Fred Karger was the 1st openly gay person from a major party to run for president

Fred Karger Pete Buttigieg

Fred Karger, left, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg attend a campaign rally on Thursday, October 10 at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Photo: Fred Karger.

Fred Karger broke the political glass ceiling in 2011 and made U.S. history as the first openly gay candidate from a major political party to run for president.

Karger’s campaign was eights years before South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced his candidacy. Earlier this year, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 70% of Americans support the idea of a gay or lesbian presidential candidate.

Fred Karger

Karger, a gay Republican who had never run for political office, sought the GOP nomination for the 2012 election in a field that included several challengers: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, among others.

“I wanted to shake up the Republican Party,” says Karger, who lives in West Los Angeles. “The Republicans didn’t have any great candidates. Mitt Romney was the presumed nominee before anything started in 2010.

Moderate Republican

“I thought there was an opening for a moderate because the party had moved so far to the right,” says Karger, who ran on a platform that included LGBT equality, a woman’s right to choose, and ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It definitely was time for the first openly gay candidate to run.”

Karger, who was born and raised in the Chicago-land area, was excluded from participating in any of the Republican debates, but did appear on the primary or caucus ballot in six states: California, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Utah. Karger ended his campaign in June 2012.

“I wanted to move the Republican party back to the center, but I wasn’t very successful in doing that,” Karger says.

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Political strategist

Previous to his candidacy, Karger spent almost 30 years as a political consultant and strategist, working with dozens of federal, state and local candidates.

In addition, Karger worked on nine presidential campaigns and served as a senior consultant to the campaigns of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Gerald Ford.

Living in the closet

Karger also spent most of those years in the closet, professionally and personally. Karger came out to this family when he was 41, though he had told some of his college friends that he was gay about 20 years earlier.

In 2006, Karger’s activism to save the historic Laguna Beach gay bar the Boom Boom Room publicly brought the then 56-year-old out of the closet.

Fred Karger Gay Republican

Fred Karger speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, during his 2011-2012 campaign for the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States. Karger made history as the first openly gay person from a major party to run for president. Photo: Courtesy of Fred Karger.

Switching parties

After being a Republican almost 50 years, Karger says he will leave the party to vote for Democrat Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in the upcoming California presidential primary.

Karger has endorsed Buttigieg and donated to his campaign.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Karger, 69, talks about how his gay uncle’s suicide impacted him, fighting against the Mormon Church, living in the closet, and making history with his presidential campaign. 

Here are some excerpts.

Karger’s gay uncle

“I’d had a gay uncle who committed suicide when I was 21,” Karger says. “It really affected me. I figured that’s how I would end my life eventually. It seemed like the only option. I never thought life would be that great. That was the time, and that was me. Boy was I wrong. Now it’s flipped, which is pretty spectacular.”

Political consultant

“I never worked for the right wing of the Republican Party,” Karger says. “I worked with more moderate Republicans. 

“When Reagan refused to acknowledge HIV and AIDS, it was horrific and inexcusable,” Karger says. “I was losing friends. I was going to a funeral a month for friends who died from AIDS.”

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In the closet

“At my consulting firm, some people knew I was gay, but I didn’t talk about,” Karger says. “I was in a relationship, but I could never take him to an office Christmas party. In our 11 years together, we never spent one Christmas together because we weren’t out to either of our families. It was such a difficult time.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes me really upset in 2019, that I had to live my life that way, live the double life, for so long. I didn’t come out to my family until I was 41,” Karger says.

Outing the Mormon Church

“That’s the reason why I am as aggressive as I am particularly with the people who are opposed to equality, like the Mormon Church and the National Organization for Marriage, and making life miserable for them,” Karger says.

In 2008, Karger formed Californians Against Hate, a political watchdog group that monitored major donors and groups wanting to outlaw same-sex marriage through Proposition 8. Karger and his group outed donors who gave more than $10,000 in support of Proposition 8 and organized boycotts against businesses whose owners donated more than $100,000, including the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego.

“I have this built up anger of how I had to live my life, and I don’t want anyone to have to live like that.”

Boom Boom Room

Karger’s first work as an activist was in 2006 when he launched an effort to save the historic Laguna Beach gay bar the Boom Boom Room.

“Part of my journey was that in 2006 I worked on trying to save a gay bar in Laguna Beach called the Boom Boom Room,” Karger says. “It was very important to my life and so many other people. It was a great safe space.”

Running for president

“I received a warm welcome from the Republican National Committee,” Karger says. “The RNC rolled out the red carpet. I got a very welcoming reception.”

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is notorious for his anti-gay rhetoric, but during Karger’s presidential run, he says that Santorum never criticized him or made anti-gay comments.

“Rick Santorum was always very comfortable around me. We never brought up the gay thing,” Karger says. “When you have someone in the room, you are less likely to be attacked. Nobody was doing the bashing that Mike Huckabee and many others had done four years earlier.

“I had more problems from third party groups,” Karger says. “They were made up of Republicans, but not official Republican groups.”

Pete Buttigieg

“I thought I would see a second openly gay person run for president,” Karger says. “I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. “I thought it would be a member of Congress. Pete is great.”

Another gay Republican for president?

“I don’t know,” Karger says. “There are some great people out there, but a lot of sane, gay Republicans have left the party.

“I hope the Republican Party will shift again when Trump is out of office. There’s hope. I’m not ready to throw in the towel,” Karger says. “I don’t contribute money or vote for Republicans who I know are not pro equality. I stick with the party because I think if every gay person leaves the party, we will be in dire straights.

“We have to bring the party back to its roots, which are more centrist,” Karger says. “We have a history of being social moderates.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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