In the course of an election campaign, most presidential candidates talk about what they’ll do if — or, if they’re particularly bullish, when — they’re elected.
But Fred Karger isn’t like other Republicans running for president, and not just because he’s openly gay and Jewish. Karger is also pro-choice, in favor of marriage equality, and a self-described “flaming moderate” running against a pack of candidates who appear to be perpetually vying for the title of “most conservative.” Yet, what most sets Karger apart, when he talks about his campaign, is his focus on what might seem like a more achievable goal than reaching the White House.
“I will be in a debate,” Karger said on a recent trip back to Los Angeles from his part-time home in Manchester, N.H. “The field may have to narrow, but I will be on that stage. I’m not going anywhere.”
Getting on the podium with the Republican challengers to President Barack Obama is no small task, and Karger, 61, hasn’t succeeded yet — not surprising for someone who has never run for office before. Better-known candidates, like Buddy Roemer, a former congressman and Louisiana governor, also are having difficulty getting attention.
But presumably, Karger, who isn’t a stranger to the political arena, knew what he’d be up against. He worked for years as a political consultant to Republican candidates — including running campaigns for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After he retired, at 53, Karger waged a campaign in 2006 to save the Boom Boom Room, a gay bar in Laguna Beach — a fight that also brought him, for the first time, out as an openly gay man. He later went on to join the unsuccessful fight to defeat the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.
His involvement in the cause of gay rights led him to his decision to run for president, and there are times when Karger’s run for the White House can also seem close to the “It Gets Better” campaign launched by gay writer and activist Dan Savage, which aims to bolster the spirits of embattled gay youth.
“I want to send a message to the LGBT youth that there are no restrictions like I thought I had for so many years,” Karger told a reporter for the Jerusalem Post when he visited Israel in May.
His presidential campaign also has its fair share of jokiness. “Fred Who?” is the slogan on Karger’s promotional Frisbees and other materials. The Karger campaign also produced a couple of chuckle-worthy YouTube videos, splicing the candidate into footage of debates from which he’s been barred entry.
But his presidential bid is equally a campaign against, as Karger sees it, what the Republican Party has become. Born into a family of Jewish Republicans in a suburb north of Chicago, he once worked for one of Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaigns. He says the GOP needs to look back to Reagan as a model for engaging moderate voters.
“You’re seeing right now, the country — California, Iowa — voters leaving the two [major]parties,” Karger said. “Most of new registrants are registering in record numbers as independents and undeclared. The Michael Bloombergs of the world resonate with them. Hopefully the Fred Kargers will.”
Brad Hertz, Karger’s director of Jewish outreach, said he believes that’s happening, despite the unconventional character of Karger’s campaign. “He is having fun, but taking it seriously, and, I think, inspiring people,” Hertz said. “And also probably making some people uncomfortable.”
Among those standing in the way of the Karger campaign are some organizers of debates and forums with Republican presidential candidates — which comes back to Karger’s singular goal. The closest he came to making it onto the stage for a debate was in August, when he scored 2 percent on a Harris Interactive Poll — the same as Jon Huntsman and more than Rick Santorum, who came in at 1 percent in that survey. Karger said it should have qualified him for the Fox News Aug. 11 debate in Iowa. Yet he wasn’t invited and has since filed a formal legal complaint against the network’s parent corporation, News Corp.
Karger couldn’t even snag an invitation to the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Presidential Candidates Forum on Dec. 7, where seven candidates — including Huntsman and Santorum — are set to appear.
“Once they send out an invitation that says ‘Presidential Candidates Forum,’ then the light goes off,” Karger said. “They have to invite me.”
But Karger — who was invited to speak to an RJC leadership event earlier this year — hasn’t been invited. Representatives from the RJC declined to comment for this story, nor did they disclose to the Karger campaign the criteria they used to decide which candidates to invite and which to exclude.
“For candidates who spend significant time, money and effort on their campaigns, it’s important for them to be made aware of those criteria,” said Cary Davidson, an election lawyer who is Karger’s campaign treasurer. “Otherwise, how do the candidates know if the sponsors of the debates are following the applicable law?”
So Karger will have to be patient. Meanwhile, he plans to keep running his idiosyncratic campaign — he hires a bagpiper to walk precincts, which he says reliably gets voters to come to their doors — on its shoestring budget for as long as it takes, even until the Republican Party’s convention in August 2012. Karger estimates he’s spent $400,000 on the campaign so far, most of it his own.
“My campaign is going to close in New Hampshire, and it’s going to be the theme of ‘Fed Up With the Republican Party? Vote for Fred,’ ” Karger said. “As kind of a protest vote.”
But, really, he just wants a chance to stand on that stage, for one reason or another. “All I want to get is one debate,” Karger said. “Just give me that one shot.”