Fred Karger is openly-gay, a life-long Republican, Jewish, and running for the GOP nomination for President of the United States of America. Long shot? Hey, you never know.
“I am a unique individual, living as a gay man, who believes in basic fundamental principles that are at the core of the Republican Party,” said Karger. “Living in (…the politically charged bi-partisan world) for 30 years – made me a strong Republican, vetted with solid credentials. And yet I am a progressive and not just around LGBT issues.”
I will always remember it as a unique and oddly middle-of-the road introduction for a Republican nominee who is facing the steepest uphill battle. “I am running for the Republican Presidential nomination.” Declaring those words as an openly-gay, life-long Republican, Fred Karger, who isn’t a man with an axe to grind against the GOP, instead he is someone with a vision, plan and maybe a little dream – to become a President of the United States of America — for a party that he believes in, caused some of us to look up and take notice.
The idea that a proud and openly-gay man would want to run for the leadership of the country under the banner of the party that has over the past 30 years been on the forefront of the most devastating of blows to the LGBT community is an idea that makes someone stop and think. What motivates a person to do choose this course? Why take on the uphill battle from within the party let alone the battle from your own community against what some may view as a betrayal? Are we giving this a fair and frank analysis or are we allowing our bias and hurt to mar our opinions? I was determined to find out.
In September of 2010, Karger became a few firsts, beginning with putting in his bid for the nomination. A place in history that will forever be bear his name was carved out that day. He is the first Jewish person on a Republican ticket, and closest to home the first openly-gay man to run for the any major political party presidential race.
Many were quick to acknowledge the historical markers that Karger fulfilled, and even quicker to ask what would become a campaign slogan: Who is Fred?
From the Republican glory days under Reagan during some of the darkest of days for the LGBT community, to the battle in California on Prop 8, Karger has been front and center. With nine Presidential campaigns under his belt, time served in the White House under Reagan, Ford and Bush Sr., he has seen the gamut when it comes to the struggles of the American people.
I needed to know more about this man – and more importantly the answers to a few questions.
To understand who Karger is I really needed to understand who Karger was.
Karger was born on January 31, 1950, in Glencoe, Illinois, a place that most of us see in the movies that begin by boasting happy, white picket fence, “don’t rock the boat” American families. This story however twists when a boy named Fred is born to Jean, an active community volunteer, and Robert S. Karger, who owned a brokerage firm. This family was not one that viewed complacency and the acceptance of intolerance as par for the course, nor as a value of American citizens.
In the early 1900’s, Jewish families immigrated to the U.S. hoping of a world with full equality and understanding. Instead they faced an all too familiar battle against intolerance and hatred. Karger’s great-grandfather, Edwin Foreman helped found and served as the first President of the Associated Jewish Charities in Chicago. His son, Alfred, followed in his father’s footsteps. Here they began a legacy that was instilled in their descendants — help your fellow man and community, face any injustice and rectify it.
The family worked to prevent hate crimes and assist families who faced it. Employment and housing discrimination was a norm that many accepted the Foreman family did not feel that this was the United States that represented the diverse population or the hope and drive that was fueling its expansion.
Activists began to appear on the scene as it grew from a tradition among the family into a quality they admired and instilled in themselves. Jean Foreman Karger spent her entire adult life helping others by volunteering and working in whatever capacity her community needed her without hatred or judgment.
Karger began in politics during the 1960’s supporting as a volunteer Governor Rockefeller of NY. As a volunteer dealing with phone banks and recruitment he was front seat for learning the grueling hours and truth about campaigns, adrenaline and savvy are the key.
Throughout the 70’s he began to work for varying Republican committees throughout California and was fortunate enough to be part of President Ford’s White House advance staff. During this time he was groomed in the areas of communications and advertising for politicians, learning the key areas for targeting demographics and voter turnout.
From Press Secretary to Director of the Opposition Campaign in 1984 for Reagan, Karger excelled at responding and advancing policy and driving voters support. One such moment was during the Bush/Dukakis 1988 election was a commercial run that will forever immortalize the structure for campaigns today. Willie Horton became a household name that will forever be in the textbooks of every political science major. Many viewed the campaign ad as race baiting and an unfair representation of the responsibility that was held by the Governor in connection with the Willie Horton case. No matter what the opinion of Dukakis and his supporters, the ad worked to polarize a base that came out and voted Bush into office.
Working for 27 years with The Dolphin Group, Karger finally retired as Senior Vice President. With retirement freeing up time and constraints of the role as consultant to politicians, he turned his attention to gay rights. Californians Against Hate was brought to life in 2008 quickly working to publish the DishonorRoll revealing the names of large dollar donors to Prop8. They attempted boycotts of varying businesses, including the Manchester Grand Hyatt, with varied success. During this time, when it was revealed how heavily involved the Church of Latter Day Saints — the Mormon Church — was with the fight in California, Karger turned to the California Fair Political Practices Commission FPPC filing a complaint based on their financial involvement and the reporting that was done by the Church. After a formal investigation, they were found guilty of 13 different violations and have been ordered to pay fines.
Karger became an influential politico who managed to not only come out as gay during the 80’s, he did so as a Republican and learned that evolution was a lesson that many have still not learned from.
Knowing the extent of communications and messaging skills that Karger possesses the concern grew over this interview. Was I going to be listening to another politician spout rhetoric, giving me what I wanted to hear rather than the truth? We requested this interview because of the great move forward this is: having a member of the gay community run in a presidential bid that has outlasted Pawlenty.
