Andrew Belonsky

Fred Karger: Quixotic Hero, Game Changer or Both?

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | July 06, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Fred Karger, gay rights, Mike Huckabee, News, politics, Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin

It would be an understatement to say that the Republican Party has found itself at a crossroads. The traditionally established bases like Evangelicals and social conservatives are being uprooted by the more fiscally-minded Tea Party, leaving the GOP struggling to find firm footing heading into 2012.

FredKarger1.jpgBut of course there are more than two kinds of Republicans, just as there are more than two kinds of gays. Fred Karger represents different breeds, and conundrums, for both. The 60-year old spent 35-years of his life helping iconic leaders like Ronald Reagan achieve electoral success, only to spend the next four fighting for same-sex causes, like countering the Mormon Church's anti-gay marriage campaign in California. Now he's "strongly considering" a run for the White House, and he intends on shaking things up.

"I call myself an 'Independent Republican' because I'm trying to change the party," Karger told me during a recent interview in Manhattan. "I want to keep these Republicans in check. If I can accomplish nothing else than turning down the anti-gay rhetoric in Republican primaries and caucuses, I'll be very pleased." The openly gay former GOP consultant's announcement elicited a mixed reaction from the Republican Party. While some officials, like besieged RNC Chairman Michael Steele, welcomed Karger, others, such as Iowa Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler, were not so kind. He wrote Karger an email vowing, "I will work overtime to help ensure that your political aspirations are aborted right here in Iowa."

Scheffler, who's also head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, was later rebuked by none other than former Sen. Rick Santorum at a Iowa Republican Convention. "If you're a conservative and you're not happy with the [moderate] Republican you have, run against them or find someone else to run against them.  But no matter what happens, you've got to bury the hatchet and focus your arrows on the other side, not each other," said Santorum. The right wing leader's shift, however subtle, suggests that Karger has already made an impact, and is well on his way to achieving his ultimate goal: reshaping the political landscape he helped create.

Finding A Political Foothold

Born and bred in a Chicago suburb, Karger first electoral endeavor came in 1964, when he volunteered for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's failed Presidential campaign. Though the excitement of civic involvement and electoral tactics intrigued Karger, the political realm also provided the closeted teen with a positive outlet.

"Politics welcomed me at 14 years old. I guess like a lot of gay kids I didn't fit in," Karger admitted. "The Rockefeller for president campaign and two years later the Chuck Percy for IL governor campaign welcomed me with open arms. I felt like I belonged and my skills were appreciated. It was a great escape from the constant fear that I lived with hiding being gay."

Karger continued his political work through high school and college, after which he took a break to try his hand at another American tradition, Hollywood.

Karger's acting career went moderately well in the first few years - he snagged a John Hughes-directed shaving cream commercial, and could have hit it big with a spin-off of Welcome Back, Kotter. That project never made it off the ground. As the jobs dried up, Karger decided to return to his first love, the political theater, and in 1977 joined Republican consulting firm, the Dolphin Group, with which he worked on Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole campaigns, before retiring in 2004. The simple life, however, didn't suit Karger, so he decided it was high time he get back into the game. But rather than attending to traditional Republican matters, Karger had something more lavender in mind.

From the Boom Boom Room to Mormons

In 2005, famed Laguna Beach gay bar The Boom Boom Room came under the real estate development gun. Fans would have to either raise the capital to save it from destruction, or say goodbye to a beloved landmark. Karger knew he had to get involved.

"I live in Laguna Beach. The Boom was part of my neighborhood. It needed to be done," Karger told me. "And it was my public coming out."

Karger hadn't necessarily been closeted throughout his career -- in fact, he was co-director of George W. Bush's gay-straight alliance, whatever that means -- but his homosexuality did prove to be a touchy subject with his family, and Karger hadn't always been eager to let the rainbow flag fly. But his life had changed, and he was ready to get deep into gay activism.

A bit unsure how to proceed, Karger turned to his friend, Bob Gentry, the gay former Laguna Beach mayor who broke ground in 1989 by coming out about his lovers' AIDS-related death.

"He gave me the pep talk I needed and it was a huge personal breakthrough for me," recalls Karger. The campaign has yet to be successful, but Karger became instantly enamored with the gay action.

