At times, Fred Karger wishes he had a counseling degree.
As the first openly gay major party presidential candidate, Karger’s been pulled aside more times than he can count to hear the personal stories.
There’s a friend or a family member who just came out as gay or lesbian. They are gay themselves. For some reason they feel comfortable talking to the 62-year-old former Ronald Reagan aide, although the experience is all very new to him.
Being openly gay, that is.
A former Republican political consultant, Karger was always a behind-the-scenes guy, cooking up strategies to blow up opponents. His handiwork includes helping Lee Atwater trot around the families of furloughed murderer Willie Horton’s victims, which doomed ‘88 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
Karger lived with a male partner for 10 years, but he hid the news, rushing his partner out and hiding pictures on family visits.
About six years ago, Karger left the Dolphin Group and the world of Republican politics and took on an unlikely cause — an attempt to save a historic gay bar in Orange County, Calif., called the Boom Boom Room.
He put an ad in Variety magazine, asking rumored buyers George Clooney and Brad Pitt to back off. At that point, Karger was out. Now he’s out in a big way.
He’s jumping around the country, talking to anyone who will listen about the “caring” Republican Party he knew in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. He talks about how old southern Democrats like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond drove the GOP into this socially conservative bent, a position Tea Partiers are doing little to correct.
“I know I’m doing the right thing,” Karger said. “For a long time of leading this double life that I lived, I’m hoping I can help others live more fulfilling lives, not wait until they’re 59.”
Karger spent the last several days in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Detroit and Lansing. He’s anxious to visit socially conservative Holland and Charlevoix, where the Illinois native’s family once vacationed, but neither are on his public agenda.
To be clear, Karger won’t win the nomination. He’s only on the ballot in Michigan, Puerto Rico, Maryland and North Carolina for now. He’ll discover his fate in California next week. About six other states are possibilities, too.
However, he did finish only five votes behind Michele Bachmann and 184 votes ahead of Herman Cain in New Hampshire (good for ninth place).
“I’d like to say that I’m not delusional,” he told me. “I know it’s a long shot, but if I get in one debate ... . There’s a desperation for a new face and I am that outsider, kind of like Herman Cain.”
Yet on social issues, Karger is nothing like Cain or any other presidential contender, past or present. Despite being a small-government, low-taxes, strong-national defense Republican, he’s also pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.
Interestingly, it’s not the national, state or local Republican Party establishment slamming the doors. It’s organizations like the American Conservative Union, leaders of the popular CPAC conference.
Karger wanted an opportunity to address the Washington, D.C.-based conference last year and this year. Each time excuses were made. Appeals were ignored. Since the nation’s capitol has an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, Karger is preparing a legal complaint against the “homophobic group.”
“If I have to force them to move their annual conference from Washington to Virginia or some state that doesn’t have anti-discrimination laws against LGBT individuals, than so be it,” Karger said. “That’s one of my purposes for running. It’s to stop this discrimination.
The way he sees it, the Republican Party is chasing away “Bill Milliken” moderates and the polling backs that statement up. The GOP needs to be a big tent for its own survival and right now he sees it as a “minority party on the decline.”
The Tea Party is only making things worse because they’re not bringing new activists into the fold.
“It’s just a rebranding of the conservative, far-right Republicans,” he said. “It’s not a party. It’s a new name for some very, very conservative people. … I try to talk to as many Tea Partiers as I can so I can get to their values.
“They tell me, ‘We just care about taxes,’ but then some of them are very active on social issues. They just use the tax thing as a convenient cover,” he said.
They do have a place in the Republican Party, though, he said. So do libertarians. So do moderates. So do a growing number of young fiscal conservatives who aren’t onboard with the harsh social conservative views of their elders.
Karger said he’s reaching out to that younger segment of conservatives and that’s why he feels the Republican Party has been so encouraging of his efforts.
“It’s because, right now, I’m the only candidate doing that.”
(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He can be reached at email@example.com.)