Karger runs as first openly gay presidential candidate
By JAKE BERRY
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MANCHESTER – On the campaign trail, Fred Karger never forgets his American flag pin, considered standard attire for a presidential hopeful.
But his pin, pressed neatly to his suit jacket, is different than most. Specially made from gold-lacquered metal, it binds the stars and stripes with another flag crossed with rainbow colors.
Six months into the campaign season, Karger is making history as the first openly gay candidate to campaign for the Oval Office. But, as a moderate in a conservative Republican field, he’s having trouble finding his audience.
Despite 17 trips to New Hampshire, Karger, 61, hardly registers on state or national polls. He wasn’t invited to this week’s Presidential debate in Iowa, and he wasn’t asked to take part in the debate held in Manchester earlier this summer.
“It’s funny. Republicans don’t like me because I’m gay, and the gay population doesn’t like me because I’m Republican,” he said, seated comfortably in the living room of his rental home in Manchester, which doubles as a campaign headquarters. “It’s an interesting place to be.”
Rather than following the prescribed route of debates and television ads, Karger, a veteran campaign consultant from California, is paving his own trail. He has rented the Manchester house, which comes with a pool and seven bedrooms for campaign staff. He bought a bike to travel around the city, and he is greeting voters, one at a time, handing out frisbees on neighborhood walks and carrying a bagpipe player in tow.
“You walk down the street with a bagpipe and everybody comes to their door,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think any (candidate) has ever done that before.”
As the country’s first openly gay candidate, Karger, who grew up in Illinois before moving west, is used to breaking ground. But he’s hoping it’s his politics, not his sexual orientation, that distances him from the field of candidates.
“You see the candidates debate. They wouldn’t disagree on anything,” he said. “That’s not a debate. That’s a chorus or something. So, yeah, I come at it from a very different point of view. … I want to be that Republican that turns back to the way the party used to be, which was a caring party.”
A self-anointed independent Republican, Karger served as a campaign adviser to three presidents. He quotes Richard Nixon, and he counts Ronald Reagan among his heroes. “Reagan’s spirit and optimism is just nonexistent in the current administration,” he said last week.
But, if he doesn’t get to be the next Reagan, Karger wants, at least, to become the next Shirley Chisholm.
In 1972, Chisholm, a Congresswoman from New York, became the first African American candidate from a major party to run for president.
And, years from now, whenever U.S. voters elect the country’s first openly gay Commander-in-Chief, Karger hopes he’ll be a similar footnote to history.
“Fred is historic. … No one has ever done what he’s doing before,” said Susan MacNeil, executive director of AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region, a social service agency in Keene.
As a nonprofit organization, AIDS Services officials do not endorse candidates, but MacNeil has met Karger several times, hosting him at agency events.
“Much like Barack Obama is the first Black president, Fred is making a very courageous attempt to open that door (for the gay community),” she said Friday. “I have great admiration for anybody who chooses the difficult path, and Fred is certainly choosing that difficult path. … Somebody’s got to start this conversation.”
Having advised candidates for years behind the scenes, Karger entered the public eye about four years ago. After decades of remaining closeted, he came out publicly in 2006, starting a campaign to save a celebrated California gay bar. It wasn’t until 2008, as the debate raged over California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 legislation, that he first considered running for office.
“I never ever thought I would run because I was gay,” he said. “I knew that wouldn’t be a particular help within the Republican party, and I just got used to it. … But when I became active in the Proposition 8 gay marriage campaign, then everything was out.”
Karger briefly considered running for local or state office. But California’s Democratic majority left him with little chance of winning a local race.
“As a Republican, I would have a better chance of getting elected President (than winning) my Congressional district, which is an absolute lopsided district,” he said.
So, instead, Karger turned his sights to the Oval Office, meeting with political leaders and strategists from California to Washington, D.C. But, it wasn’t until a trip to New Hampshire that he finally decided to run.
Coming to NH
On a cold winter night in March 2010, Karger found himself in Durham, speaking to members of the University of New Hampshire’s Gay Straight Alliance.
In an hour-long discussion, he shared his personal story and spoke about his prospective candidacy, and by the time he left the room, he was in the race.
“We had just elected Obama, and I remember seeing young African Americans … kind of just looking up in absolute awe that somebody who’s black like them could run for president, let alone win,” Karger said, reflecting on the meeting.
“I don’t mean to put myself in that arena, but it was a similar kind of feeling with these young people,” he said. “They were absolutely in awe and amazed that a gay man could consider running for president. … That was when I knew I was going in the right direction.”
From that point, Karger has made New Hampshire his second home, crossing the state for neighborhood walks, house parties and beach clean-ups, among other events.
He has shaken hands with voters across the state, highlighting the differences between himself and the other, more well-known candidates. “When they hear ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist’ or ‘independent,’ these people just light up,” he said.
Karger is even reaching the point with many voters where they stop asking him about his sexual orientation, instead focusing more on his political stances, which include emphasis on smaller government, education reform and strong national defense.
“I believe in keeping government out of our lives, which a lot of my fellow Republicans agree with except (for social issues like gay marriage). I am more of a purist in that regard,” he said.
“Fred being openly gay is part of the reason why I support him, but not the main reason I support him,” added Bob Thompson, a former state Representative from Manchester who was the first state lawmaker to be married under the state’s same-sex marriage law. “I like his stand on education. … As he and I both know, we fix the national debt. … We may not agree on everything, but Fred will listen to all options.”
As the campaign moves forward, Karger is hoping to have the opportunity to express himself before television audiences. His poll numbers are climbing, reaching 1 percent and catching some candidates like Newt Gingrich in some counts, and he’s hoping soon to qualify for upcoming debates.
Debates appearances could help boost his name recognition and help lift him to a strong showing in the February primary and beyond.
“I don’t know if I’ll win the primary, but first, second or third would be huge news,” he said. “It could catapult me into other primaries.”
But even if his campaign falls short, Karger will forever be a part of history, said MacNeil, director of the AIDS Services group in Keene.
“When you look at the anti-gay atmosphere out there, you look at all those teenagers who are desperate to have a (gay) role model,” she said. “Now, at the highest political tier, they can look at Fred and see he’s gay and he’s in front of the world running to be President of the United States. … You can’t imagine the message that can send.”
Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.