The classic-GOP gay, Jewish candidate forges ahead
Fred Karger knows his chances at the Republican nomination are nil. That doesn't mean he's slowing down his campaign.
In September 2011, during a televised debate in Florida, a soldier serving in Iraq asked the nine candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination if, as president, they would "circumvent progress made by gay and lesbian soldiers in the military."
The audience booed and the conservatives on stage let them howl on.
Then presidential candidate Fred Karger jumped in to answer the soldier's query.
"Excuse me! I won't keep silent," Karger cried. "An American service member was just booed. We should never ever greet a member of the military that way. Especially someone as courageous as Stephen Hill. After 18 years we finally ended government-sanctioned discrimination and repealed 'Don't ask, don't tell.' There is no room in this country for bigotry. As a gay man, those thugs out there hurl their hate at me, and at millions of other Americans. When I am president, I will work to bring this country together." Michele Bachmann, the conservative congresswoman from Minnesota, listened, smiled broadly and clapped her hands.
Actually, that isn't what happened. What did happen was that the gay soldier was booed and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum announced that the military had "absolutely no place" for sexual activity of any type.
Fred Karger, 62, the first gay Jewish Republican presidential nominee, hadn't even been invited to the debate. He wasn't on hand to offer his public rebuke. But he managed to make a splash nonetheless, using a green screen to digitally insert himself into the action and then uploading the video to Internet.
Amazingly, though few Americans have heard of Karger, a former political consultant turned gay-rights activist – he's still in the race.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney effectively clinched the nomination after the Texas primaries, prompting Ron Paul, the last big name standing, to stop holding campaign events. Karger though is still on the road – this week in California.
"My schedule is full," he says. "I'm on the California ballot, and I am also on the Utah ballot three weeks from Tuesday. I was put on that ballot by the Republican state chairman, a very prominent member of the Mormon Church, and it's significant, because I had issues with the Mormon religion," he says.
His place on the Utah ballot, he says, was "a voice of reason in that state" and an alternative to Mitt Romney.
"Another reason for me to campaign there is because Utah has the highest teen suicide rate in the country coming from LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] youth, and it's the result of societal pressures, religious pressures from the church. I will fight bigotry and discrimination to my last breath."
Taking arrows now for sake of the future
Karger admits that the Republican Party is a surprising place to find the first openly gay presidential candidate. He also admits that he doesn't always get a warm welcome. The Conservative Political Action Conference blocked him from renting a booth at their February conference in Washington, D.C. He is filing a discrimination complaint. Also, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference refused to let him pay for a room and hold a press conference at their event in January.
"My great-grandfather and grandfather were pioneers in Jewish community in Chicago, fighting against discrimination," he says. "When I get rejected … it hurts, but I don't mind taking some arrows now so the members of my community won't suffer in the future."
At the rarified upper echelons of Republican leadership, the situation is different, he relates. "I've been very well-received at the very highest levels of the Republican party," he says. "I had a meeting with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, who is very conservative, but who welcomed me into his office in D.C. and extended every courtesy to me." The same held for state Republican Party events, he says.
Reagan, the pro-gay rights activist
When he really wants to surprise conservatives, he invokes President Ronald Reagan's name to support his agenda.
"I was political consultant, and worked for seven years for Ronald Reagan, who was great booster for LGBT rights in the late 70s, when he opposed an anti-gay initiative in California. He wouldn't approve of that type of language and the way Rick Santorum was demeaning LGBT people."
It's rare these days to hear anything positive about President Barack Obama coming from a Republican candidate. But Karger says he was "thrilled" when the president decided to publicly support gay marriage.
"It was a day after North Carolina passed its constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and I never thought he'd do it," Karger says of Obama: he'd thought the president was more risk-averse. "I was wrong. This was wonderful news, it's marvelous. I wondered what it would be like if I was a teenager, a young man, feeling isolated and alone, how great it would make me feel when the president of the United States validates me with a strong statement. It's tremendous what he did."
He feels part of something bigger, Karger says; obstacles abound and progress is too slow for his taste. But he feels that things are getting better.
Meanwhile, third parties have reached out to him in support of his run, but he wants to stay in the Republic party, Karger says. For one thing, he believes in change from within.
"I started my Republican activities with my father when I was about 8 years old," he says. "But it was a very different Republican Party - it was very moderate, there were civil rights leaders, there were people like Mitt Romney's father who disagreed with some of Barry Goldwater's positions on civil rights. It would be very easy for me to leave, but I think the Republican Party should reflect a broad base of people like myself and others. We are losing an entire generation because of the takeover of the Republican Party by the far-right movement. And it's very short-sighted – it might help Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, but it does not bode well for the future of the two-party system."
He bears no illusions about his political heft, and says he is not yet even sure if he'll attend the National Republican Convention in Tampa in August.
"I would love a speaking slot there, that would also be historic – and I have some things to say," he says. But for one thing, he hasn't been invited.
Supports death penalty and right to bear arms
While LGBT rights are the focal point of his campaign, when it comes to many other issues, he sits easily within his party's agenda. He supports the death penalty in the case of severe crimes, and embraces the right to bear arms. He opposes closing the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Nor is it contentious that the U.S. economy is an issue of utmost importance, in his view.
"I have a strong economic plan," he says. "I've been talking about filling the 3.6 million jobs that haven't been filled and the government can help with that. I want to repatriate lots of corporate tax money that was shipped overseas to avoid the U.S. corporate income tax, which is too high here. There is the stimulus, and health care reform, and other things we cannot afford."
Describing his vision for the U.S., he sounds like a classic Republican. "Smaller government, balancing the budget, lifting the spirit of America, being the optimist that Reagan was – for me these are very important jobs as president."
Asked where his own campaign's funding comes from, he admits it's primarily his own money. "I supplied about 80 percent of the budget - we run a very small operation. In California, we have eight people working full- and part-time. We do all the things that the big campaigns do, but on a much smaller scale."
Part of the reason his campaign is mostly self-funded is because he hates soliciting cash. "I am not a good fundraiser, I hate asking people for money," Karger says. "I am trying to raise money online, and lots of friends and family contributed to my race," he says, nevertheless adding, "But I do have a broad range of support all over the country. I've raised more than $500,000, which is a lot. "
Like many of the other Republican candidates, Karger also visited Israel during his campaign. While in the country, he met with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, had lunch with openly-gay Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, and sat in at the Knesset when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Obama's call for a return to the 1967 borders plus land swaps. It wasn't Karger's first visit to Israel, but it was just as spiritual as that first experience, he says.
"I am not that religious a Jew, so I wasn't anticipating it, but as soon as I arrived in Israel in 2000 for the first time I felt very different than I ever had in any other country I'd visited," he says. "I went again on a mission in 2005 with the Republican Jewish Coalition, I was there for vacations, and two years ago for an LGBT film festival, which was an incredible experience."
Karger also traveled to Israel again last year, this time with his Jewish outreach director. And what of Israel's future? Karger says, "I absolutely believe in a two-state solution. I support it very strongly. But it would come through tough negotiations."