As a self-proclaimed progressive, who must reach out to progressive groups while courting the conservative, religious right will be a tight-rope walk few have accomplished. For this reason, The New Civil Rights Movement wanted to extend the opportunity to Karger to discuss this stand and the biggest questions that have remained a blank for many in our community, perhaps even the country. And we had questions…
How would you effectively change the minds of many progressives in this country from feeling that the Democrats equal the voice of the people, whereas the Republicans equal the voice of the White Rich Corporate Class?
Could you remain faithful to the large corporate backers of the Republican Party while maintaining forward, inclusive ideals that would move the country to an equal for all, middle of the road?
Will you be able to stand up to the members of GetEQUAL, RAN and other groups and tell them intolerance is not acceptable in America?
Ultimately, why run for a party that has a loud, omnipresent and controlling rhetoric and voting bloc that is anti-gay, anti-immigration and often times anti-choice?
Launching into the questions in a rapid fire succession, Karger didn’t miss a beat. Here’s what he had to say:
Today people compare it to a witch-hunt party, or one that keeps equality and progress down. If we look through history we see movement of people as the nation moved east to west. One of the largest changes to party platforms began with southern Democrats to the Republicans. With that switch we started to see Democratic intolerance of the time influence what most people try to claim is a Republican idea.
No matter where we stand, analyze, view history or vote presently we must acknowledge that the leaning towards one side or the other too heavily will bring about inequality for others. Equality and the fair treatment of others is not a party issue – it is a human issue.
I have met with and dealt with State leaders and the national leadership, most of whom are welcoming and honestly interested in seeing where this campaign will lead. There are progressive, forward thinking Americans in the Republican Party, who do not view this right-leaning religious rhetoric that is used to attack, as damaging to the whole country. Over the last few years many who think like I do, have become a little at a loss for a leader who can champion this voice. All they need is someone to stand up and lead, that is what I am attempting to do, show America that we can have differences of opinion, whether in opposite parties or within our own.
Democrats themselves must admit that there has always been dissention among their party when it comes to directions. This is a nation that will forever be growing and evolving, we aren’t done and we must never lose faith in that system. We have overcome so much as a young country and rose to the top, we have bumps along the way but I have never lost faith and I ask every individual to never lose faith in their fellow American.
It was becoming clear as he spoke that I was not going to get the typical talking points for answers. Most people view Fred Karger as a long shot at best, even with a growing online support for him being a new voice in the GOP. This knowledge provided him the ability to go out and speak more honestly. It bolstered the idea that perhaps he could pave the way to a new era for LGBT candidates across the country, since finally we had a viable, credible and experienced political person running on real issues and speaking to everyday Americans all across this country.
Democrats and Republicans alike finally had to face the fact that a gay candidate was not someone showing up in chaps, subverting the virtues of your children and stealing away your religion or God. Is this the man that as a community we could look to as an example of affecting the views in this country for the better?
Before I could come to that conclusion, I had to question him as a member of the gay community about his involvement in the Reagan administration in connection to the close to home issues of the 1980’s. Within our own community there continues to rage the animosity between those who choose to support the Republicans as gay persons and those who take the Reagan years as the line in sand you do not cross. Karger was caught in the middle of the battle.
The year 1981 brought about a change in this country that was so profound it caused a movement to form and the emergence of the “out” gay American. The first cases of HIV were being reported in record numbers, only to disastrously grow by the thousands. Once the CDC identified this as having a large effect on the gay community, there was large spread homophobia. No more was this true than from the administration itself. Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s communication director was quoted as saying that AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.”
Reagan himself seemed to completely ignore the issue. It wasn’t until the very end of his second term in 1987, with 36,058 diagnosed cases of AIDS and 20,849 casualties to this epidemic. Due to the early cases having been identified as effecting only gay men, there was a rush and later a push by the new “moral right” support base, to keep this quiet and leave it in God’s hands.
Having lived through this decade and lost close personal friends, as many did, while working and watching the inner workings of this administration during this time, I wondered what were Karger’s feelings on this time. How would he explain Reagan and what happened?
Reagan was slow to move. The fact that it was 1987 when he would finally address the issue of the deaths of thousands was inexcusable. I must say that it was a very different time and a confusing one for many. Many of us, especially those close to political circles, knew to not publicly come out. We weren’t out and proud in many cases. It was still often kept as the fact that everyone knew, yet no one would mention. You see if you kept quiet about it then the world could accept you.
The President had gay friends and many gay appointees and employees. He was always kind and welcoming and I never heard anything that was homophobic from him. While it was shameful and I will never know why he didn’t come out and take the lead on this as he had on so many other issues, I cannot help but look at the time period and wish that it was different.
This will not excuse what happened or heal the wounds that many in the gay community, myself included, have from the choices made under that administration but I do hope that we will never see the younger generations deal with the same hurt and loss. I knew Reagan for years and I do believe that he always regretted the deaths of so many of our friends and companions – our family.
Processing what had just been said took me a moment as I sat and looked at my notes. Learning from those in the community who had lived through the 80’s – people I respected and loved, some of whom I have lost over the past few years to AIDS – it occurred to me that we live in a time when we cannot forget our history. We have created activists, business leaders and voices for the struggles this world faces. Now we have produced an openly gay woman for U.S. Senate, and Karger running for candidacy for President of the United States.
I knew us discussing the present day, Obama, the other GOP candidates, his positions, and what he hopes to do would be the most interesting of all…
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