By Zack Jenkins
Fred Karger’s name didn’t make it into much of the mainstream media coverage surrounding the GOP nomination race, but the light-hearted Californian has spent the better part of two years and nearly $500,000 of his own money to run as the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party.
Even after Mitt Romney garnered enough delegates to secure the GOP nomination following the May 29th Texas primary, Karger continued to campaign against the Massachusetts Governor into the Utah primary. His candidacy was never about winning the nomination, it was about giving a facelift to the Republican party and an example to younger people.
“I want to send the message to gay younger people and older people and everyone in between that you can do anything you want in life,” Karger said in an interview with the LA Times. “And don’t feel bad about yourself and don’t feel you have to live your life the way I did.”
Karger, who served Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, came out at the age of 57 and took an activist role in the fight against Proposition 8. He previously worked for 27 years for the GOP party, not holding office, but as a campaign consultant for some of the most influential names to seek the Presidency.
“At that point things were freed up for me … I’m openly gay to the world … and I kept the idea [to run for president]to myself for about a year,” Karger said in an interview at his Hollywood Hills home before heading to Utah. “It took me about 56 years to be comfortable with myself and out … and it’s transformative for me to improve what message people are getting around the country – that you can do anything you want to do.”
Though the Karger campaign was called quixotic by the LA Times, though he failed in his attempt to get into a televised debate, and even though the highlight of the two-year run came in beating Ron Paul in the Puerto Rico primary, Fred Karger sees his campaign as an “absolute success.”
The self-proclaimed moderate Republican adopted a comical campaign slogan, “Fred Who?” but raised serious concerns about the religious and rhetorical divisiveness of American politics and, more specifically, the culture of the present Republican party.
“This is not the same party I grew up with. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot because we are driving latinos away [with immigration issues]and young people away [with social issues]. I think it’s important we shouldn’t duck issues.”
Karger is adamant that, “We are definitely on the fast track [for pro-equality legislation]. Gay civil rights is a black and white issue. It’s nothing that people will change their minds on watching commercials, it has to be a very significant action to have people switch on this one. What’s happened is that more and more people have come out younger and younger. I credit Bill Clinton as president, he went to the HRC as the first president to speak before any LGBT group. That’s what is spurring this huge change. “
Karger officially conceded to Mitt Romney following the Utah primary, but during his visit there he met with Washington County Republican Party Chairman Willie Billings and gave him some campaign swag (a Frisbee and T-shirt). Billings’ wife, Nanette Billings, threw them in the garbage and sent Karger an aggressive email calling him a “radical idiot” and saying “thank goodness” he “cant (sic) procreate.” Billings has since told the LA Times that she believes Karger is “totally wicked.”
The comments “were like twisting the knife,” Karger said, but not something that he hasn’t heard before. He plans to continue campaigning in Utah to oppose the Mormon Church’s backing of same-sex marriage bans. He said he will not back Mitt Romney and is unsure if he will vote for President Obama.
After two years of campaigning and receiving hundreds of letters and emails from closeted Americans of all ages, Karger knows his quixotic campaign was a success. “Absolutely it was a success. I opened a door for others to believe something is possible.”