He kept it up by taking on the Mormon Church's involvement in California's gay marriage debate, and exposed how they funneled about $30,000 in the state under the FEC's radar. The Church ended up being fined a minor $5,538. With those battles under his belt, Karger's now turning his eye to Pennsylvania Avenue, where he wants to spread the "Transpartisan" love.

A Transpartisan Campaign

FredKargerBush.jpg"Transpartisan is like the transcontinental highway. It bridges divides," explains Karger of his political catchphrase. "The congeniality of politics has gone missing. I can bring civility. The public is craving bipartisanship."

To that end, Karger looks toward Reagan for inspiration, telling me he wants to emulate the Gipper's unique blend of tough love. "Ronald Reagan made people feel good and lifted their spirits. He gave everyone hope. In addition to the policies his administration implemented, he helped talk us out of the severe recession of the early 80's," he said.

I pointed out that many gays hold Reagan responsible for letting AIDS run amok, and Karger conceded "I can't defend Reagan on AIDS," although does point out that the late President had a staff full of gays and that he used his power as California's governor to block the Briggs Amendment, which would have banned gay people from becoming school teachers.

If there's one thing Karger knows, it's how to defuse a political argument. That doesn't mean, however, that he's a viable candidate.

Publicity Stunt or Trailblazer?

Some suggest Karger's "presidential run" amounts to nothing more than a publicity stunt. That's a fair assessment. Karger does have a reputation for outlandish antics: he got his acting start by crashing the 1972 Oscars, and was one of the people responsible for using murderer Willie Horton's victims as part of George H.W. Bush's campaign against Mike Dukakis in 1988.

Even if Karger is completely serious about the White House -- and he seems to be -- Karger's still an openly gay man. Even though 50% of Americans claim they would vote for a gay candidate, he doesn't stand much of a chance when pitted against heavy weights like Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. And Karger knows it will be a rough road.

"When I started, I gave myself a 25% chance," he admitted. "I want to be top 8; that my battle right now. I'm a realist, but I want to be in the debates, and I will be. I promise you, I will be in some of the debates."

Karger hasn't yet announced a campaign, no, but he's certainly talking like a candidate. And acting like one, too.

Testing the ground and laying the pipe for a possible campaign, Karger has already held town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire, homes of the first presidential caucus and primary, respectively. The crowd has been decidedly mixed: gay, straight, Republican and Democrat have been mingling freely. And Karger's travels are more than just meet and greets: the potential candidate has spoken to leaders from across the political spectrum. Democrats and Independents have been the most warm, Karger confesses. His Republican peers, meanwhile, have been a little more reticent.

"The State Republican Party leadership in most states are controlled by social conservatives and the religious right," explained Karger.

And you can be sure that they're well set in key states, like New Hampshire. The state party's chairman, former Gov. John H. Sununu, referred to gay marriage legislation as "garbage." But that doesn't mean the entire party's unreasonable: Director of Operations Andy Leach, though withdrawn at first, has become quite congenial, and welcomes Karger to Republican events with open arms. Little by little, Karger's making headway into the various ideological camps, creating his highway of political love.

Shaking Up the Establishment

During his April presidential announcement in New Orleans, Karger compared himself to the late Shirley Chisholm, a black Congresswoman who in 1972 was the first black person to run for President. She didn't get the Democratic nomination - that ill-fated honor went to George McGovern - but Chisholm's gumption did help crack the glass ceiling.

"Her campaign paved the way for Jesse Jackson's Presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, and the election of Barack Obama as our 44th President in 2008," declared Karger. "A new chapter in American history begins in New Orleans today."

Every White House election has characters who shakes up the establishment. Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich filled that role in 2008. Ross Perot had more success, of sorts, in the 90s. And what would an election be without Ralph Nader, a man who happens to be one of Karger's heroes?

The men and women who make an earnest, and perhaps quixotic, White House bid aren't always also-rans. They're citizens who are following the American edict and engaging the democratic system in the most dramatic way possible. And Fred Karger's impact will definitely be dramatic. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll see an openly gay president. And that man, or more likely woman, will have Karger to thank.

