The Jerusalem Post: May 18, 2011

May 17, 2011

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First gay Jewish Republican presidential candidate visits

By MELANIE LIDMAN

05/18/2011 00:57

Fred who? Karger, in Israel, talks to ‘Jerusalem Post’; calls candidacy “platform” for advocating gay rights.

fred pic

Over the past few months, major Republican presidential candidates have strode the halls of the Knesset in hopes of boosting their foreign-relations credibility.

Jerusalem has hosted Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee (no longer running), Mitt Romney and Fred Karger. Fred who? That’s actually Karger’s campaign slogan.

Karger, a 30-year veteran of political campaigns who has never run for office before, wants to be the first openly gay candidate for president for a major party in the US.

He also happens to be the first Jewish presidential candidate for the Republican party.

Karger, 61-year-old Californian, spent 27 years working for the Republican Party, and 58 years hiding his sexual identity.

Three years ago, when he “came bursting out of the closet,” as he put it, he wanted to make sure the lesbian, gay and transgender youth of today would not face the same difficulties he did.

“I want to send a message to the LGBT youth that there are no restrictions like I thought I had for so many years that made my life difficult,” Karger said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday near the end of his five-day trip to Israel.

While he would love to win the presidency (“I’d swear-in on a Torah, or at least an Old Testament”), Karger said he has his sights set on a more realistic goal: participating in one of the 15 or so televised presidential candidate debates before the primary.

He said the exposure from one of the debates, which are broadcast nationally, would be the tipping point to have fewer people asking “Fred Who?” and more people asking “Why not?” In addition to advocating for gay rights, part of Karger’s mission is to save the Republican Party.

“I’m concerned about the Republican Party, concerned it has moved too far to the right,” he said.

Though Karger identifies himself as centrist, and has supported Democratic candidates, such as Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and the democratic governor of New Hampshire, he never considered joining the Democratic party.

“It would have been very easy for me to switch, but I’m a stubborn guy, and very aggressive,” he said. “I want to have this effect… Clark Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans [a group that supports gay rights] once said, ‘When someone’s in the room, it’s harder to attack them,’” Karger said.

“That’s why I want to be in the debates… I want to remove [anti-gay rhetoric] as a discussion point. There is no room in the Republican party for gaybashing.”

Karger does not shy away from the “gay republican” label, but he does not love it, either.

“I knew that’s what makes me viable because it makes me historic,” he said.

His flagship issues are also education reform, Medicare reform and pulling soldiers out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Over his years in politics, Karger worked on nine presidential campaigns, and was a senior consultant on the campaigns of George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

After coming out of the closet, Karger led the charge against supporters of Proposition 8, which aimed to make same-sex marriage illegal in California.

He accused the Mormon Church of financing 75 percent of the pro-Proposition 8 campaign, and he organized successful boycotts against companies that made significant donations.

It was during the campaign against Proposition 8 that Karger hatched a new idea: run for president.

He announced his intention to run in April 2010. Since then, he has visited New Hampshire 14 times in the past year, more than any other presidential candidate. His strategy for New Hampshire: give every voter a “Fred Who?” Frisbee.

On Monday, he also handed out these Frisbees to security guards at the Knesset.

This is Karger’s fourth visit to Israel, though his first as a presidential candidate. In the past week, he met with MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), the Knesset’s second-ever openly gay member, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Israel Beiteinu), and had dinner with openly gay Israeli singer Ivri Lider, in addition to meeting with leaders of Tel Aviv’s gay-rights organizations.

Karger, who has been on the campaign trail for over a year, has financed the campaign with $350,000 of his own money, and $30,000 in donations.

An admitted “terrible fundraiser,” Karger hopes an appearance on a national debate will shift this trend.

“This is not easy – I knew that even going in – but my whole life I haven’t worn this,” said Karger, as he touched his lapel adorned with a pin with an American flag and a rainbow gay-rights flag.

“I can tell people are uncomfortable, but I know I’m doing the right thing because I’ll make it easier on others, and reflect some of the hate.”