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Pete Buttiegig’s run as an openly gay presidential candidate has roots in Laguna Beach

Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger arrives to the Agate St. firestation polling place fro
Fred Karger was the first openly gay candidate for president in 2012. Here, he is pictured arriving with his campaign van at a polling place in Laguna Beach.
(File Photo)

While news of Pete Buttigieg’s run for president generated headlines this year, the lineage of openly gay political candidates stretches back decades — and its roots are in Laguna Beach.

Before South Bend, Ind.’s “Mayor Pete” became a household name, there was Mayor Bob Gentry, a soft-spoken but aggressively progressive politician who served on the Laguna Beach City Council from 1982 to 1994. Gentry has carried the mantle of being California’s first openly gay mayor since he assumed the role in 1983, the first of three one-year mayoral terms.

Gentry, in turn, inspired the political aspirations of another Laguna Beach resident, Fred Karger, whose 2012 bid for the Republican nomination made him the first openly gay presidential candidate.

Now, Karger, 69, a former political strategist, has thrown his support behind Democrat Buttigieg, whom he sees as carrying the torch from Gentry, through Karger.

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“This guy — all you have to do is see him once and he just kind of pulls you in,” Karger said of Buttigieg. “It’s a unique kind of charisma.”

In a few weeks, Karger and his partner, Joe Wagner, will co-host a sold-out fundraiser for Buttigieg in Beverly Hills. He reached his own $2,800 maximum campaign contribution weeks ago.

“I think he’ll make a wonderful president insomuch as he is a great conciliator,” said Karger, who added that he has not voted Republican in the past several elections. “He gets along with people. He’s not a shoot-from-the-hip, attack kind of person.”

Karger does have one bone to pick with Buttigieg, though: Everyone keeps calling him the first openly gay presidential candidate.

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For the past several months, Karger has set out on a campaign to correct any media outlet that makes that claim. He put Buttigieg’s name and “first openly gay candidate for president” on Google alerts so he could immediately fact-check articles. So far, Karger said, he has contacted more than 20 outlets for corrections, including the New York Times, Fox News, Business Insider and Newsweek.

Karger doesn’t hold it against Buttigieg or the reporters. He understands he “was not the greatest-known candidate” and never made it to a presidential debate. The self-described student of LGBTQ history just wants to set the record straight.

“My historic candidacy will not be erased,” Karger said.

In many ways, Karger’s candidacy could not have been more different than Buttigieg’s. Karger, a self-titled “Rockefeller Republican,” curated a by-the-book conservative career, working on the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and rising through the ranks as a political strategist.

The times were different too. In 2012, gay marriage hadn’t become legal nationwide. President Barack Obama had just overturned the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, allowing LGBTQ people to serve openly in the military. There weren’t as many laws banning “conversion therapy.”

But like Buttigieg, who harked back to his closeted youth in his candidacy announcement, Karger wanted to inspire the LGBTQ community’s next generation with his run.

“I really wanted to let these younger people know that anything you want to do, you can do — even run for president,” Karger said. “And that message that Pete, with his huge, huge platform that he has now, is resonating. You can’t imagine the impact that has.”

Despite their opposing parties, Karger said Buttigieg charmed him immediately. The two met briefly in February at the Brooklyn Library, where Buttigeig was holding a book signing for his newly released memoir, “Shortest Way Home.”

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Buttigieg’s inscription on the front page of Karger’s copy reads: “For Fred Karger, a trailblazer who made it a little easier for those who follow your path.”

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Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg signed Fred Karger's copy of his recently released memoir, "Shortest Way Home."
(Courtesy of Fred Karger)

Yet, Karger may have never run for office without Gentry’s example or support.

Growing up, Karger said he never had any openly gay political role models. He was already an adult when San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk became California’s first openly gay elected official in 1977.

So when he read as a 32-year-old in 1983 that Laguna Beach had chosen its first openly gay mayor, Karger “was just in awe and disbelief.”

“I never thought it was possible for me,” Karger said. “This is now a possibility ... far beyond Laguna Beach.”

Gentry announced his sexual orientation a year after his election. He made protecting the LGBTQ community a pillar of his time on the council.

“Laguna Beach had always been a safe haven for artists, hippies, yippies, whatever group was kind of on the margins,” Gentry said. “And the gay and lesbian community was one of those on the margins.”

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Gentry proposed an anti-discrimination clause that passed the City Council, as did a domestic partnership ordinance he proposed to recognize same-sex couples.

“We were able to correct legislatively ... and kind of set a new standard for the city,” Gentry said.

Gentry also led Laguna Beach through a difficult period when it had one of the nation’s highest per capita rates of AIDS. He lost his partner of 15 years, Michael Gary Burdick, to the disease. He became a staunch advocate for AIDS awareness and education.

“There have been plenty of openly gay politicians … but they just kind of went along with things,” Karger said. “They were not Bob Gentry — they were not aggressively … passing important laws and being visible and doing the kinds of things he did.”

Left to right: Jerry Burchfield (co-creator of The Tell), Lida Lenny (vice mayor of Laguna Beach, fo
Bob Gentry, third from right, served three terms as Laguna Beach's first openly gay mayor.
(Courtesy of BC Space Archives)

Karger finally met his role model in 2006 during the heart of Karger’s effort to save the Boom Boom Room, an iconic gay bar that closed a year later. Karger reached out to the retired mayor at his home in the desert.

“I told him I was very scared because I had been very closeted and suddenly I was going to be saving a gay bar. People put two and two together,” Karger recalled. “He told me, ‘Don’t be afraid, you’re doing the right thing. Just do it.’ And that for me, when I was kind of determining how active I wanted to get, was life-altering.”

Gentry was one of the first people Karger called when considering a run for president.

“I was just blown away that somebody gay and open ran … and then became a very, very effective, aggressive, accomplished mayor,” Karger said of Gentry. “Now I think of Pete on the stage with that message for the world to LGBTQ youth. … That’s so impactful, so important.”

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