For decades, a fear of discrimination kept Fred Karger from seeking office and coming out as openly gay.
When the Laguna Beach resident, a Republican and partner in a top political consulting firm, publicly came out in 2006 after campaigning against the closure of Laguna’s iconic Boom Boom Room, he ignited an activist streak that led to a race to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Lesser-known candidates usually fight to get on ballots; Karger has made it on five, including California’s. As of Wednesday, he was packing up for Utah, where he’ll be on the ballot June 26.
In March, he beat Ron Paul in the Puerto Rico primary, garnering about 1,700 votes, or 1.4% of the electorate.
He has spent about $530,000 on his campaign, with $75,000 of that coming from fundraising efforts.
Some, though, may question why he continues.
“It’s a historic candidacy in the first place,” he said Monday, a day before the California primary. “I felt an obligation to fulfill that honor.”
Karger said he wanted to run for office since he was in his 20s, but felt it was too risky while he was still hiding his sexuality. Behind the scenes, as a political consultant he worked for Gerald Ford, Bob Dole and George Deukmejian.
“I almost ran when I was 27 for Assembly. I knew I couldn’t after that,” he said. “I wasn’t in secret. I managed living a double life.”
He points to Robert F. Gentry, a Laguna mayor and the first gay mayor in the country, as an inspiration.
“I think we both have taken a substantial risk,” Gentry said last week about Karger’s campaign. “We both operated from a very strong sense of commitment and a strong resolve: that bigotry and discrimination must end everywhere in America, no matter what your political, ethnic or religious affiliation might be. For me personally, that risk was well worth it.”
Not your typical Republican
In interviews Karger, 62, is clean shaven, dressed in a sharp suit or sports jacket. His silver coif shines, and he maintains an upbeat demeanor when talking about civil rights and the economy.
Ronald Reagan is one of his mentors, whom he worked for as a political consultant with the Dolphin Group in the 1980s. He even applauds the father of his competition, George Romney, for his work as a governor and on Capitol Hill.
However, the gay Jewish candidate from Laguna Beach is far from the Republican mainstream.
He believes marijuana should be legalized and taxed. He’s pro-choice. He denounces the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling for a speedy withdrawal. The latter is a stance that he finds many Republicans agree with but are just beginning to voice.
“My great concern about the Republican Party is that it is moving so far to the right [that] it is driving away so many moderates and younger people,” he said. “They’re not welcoming to people like myself that have more moderate views.”
While he preaches fiscal responsibility, he said the state of the economy requires both tax cuts and tax hikes, or “revenue enhancements,” in order to get the budget back on track. The wealthy can afford to be taxed at a higher rate, he said.
In response to the Buffett Rule — no household making more than $1 million annually should pay a smaller share of its income in taxes than middle-class families pay — Karger doesn’t support all of it but believes the principle is sound.
In fact, he’s recruited Warren Buffett for his proposed tax holiday, which he said would bring American companies back home. Instead of businesses paying a 35% tax on their earnings, they would be charged a flat 7.5% fee, which would go into the American Entrepreneurs Trust, run by Buffett. The money would be used as startup capital and would make low-interest, micro-loans available to new entrepreneurs.
He asserts there are about 3.1 million jobs in the U.S. available and that he could create a jobs.gov website that would provide tax credits to families who relocate for work.
He also wants to ignite innovation with a speedier patenting process, according to his website.
A bumpy road
Although Karger isn’t a stranger to broadcast television — his face has been seen on “Hardball with Chris Matthews,""The Rachel Maddow Show"and “Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” among others — getting the same airtime within his own party hasn’t been easy.
When he was ready for the stage in an August debate in Iowa, Fox News didn’t allow him to participate, although Karger said he met criteria of averaging 1% in five national polls.
At the time he was tied alongside Jon Huntsman in a Harris poll and Newt Gingrich in a Zogby poll, according to his website.
“I was tied or ahead of every single Republican at one point except Romney,” he said, recalling early days in the campaign.
Gay radio station OutQ obtained a statement from Fox News’ Vice President of News Michael Clemente, who said that three of the polls Karger refers to were online surveys that did not meet Fox’s criteria. They also said one of the polls was rejected because it was below 1%.
Karger complained about his exclusion to the Federal Election Commission, which he said has strict rules about debates. On Tuesday, he said he received a letter from the commission indicating it would not investigate Fox News.
Karger hit another road block when he was denied entry, first as a candidate and then as an exhibitor, to the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February. He said he submitted his application early and was walked through the process by an employee. Karger said that employee later didn’t answer phone calls after he submitted his application.
On grounds of gay discrimination, he has since complained to the Office of Human Rights inWashington, D.C., regarding the American Conservative Union Foundation, or ACUF, which runs CPAC.
ACUF issued a motion to dismiss the complaint with the Office of Human Rights, according to documents supplied by Karger’s team. The motion said that Karger’s beliefs don’t align with that of the conference. The motion also calls him a “liberal political gadfly.”
The organization also points to its 1st Amendment right to freely choose with whom it associates.
Due to conflicting statements by both parties, the Office of Human Rights denied the motion and decided to continue the investigation. If the ACUF doesn’t appeal this week, Karger will be in Washington next week for mediation.
“I’m fighting for justice,” he said.
There have been small victories, though.
In 2009, he made a formal ethics complaint to the state of Maine regarding alleged money laundering by the National Organization for Marriage, which prompted an investigation that released the organization’s documents.
In May, he filed another complaint with the state of California regarding the organization. Karger said the documents released in Maine reveal that 11 contributions were never released to election officials in California, with one of the contributions coming from Romney. He received a letter Tuesday that the state will investigate.
Audrey Prosser, who is on the board of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club, applauds Karger’s tenacity when questioning the National Organization for Marriage.
“He’s asked the people that give millions to elections to do reporting,” she said. “I think that will have a long-reaching effect, [such as] keeping foreign money out of elections.”
Prosser may not vote for Karger’s party, but she said she’s excited to see someone pushing the envelope and speaking about important issues.
“I hope the Republican Party listens. We need some fresh ideas,” she said. “I think the American people are tired of sound bites, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican. We’re so hungry to hear someone say something from the heart.”
‘I want to bring back a gay club to Laguna’
“I’m not delusional,” Karger told the Los Angeles Times last year. He’s repeated the phrase to other publications, which have questioned the campaign — a campaign that has shirts reading “Fred Who?”
As he prepared for Utah, Karger asserted that he has a task to do if calls the campaign quits.
He’ll come back to the beginning of it all, what brought him out of the closet and eventually prompted him to start Californians Against Hate, now called Rights Equal Rights: The Boom Boom Room.
“I’ll start where I left off,” he said. “I have one eye on the Boom Boom Room ... hoping to find a buyer. I want to bring back a gay club to Laguna.”