By Cindy Frazier
Sit down, Sarah Palin. Move over, Mitt Romney. Fred Karger would like the floor — the floor at the Republican National Convention, that is.
Karger, the Laguna Beach gay activist who has taken a multimillionaire to task for closing the Boom Boom Room and launched a nationwide effort to defend same-sex marriage against the National Organization for Marriage, is now looking at running for president in 2012.
Yes, president. As in “The President.” As a Republican — the first openly gay man of a major party (sic).
Karger announced his exploratory campaign a few weeks ago at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans — the same confab where Sarah Palin drew huge crowds as she both lambasted and cajoled members of the party she would like to (again) represent.
Despite Palin’s credibility with the “Tea Party” crowd, Karger sees himself as the only real independent in the running.
Here’s his opening salvo, which sounds very presidential: “Our nation is facing tremendous challenges right now. I pledge to put new effective leadership in place to end our nation’s economic crisis. I will work tirelessly to bring back the spirit in every man, woman and child to help remake America the land of opportunity and equality for all.”
Issues of specific interest to the gay community are central to his theme: ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; passing the federal Employment Anti-Discrimination law; eliminating the federal Defense of Marriage Act; making same-sex marriage legal across the country; and making a top priority finding a cure for HIV/AIDS and a vaccine to prevent HIV.
If this all sounds very serious and well thought-out, it is. That’s because Karger has a 35-year background in politics that many politicians would pay a lot for — and did, when he was in the political consulting business.
Karger points out that this wouldn’t be his first foray into presidential politics — far from it. As a paid political consultant, Karger has worked on numerous presidential campaigns, including that of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan-George Bush, Paul Laxalt, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush, among others. His own campaign would be his 10th.
He cut his teeth on presidential politics when Richard Nixon ran for reelection in 1972 and started out as a headquarters volunteer for Charles Percy’s U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois in 1966. He’s also worked on congressional and legislative campaigns for the likes of Maureen Reagan, Mike Curb, George Deukmejian and other prominent Republicans.
He was considered a “dark arts” political operative, managing hard-charging opposition campaigns such as the “Willie Horton” incident — the case of a parolee, released by the candidate, who went on to commit heinous crimes — that scuttled the presidential ambitions of Mike Dukakis. (He’s now using a similar incident to attack anti-gay conservative Republican Mike Huckabee.)
But for most of those years, Karger was hiding a secret that could have ended his high-flying career, and, he feared, alienated his conservative family. As a gay man, he would tremble if he found himself at a local restaurant with family or colleagues where he might meet a friend from his secret life.
Like many successful gays and lesbians, Karger kept up a charade, enlisting a lesbian friend as a “skirt” to accompany him to social events so he could pass as straight. It worked, but it took a toll.
It was only after he retired, a few years ago, that he “came out” — and came out swinging at the forces of anti-gay bigotry that led him to lead a difficult double life and that continue to this day.
This opened up a new world for Karger, who can now use his political savvy for causes he truly believes in. And as if to reward himself for taking the high road, he is finding out that his Californians Against Hate campaign is paying huge dividends.
It was, in fact, the overwhelming response to his “Five for Fred” fundraising campaign — to raise money for legal bills after the National Organization for Marriage subpoenaed all communications from the Hate campaign — that convinced him a presidential bid was the next step. He raised $25,000 in a few weeks, mostly in small donations from around the country.
“I’ve given it a huge amount of thought,” he said. “I went to New Hampshire and met with gay groups and moderate Republicans, and met with a representative of the Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C.” When he visited the gay-straight alliance at Dartmouth, he said, “I met with 40 kids, and they were enthralled. I want to make it easier for kids."
In New Orleans, he was gratified by the attention he got from the media, but it was not without a struggle.
He had to fight to get a spot at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, after he was denied a place alongside the front-runners such as Palin. Instead, he went through the back door, rented a room in the conference hotel, and invited the media to his own news conference. Many showed up.
On Monday, he headed back to New Hampshire, where he says he plans to rent a house and begin the hand-to-hand combat of winning voters in that early-primary state.
Realistically, he says he’s not expecting to win the Republican nomination, but he does hope to win hearts and minds and move a gay rights agenda into the national spotlight.