During the last presidential election, Fred Karger’s run was a big first, but he was barely heard of by most.
Karger, a longtime political consultant who advised the campaigns of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was the country’s first openly gay presidential candidate from a major political party – and he was a Republican, which made his journey as a political anomaly a worthy watch. This month, Karger is back campaigning in New Hampshire, but now it's for a new film by John Fitzgerald Keitel. Called "Fred," it's a documentary that details Karger's presidential run.
“I knew it was a long shot for me to be successful,” Karger told Whispers. “But I was really hopeful that if I did run and did get some attention and word got out, that I would send a message to particularly young, LGBT people around the country.”
The film shows some of the adversity Karger faced running as a Republican. In Iowa, for instance, the state’s Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler sent Karger a letter alleging that he and “the radical homosexual community” were harassing supporters of “REAL marriage.” Additionally, Scheffler threatened to ensure that Karger’s campaign was “aborted right here in Iowa.”
But that reaction to his candidacy was the exception, not the rule, Karger said.
“We had a few problems with the Steve Schefflers of the world, but overall the Republican Party, particularly in New Hampshire and Iowa, where I spent most of my time, [was] as cordial and inclusive as I could have ever dreamed," Karger said.
Karger actually got along great with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who’s practically famous for his anti-gay marriage stance. Karger found Santorum to be “one of the nicest” GOP hopefuls, even with their political differences. (Karger ran as a pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion rights, independent Republican.) “After the campaign was over, I wanted to congratulate him on running a spectacular campaign, which he did, and he was just really completely surprised that I would compliment him," Karger said.
Karger said former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, happily met with him. He became friends with the entire Jon Huntsman clan. (He even went to see daughter Mary Anne Huntsman play piano at Carnegie Hall in January.) And the Reince Priebus-led Republican National Committee gave Karger equal access to all the organization’s research and the RNC’s voter lists. “[Priebus] insisted to his chief of staff that I be afforded every opportunity that every other candidate was,” Karger recalled.
At the same time, Karger wasn’t given a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Instead, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson shared his booth with Karger.) He also was excluded from the Iowa Republican presidential debate – hosted by Fox News and the Washington Examiner – and every other debate thereafter.
But it was the more liberal, pro-gay groups, Karger told Whispers, who really wanted nothing to do with him. “I had more problems, far more problems, with the LGBT community as far as acceptance there,” Karger said. “How do you sit out the first openly gay candidate for president’s campaign completely? And snub him?” he asked. The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect LGBT leaders, wouldn’t get on board, and the Human Rights Campaign wouldn't introduce him at events, Karger said.
In the end, Karger concluded his 2 1/2-year presidential campaign in June 2012 in Utah. He never got into an official presidential debate, but appeared on the primary or caucus ballot in six states. In Puerto Rico, he placed fourth.
Karger said he has no ambitions to run again. “My main objective now is to get the film around, to show it to as many audiences as possible,” he said. “Fred” opened Friday in New Hampshire and Karger will travel with the film in advance of Outfest, a film festival that takes place in Los Angeles in June. A good reaction there could lead to wider distribution in theaters. The documentary eventually will be made available online.
“I was very satisfied when I hung up my spurs after 2 1/2 years that we ran a campaign that was pretty much error-free,” Karger said. “And I think that it reflects [well] on the Republican Party and it’s a shock to so many people that the first openly gay candidate of a major political party was a Republican.”