In the meantime, he's putting Republicans to the test: accept a gay man with different policy preferences, or look like close-minded dinosaurs who ignore the ever-growing LGBT population. Even if he doesn't win in 2012, Karger has other political plots cooking, like the forthcoming gay-centric voter registration drive, Milk the Vote, itself a nod to another gay pioneer, Harvey Milk.

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Reagan let AIDS run amok because he believed gay people deserved to die. It wasn't like a policy was deliberate. He purposefully let an epidemic spread so that it would kill off the immoral people. He point blank said prevention was better than a cure. (Prevention being don't be immoral while simultaneously denying funding to teach safe-sex.)

I can forgive the ignorant, but not the insiders.

Like Senator Byrd who died last week, everyone is entitled to learn from their mistakes and change and I think Fred Karger has done that. I hope he does get in because it will be historic for an openly gay person to run for president. And that he is running as a Republican, which he is, is even sweeter to me!

I was was on Karger's side on the investigation of NOM, etc. But when he sent me an email asking for money to run as a Republican, I drew the line. I don't give money to people who work for the enemy (just look at the Republican's platform for more information).

If someone continues to look toward someone who let thousands of people die just to weaken the political power of the gay rights movement, I don't believe they've learned from their mistakes.

Yes, Reagan was very charismatic... just like other leaders that killed thousands of people. Senator Byrd distanced himself from members of the KKK...he didn't keep going on about how they were great accept for that racism thing.

And giving Reagan credit for blocking the Briggs Initiative? That's just gross. The Briggs initiative was a ballot initiative. It was largely the work of Harvey Milk and other gay rights activists that defeated Prop 6. Reagan wrote a letter opposing it...he didn't "block" it.

I know Fred and like him. I'm not a Republican so my choice on his candidacy isn't really worth the digital ink this comment will be written on.

But I have to say, the Willie Horton ad alone would cause me to never vote for him. That ad was racist and I don't support racism.

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | July 8, 2010 1:49 PM

I asked Karger about the Horton incident, actually, and how an opponent -- but not Mike Huckabee -- could use the furloughed murderer against him. According to Karger's view, though, he and his peers were speaking out for Horton's victims, not playing dirty politics. I can see his point, although do think it was a pretty irresponsible and disrespectful tactic.

Whether it's unforgivable, however, is another question: as Greg said in his comment, "it comes down to belief in the ability of people to change. If we don't believe they can, then we might as well forget all this movement stuff and just go have a drink at the bar."


About the above posts, I'm no Reagan fan, for many reasons. But any of us over age 35 know that he's not responsible for AIDS in the 80s.

How long did gay liberation activists delay preventative measures when they vilified public health and safety officials who were pointing to strong evidence that the mysterious disease was being spread by random unprotected anal sex, especially in the gay bathhouses?

That I remember very well - they were screamed at as anti-LGBT haters looking for any excuse to oppress the [male] gays by closing their meeting places, when they were trying to save them from destruction in circumstances where they were doing their best with incomplete information.

And I'm from California - Reagan's stance against the Briggs Initiative was a very big deal at the time, and that is still one of our very few wins at the ballot box.

It's also a testament that we can't write off anybody just because of their political or religious categorization. Look at Hawaii - Mormon mom Debi Hartmann led the anti-gay side in the 1998 initiative, and she learned that she was wrong and was hurting people. Now she's worked tirelessly to pass the civil union bill for the past couple of years. And Catholic gov. David Baldacci of Maine was against gay marriage, but LGBT people didn't give up on him, they introduced themselves and educated him, and he signed the marriage equality bill and has really gone all out for us ever since.

Reagan did few things I support, but the Briggs situation was one of them, and it mattered. Karger's correct about that.

I think it comes down to belief in the ability of people to change. If we don't believe they can, then we might as well forget all this movement stuff and just go have a drink at the bar.

If Karger can actually make it to the primaries, I'd switch my registration to GOP so I could vote for him.

Reagan talked America out of a recession? I didn't know sweet talk could actually create capital, aggregate demand, or put people to work! Karger seems to have an understanding of economics equivalent of an ideological Republican.

All kidding aside, I do love me some Fred Karger. I hope he shakes some people up.