Primary profile: Fred Karger

Fred Karger grew up near Chicago and spent his college years in Colorado before settling in California for most of his adult life.

Michael Moore / Keene Sentinel

But it could be said that the roots of his campaign for the top seat in the White House are right here in New Hampshire.

He told his family during a gathering in 2009 in Hawaii that he was considering throwing his hat in the ring and a couple months later, during a February 2010 visit to see his aunt in Peterborough, started talking to people about running.

“That was trip one (to New Hampshire),” he said. “A lot of it, initially, was just going around, meeting people.
“I had my first town meeting in May of last year in Keene.”

A few months later, in April 2010 at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, he officially announced he was considering waging a campaign.

He’s rented a house in Manchester that doubles as his campaign office and has made more than two dozen visits to the state.

His reasons for running are many: He wants to bring the topic of marriage equality to the national stage and push for fiscal conservatism in the federal government. He’s also called himself a “protest vote” for Republicans and undeclared voters who want to support a moderate Republican for president.

But one of the driving forces behind his run, in which he is billing himself as the first openly gay candidate for president, is far more simple: because he can.

“One of the reasons I could never run for office was because I had this secret,” he said. “Having worked in dozens and dozens of campaigns, I would just sit there, always wanting to be a candidate.

“I’ve got great love of country, I think I’m a great leader and motivator, and I was always a frustrated candidate.”

For his three-decade career as a political strategist for the Republican Party, Karger had kept his sexuality secret from everyone except his family.

He was 56 years old and recently retired when he said publicly that he is gay.

Since then, he’s become a well-known activist for gay rights and marriage equality.

In 2006, he lobbied against the closure of a California gay club. Two years later, he spearheaded an organization called Californians Against Hate that tracked funding behind the California measure known as Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that has since made gay marriage in the state illegal.

“That summer I thought, ‘My one big secret is out, there’s nothing holding me back from running for political office now,’ ” he said.

Karger hoped by entering the presidential race early, he could get his name out and poll numbers high enough to qualify for national debates. But so far, he’s been blocked from them by organizers.

This fall he filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission against Fox News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch, claiming organizers changed the rules of eligibility to keep him out.

In the meantime, Karger, 61, released an autobiography last month and bought commercial time during several debates.

He’s kept his campaign lighthearted by handing out Frisbees emblazoned with his slogan, “Fred Who?,” and door-knocking in neighborhoods with a bagpipe player in tow, but Karger said he wants to prove to people that he’s running as a serious candidate — not a stunt.

Finding some common ground

Growing up the youngest of two sons of a stockbroker in Glencoe, Ill., Karger first became involved in politics at age 14. He’d take the train to Chicago and work on phone banks for Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign and ride his bike to the gubernatorial campaign headquarters of Charles Percy.

He’d begun to realize he was gay in high school, but hid his feelings from his family, he wrote in his autobiography.

During his first visit to a gay bar in Chicago at age 19, he spotted an uncle at the bar. His uncle, Buddy, didn’t see Karger there and killed himself a few years later without ever telling the family he was gay, Karger wrote.

“At the time, I just thought, this is my future,” Karger said of his uncle’s death.

Karger studied speech communication at the University of Denver and chose not to follow in his stockbroker father’s footsteps.

“In my family, and a lot of families in the ’50s, your life was determined,” he said. “It was expected that you got married, you had kids and you went into the family business, and my brother did.

“I knew that I couldn’t and it was crushing.”

Instead, Karger went even further west, moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

He crashed the Academy Awards a week after he got to town — and would twice again — and got a part in the pilot of a television show that never got off the ground.

He made his way back to politics as a consultant on campaigns, including three presidential campaigns, and continued in the field for more than three decades.

He had an 11-year relationship and told his parents that he was gay at age 41, after watching a close friend die of AIDS.

“I’d always say, ‘next summer I’ll tell them,’ ” he said. “After that I made a pact with myself that I’m not going to keep this secret anymore.

“I knew I had to do it and I wanted to be able to say, ‘I’m healthy and I’m gay.’ ”

Now as a candidate, Karger, 61, is quick to point out what differentiates him from the field and the historic nature of his campaign.
Even the American flag lapel pin he wears is a twist on the traditional — next to Old Glory is a rainbow-colored flag, a symbol of gay pride.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization that focuses on gay rights, said Karger’s campaign is part of growing base of gay Republicans running for office.

“I do believe we’ve reached a point in the 21st century that, at least among younger voters, it’s ridiculous for someone who happens to be gay or lesbian to be closeted,” Cooper said. “It does put into question one’s integrity, honesty, how genuine they are as a candidate.”

Cooper, however, said candidates shouldn’t use their sexuality as a gimmick.

“One can find many examples where a candidate, not only in the Republican Party but in the American political structure, was a ‘first,’ ” Cooper said. “But at the end of the day it’s about what they bring to the table, what is their experience, what are their ideas.

“It’s part of who they are, but it should never be a platform for candidacy.”

Susan M. MacNeil, executive director of the Keene-based AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region, called the effect of Karger’s campaign on young gay men and women “inestimable.”

“He’s proven he’s not a vanity candidate,” MacNeil said. “I think at first he was viewed by some people as that, but he’s taking this very seriously.

“The fact that he’s a touchstone for so many people, that’s a huge responsibility and I admire his courage, his perseverance and his willingness to take on this responsibility.”

The nonprofit organization doesn’t endorse candidates for political office, but MacNeil said Karger has attended several of the group’s events and is bringing issues to the forefront of the presidential campaign that people involved with the organization are interested in.
MacNeil, a Democrat, said she also thinks Karger is changing stereotypes about the Republican Party.

“The fact that Fred is a Republican was an education to me,” she said. “I’ve had some interesting conversations with myself and others about those stereotypes and I think he’s helping to redefine the Republican Party.”

Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist in California who is well-known for his work with the late Harvey Milk, got to know Karger through activism work a few years ago, he said in an interview.

He encouraged Karger to run for president, but said he’s been disappointed that Karger hasn’t been able to get into the national debates.

“If a dyed-in-the-wool lefty like myself can find common ground and civil discourse with (Karger and other Republicans involved in gay rights activism), I think that’s good for the country,” he said. “And in the case of LGBT equality, it really demonstrates the inevitability of our victory.”

Karger has said he’s glad his candidacy has encouraged people on both sides of the political aisle to think about issues close to his heart.

“Finding those things that we have in common and figuring out how to work things out, that’s what I’m all about,” Karger said.

And while Karger hopes to make a strong showing in the early states — New Hampshire and Iowa — he is in the race for the long haul, he said.

“My strategy is to wait this out,” he said. “We have a small operation, six staff members and me, and as the field narrows and the $1 million a month campaigns have left, then I’ll have an opportunity there again.”

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