campaign for president.”

*     *     *

Along with the right-wing groups and the Log Cabin Republicans, the Hilton Anatole is also hosting U.S. Marines returning from active duty in Afghanistan. The Marines are given free rest and relaxation with their wives or girlfriends as a transition back to society. Their severe haircuts, buff physiques and unyielding scowls can be seen all over the hotel.

Late one night in a hotel bar, Marines thought they’d been hit on by a group of LCR members sitting at another table. According to multiple witnesses, one of the Marines walked over to the gay group and asked, “Are you guys a bunch of faggots?” The LCR members corrected the slur, saying they were “gay.” Before Dallas police arrived, the soldier became violent and left one gay Republican injured.

“We’re so pro-military as Log Cabin members,” concludes a group official who asked not to be named. “But obviously, some soldiers can’t handle the idea that gay people are just as entitled to sit freely in public as they are.”

*     *     *

Violence against gays remains an ugly reality, but Karger uses bigotry as motivation. “Just because I am a stubborn guy, that [conduct] gives me more fortitude to do what I’m doing,” he says.

He has vocally battled the Mormon church and the National Organization for Marriage for anti-gay stances, and he has dedicated his campaign to young gays who have committed suicide after they’ve been bullied. Yet, even when making serious remarks, Karger invariably incorporates optimism: “There is hope out there.”

During an LCR speech, he shares a secret he learned as an operative for presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, as well as California Governor George Deukmejian. He explains how to convert enemies into friends. “Put them at ease,” he says. “Make them feel comfortable. Tell them a funny story, and watch their body language relax.”

Karger proceeds with a funny story of his own. He’s at the 2004 RNC presidential convention in New York. On the night Vice President Dick Cheney is to be renominated, he sees Scott Schmidt, a young Log Cabin Republican from Los Angeles. Schmidt has caused a ruckus among other “very formal” Republicans.

Says Karger, “Scott’s walking around wearing a shirt that says, ‘I like dick.'”

LCR members hoot and clap in appreciation. Schmidt, who is also attending the convention, later makes a correction. “My shirt said, ‘I heart Dick,'” he says. “That’s with a capital D.”

Big D or little d, Karger doesn’t care. He’s a gay Republican on a mission. He sees himself as a front-line soldier confronting homophobia in the party he loves.

“We need to stand up and be proud in a tough atmosphere,” he says. “There’s a lot of hostility out there.”

In typical Karger fashion, he cracks a warm smile and adds, “We have to work hard for our dreams, but I’m so excited!”

This article appeared in print as “Gay Old Party? OC’s own Fred Karger, a onetime Republican hatchet man, is out of the closet and on the campaign trail for president.”