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Published April 27, 2011
Gay, Republican and running for president
By Claudia Koerner
When Laguna Beach resident Fred Karger began sharing his vision for a more moderate Republican party last year, the 61-year-old presidential hopeful didn’t get a warm reception from players on either side of the spectrum.
“It’s either the gay thing or the Republican thing,” said Karger, who tested the waters in Iowa and New Hampshire for about a year before filing with the Federal Election Commission last month.
Now, more people are paying attention, though Karger admits his campaign is a long shot. His goal is to be a leader in the style of Ronald Reagan, whose campaigns Karger worked on in his political consultant days.
“That kind of spirit, that ability to get along with people and that optimism I think are essential right now, and I think the public is craving that,” Karger said. “We certainly don’t have that in President Obama.”
POLITICS OF BEING GAY
A lifelong political junkie, Karger insists he was born a Republican. He grew up outside of Chicago and got his start in 1964 volunteering on phone banks for Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential bid. He continued working on campaigns after he graduated from college and moved to California to pursue acting.
“It was a very different Republican party growing up in the ’50s and ’60s,” Karger said. “It’s moved so far to the right that I’m concerned.”
Part of the West Coast’s appeal was that it would put some distance between his two lives. Growing up gay hadn’t been easy, and Karger stayed in the closet until he was 41.
“There were no role models or anything,” he said. “It’s better now, but we have so far to go. I want to be able to reach out to these kids, let them know it’s OK. You can do anything you want to do with your life, even run for president.”
In his younger years, Karger was frustrated because he couldn’t be a political candidate, fearing discrimination, though he served as executive vice president and chief financial officer of political consulting firm the Dolphin Group from 1977 to 2004.
Simply supporting gay rights proved to haunt him. While working with Los Angeles County Young Republicans against the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which would have banned gay teachers from public schools, Karger made a $100 donation to the cause. Two years later, while he was working on a U.S. Senate campaign, an opponent found a record of the donation and wrote a letter to Karger’s candidate, accusing him of employing someone with a homosexual agenda.
“I still have that letter,” Karger said. “I guess it just scared me back into the closet.”
In 1980, he worked on advertising for Reagan’s presidential campaign. In 1984, he became more active, including work on the Reagan-Bush opposition campaign. Karger led another notable opposition campaign during George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, which panned Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis for furloughing criminals like Willie Horton.
Karger said he avoids personal attacks, but the records of 2012 presidential hopefuls are fair game – especially when it comes to what Karger calls gay bashing.
“I hope to keep those kinds of comments in check, and I will fight fire with fire,” he said. “That’s my background. I know how to do it.”
Though he admired Laguna Beach’s Bob Gentry, the first openly gay major in the U.S., Karger didn’t get involved in gay activism until after his retirement. A campaign to save a historic gay bar grew into a tussle with the National Organization of Marriage in California and Maine.
“It was all pent up in me for so many years,” Karger said.
Karger said his background adds up to a progressive Republican, something once not unheard of. To him, it means caring for the needy in society while shrinking government, supporting gay civil rights and balancing the budget. To Karger, that means doing the right thing instead of worrying about reelection.
“We cannot continue this cowardly government. These politicians and the Republicans, I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I’m very worried that even the Republicans are caving. They need to take the lead, particularly on the budget.”
As Karger continues to work for national recognition, many Orange County Republicans still haven’t heard of him.
Allan Bartlett, a member of the Republican Central Committee who identifies himself with Tea Party and libertarian values, said he’s simply looking for any candidate who will tell the truth.
Fred Karger, 61, poses for a photo at Laguna Beach City Hall. Karger made his name in Laguna Beach as a Laguna Beach gay rights activist in his effort to save the landmark Boom Boom Room and Laguna Beach’s gay heritage. Karger has filed paperwork to run for president.
KEN STEINHARDT, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
“I don’t think we get the truth from most of the candidates,” he said. “They’re too handled. They’re too timid to talk about the things that really need to be addressed.”
Any candidate who runs should focus on the economy, he added.
“The candidate really needs to stay on message about how they’re going to create jobs,” Bartlett said.
Frank Ricchiazzi, a Laguna Beach resident and founding member of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian Republican grassroots organization, said he’s most interested in Karger’s stance on the issues.
“I would be looking for someone who is going to be strong on fiscal, strong with the military and strong with cutting the government,” he said. “I don’t think either of these three issues have to do with someone being gay.”
The fight for gay equality has come a long way, he added, and he prefers not to focus on labels.
“We’re Americans first, just trying to do the right thing,” Ricchiazzi said.
To Jared Cox, a member of Orange County Log Cabin Republicans, gay equality should have a place in both parties’ discussions, along with fiscal responsibility.
“We’ve seen Obama say one thing and do another as far as the gay community is concerned. We saw gay rights advocates falsely represent Obama campaign material. … The success of a candidate really depends on the emotional appeal to the votership as a whole,” he said.
Scott Voigts, a Lake Forest city councilman and member of the conservative California Republican Assembly, said one issue stands out to him.
“Right now, we need to look at fiscal restraint,” he said.
WHAT ARE HIS ODDS?
To become president, a person needs a combination of money, position and name recognition, said Fred Smoller, association professor of political science and director of public administration at Brandman University. Without those prerequisites, Karger’s chances are slim.
“I don’t think being gay will help or hurt him,” Smoller said.
Orange County also presents somewhat of a problem for would-be national politicians, he added.
“Because Orange County has no mayor, despite the number of people who live here … and the amount of wealth we have, we’re unable to propel people to statewide office,” he said.
To make a difference as an unknown, Karger said it’s imperative for him to get into debates against other candidates. Requirements in the 18 debates he’s researched can include $25,000 fees to local Republican parties or winning 1 percent support in a national poll.
“I have not been included in any polls yet,” Karger admits.
His first target is a May 5 debate in South Carolina, and if he can’t make entry there, he’ll start looking to get in the next one.
“I promise you I will. I’ve been saying this for a year,” Karger said. “Now I’m actually very convinced.”
Because of a reporting error, Fred Smoller’s title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story that appeared on ocregister.com.
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