Fred Who? A reasonable question as well as his own campaign slogan when he ran in this year’s presidential primary. In fact, he was among the first candidates to file for the 2012 election, putting in his papers just a few days before President Obama. A campaign consultant and political watchdog as well as a lifelong champion for gay rights, he ran on a socially and fiscally moderate platform that supports gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. There’s one more thing about him that might surprise you. He’s a Republican.
He’s also the first openly gay presidential candidate affiliated with a major political party. The election might be over but Karger’s as politically active as ever – this time locked in a fierce battle against the National Organization for Marriage of California. NOM, an organization condoning the slippery slope rhetoric: “if gay marriage is legal, legalizing sexual intercourse with dogs may be on the way,” refuses to publicly disclose the identities of its largest contributors, a practice defended by its director John Eastman. As of May, NOM has been under investigation by California’s Fair Political Practices Organization for allegedly failing to report over $345,000 in campaign contributions and funding attack ads on political candidates who support marriage equality. In not disclosing his contributors or their businesses, Eastman acts not without good reason – Karger’s called for boycotts of Chick-Fil-A and Amway when their stances on gay marriage were made public, sometimes staging protests outside their windows.
I had the chance to speak with Mr. Karger while he was on the East Coast for the wedding of two good friends in Washington. Just hours before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, he stayed at New York’s Warwick Hotel on 54th Street. With the impending storm, he remained undaunted, proudly staying in a building that stood over Manhattan since 1926. Amid the growing gusts of wind and the surprising quiet of an emptying city, Karger discussed his presidential bid which ended on June 29 as well as his take on the GOP and politics in general.
He was born January 31, 1950 in Glencoe, Illinois, to Jean and Robert Karger. “My childhood was like Leave it to Beaver and I was the Beaver. I had an older brother. My father was a businessman. My mom stayed home. It was a normal, happy childhood. Around high school I began to sense I was different. When I was 21, I saw a psychiatrist, who thankfully, said there was nothing wrong with me and didn’t try to “fix me.” He helped me to realize that I was gay.” Initially, his reaction was to hide it from his family, and he moved to California with friends. “My parents always asked if I was seeing someone, but I never came out to my family until I was in my forties. I always felt like I would ruin the holidays. I didn’t want to do that.”
In the early 1980s, with the onset of the AIDS epidemic, things began to change. “It was an absolutely despicable time. I was always going to funerals of people my age. I always had at least one friend who was dying. And so many of them were being hit with this double-whammy. It was having to, for the first time in their lives, not only come out to their families as gay, but also that they were HIV-positive. Thankfully, I never had to deal with the second half myself.” The passing of his friend Bill from AIDS in 1991 ultimately made him decide to come out. “Bill had a wonderful family who came from Boston to see him. Really wonderful parents who looked out for all of his friends. When I saw that, I wished I could have the same relationship with my family. I told them, and by that point, they were okay with it. Ultimately I’m glad mom and dad got to meet my friends and accept me for who I am.”
During his time in California, he dabbled in acting and gave himself two to three years to make it big, landing a role in a commercial for Edge shaving cream directed by the late John Hughes and a brief part in Airport 1975. He continued to pursue his passion for politics, an interest he had since the age of 14, when he traveled by train to help then-presidential candidate Nelson A. Rockefeller with his campaign against the eventual Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. When asked why he became a Republican, “It always made more sense to me. I guess I inherited it from my parents. My father was a businessman, a moderate Republican who believed in limited government that at the same time is there for those who need help. I believe that.”
When asked about his political role models, Karger points to Teddy Roosevelt who brought the party in a new direction at the turn of the twentieth century with the first laws aimed at protecting civil rights and womens’ rights and anti-monopoly laws. Like many other candidates in the Republican primary, he also cites Ronald Reagan as an inspiration, whose presidential campaign he worked for. He first came to admire Reagan in 1978 while campaigning actively against the Briggs Initiative, a law that if passed, would ban homosexuals from working in California’s public schools. “To get Reagan (who was the former governor of California at the time) to stay neutral would have been considered a victory for us. Instead, he did a very brave thing. He wrote a letter to the Herald-Tribune openly and publicly opposing the Briggs Initiative while preparing for a presidential campaign, a measure that could have risked support for his own campaign.”
While he was displeased with the way the Reagan Administration dealt with the AIDS crisis he admits, “It was quite a different era. One of the biggest battles we had back then was with The New York Times, one of the country’s most progressive newspapers and getting them to print the word ‘AIDS,’ which was an indication of how much of the country felt. I think that his friend Rock Hudson’s death also caused him to break his silence on the issue.” Nonetheless, Karger felt Reagan was a good president who accomplished a great deal. “He was a bit more conservative than I am, but he had an openness about him and was willing to cross the aisle. He did raise taxes, and sometimes I wonder if he’d be able to run for president in 2012, or if he’d be considered too centrist. But he had such charm and a sense of humor that won people over, so yes, I think he would win.”
Although Karger came out to his family in 1991, he kept his sexuality a secret publicly until 2006 when he crusaded to save the oldest gay bar in Laguna Beach. Two years later, he started Californians Against Hate in protest of California’s Proposition 8. He was surprised by how warmly he was received by the GOP when he first filed for election, greeted enthusiastically by Co-Chair Sharon Day and Chief of Staff Jeff Letterson at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. “Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus shook my hand. They were all glad to have me on board. I think a lot of it was because I do campaigning at colleges. Sharon Day liked how I was able to bring young people into the party, and generally I have what you could call a progressive social stance. The RNC’s been very generous and welcoming to me. Where I’ve run into trouble, where I’ve met with homophobia has been with the third-party groups that I feel are harming the party and the country: CPAC, Faith & Freedom, and the like. I’ve been excluded from debates. They said it was because I’m for gay marriage, but they’ve had heterosexual candidates debate who support gay marriage. I had to file a discrimination complaint with the Human Rights Office in Washington, D.C. back in June.”
Although he is said to have described himself as the Anti-Romney, he never used the words, although he is critical of the LDS Church and Romney’s obligation to follow its word over the bounds of family and country. Although he believes Obama’s record on LGBT rights has improved, he feels the president has not done enough. “We need to find younger people, build a stronger moderate base and keep the Republican party from just turning into a party of rich old white men – that won’t bode well. The two parties need each other in order to function. Such a big part of politics is about making compromises, and I believe it is possible to bring change from within the system. In California, the party’s showing is already down five percentage points which has never happened. That suggests people aren’t joining. If we start moving too far to the right, holding a purist attitude, doing the bidding of Atwater, the party’s going to be losing a generation.”