Fred Karger, a handsome 61-year-old who looks like a Semitic John Slattery, does not actually think that he is going to be the first gay Jewish Republican nominee for president. That does not mean, though, that his campaign is not serious. Karger, who filed with the Federal Election Committee on March 23, has a staff of seven, including an Iowa state director, Nathan Treloar, who was previously the Iowa GOP’s communications director. Karger has visited Iowa half a dozen times in the last year, and he’s made 13 trips to New Hampshire, where he recently won the St. Anselm College Republican Straw Poll. He’s already spent around $300,000 of his own savings on his nascent campaign, and he anticipates raising enough to spend $5 million. A once-powerful GOP operative with a background in attack ads and opposition research, he plans to get himself into the Republican presidential debates, where he’ll be able to call out the anti-gay politics of his fellow nominees. Homophobia blighted much of his life. Now he thinks he can use homophobia against his bête noir, Mitt Romney.
When I met Karger in New York for breakfast recently, he’d seen the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon the previous night. Like almost everyone else, he raved about the joyously blasphemous musical, but in his case it had a special resonance, because his presidential campaign is actually all about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Karger argues, convincingly, that the Mormon church has played a major role in anti-gay marriage initiatives all around the country, and he believes that he can embarrass Romney into getting it to back off. “I want to get the Mormon church out of its opposition to gay marriage,” he says. “And if I can succeed in that, the battle’s over.”
On the surface, his strategy seems a little odd. Romney’s opposition to gay marriage is hardly a liability in a Republican primary. But Karger, who knows a bit about the political dark arts—he helped create George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ads—has thought this through. He believes that Romney is eager to deflect attention from his religion. By discussing the LDS church’s centrally planned, lavishly funded campaign against marriage equality, he can do two things at once: remind moderates of the Republican Party’s extreme social conservatism, and remind evangelicals of Romney’s alien faith.
Born into a Republican family in suburban Chicago, Karger has been a political junkie all his life. After a brief attempt to make it as an actor in Hollywood in the 1970s—he had a bit part in Airport 1975 and was in a shaving-cream commercial directed by John Hughes—he joined The Dolphin Group, a Republican consulting firm that did work for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and former California Gov. George Deukmejian. He specialized in opposition research and was particularly adept at painting Democrats as soft on crime. He organized the grieving parents of murder victims in a successful campaign against California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who often overturned death sentences. In 1988, Karger played a key role in torpedoing Michael Dukakis’ campaign, convincing the sister of one of Willie Horton’s victims and the husband of another to tell their stories in TV ads and press conferences all over the country. Coming on the heels of Dan Quayle’s disastrous performance in the vice presidential debates, the ads “completely shifted things back to Horton,” he says, calling it one of his proudest moments.
All that time, Karger longed to be a candidate himself, and with his senatorial good looks and glad-handing extroversion, he might have been a successful one. But he had a secret that made a career in the spotlight impossible: He is gay. “I was always the groomsman, never the groom,” he says about his unfulfilled political ambitions. Thoroughly closeted, he lived in constant fear of being found out. Though he was in a relationship for 11 years, he and his partner were officially just roommates. “It was a total double life,” he says. “I was petrified of getting discovered at work and losing my job.” He feared that if his family found out, they’d disown him. “It was a horrific experience,” he says. “One of the reasons I’m being such an obnoxious crusader for my community is because of that. And it’s still a huge problem out there.”
Karger didn’t publicly come out until 2006. He’d recently retired to Laguna Beach, Calif., and wanted to do “something significant” with his time, but had no idea what. When developers sought to destroy the Boom Boom Room, the oldest gay bar on the West Coast and an oasis in conservative Orange County, he found a cause. His “Save the Boom!!!” campaign failed, but it marked his entrée into the gay rights movement. In 2008, he threw himself into the fight against Proposition 8, which sought to overturn the California Supreme Court’s acceptance of gay marriage, founding Californians Against Hate and turning his opposition research skills against the right. And before long, he realized that the major behind-the-scenes force behind Proposition 8 was the LDS church.
While looking into the money coming into the Proposition 8 campaign, he noticed that many of the donors had never made political contributions to any other cause except the Romney campaign. He tipped off the Wall Street Journal, which reported that between June 1 and September 20 of 2008, a third of the approximately $15.4 million raised to support Proposition 8 came from Mormons, who comprise 2 percent of California’s population. The church, Karger discovered, had instructed its members to donate, and some had poured their savings into the effort. It also directed them to volunteer—and Mormons are expert canvassers.
And despite the church’s reputation for being relatively apolitical, Karger learned that it had mounted similar campaigns in the past. Through a source in Salt Lake City, he obtained boxes full of hundreds of stolen Mormon documents outlining the church’s involvement in anti-gay marriage initiatives going back to a 1995 campaign in Hawaii. The documents, which Karger published on the website Mormongate.com, make it clear that the LDS church, aware of the suspicion it arouses, orchestrates ecumenical coalitions to hide its political involvement, working to shield the identity of donors. One 1997 letter from a Mormon official to church president Gordon B. Hinckley says, “With regard to H.L.M. [homosexual lesbian marriage] in Hawaii and California, we have followed your initial instructions and in Hawaii the coalition has been able to exert great influence without the Church being singled out.”
Karger was the source for a number of stories about the Mormons’ influence in passing Proposition 8, and he figured heavily in the outraged documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition. Soon there were protests outside the LDS church’s Salt Lake City headquarters and a government investigation into whether the church violated California election law. The church recoiled from the publicity. “For years, church leaders have tried to blunt the assertion that Mormonism is somehow out of the political and cultural mainstream,” said a Los Angeles Times story. “The backlash over gay marriage carries risks and rewards toward that goal.” But that hasn’t stopped Mormons from continuing to play a major role in the fight against gay marriage, most recently in Maine.
“They have driven this with their expertise, which is brilliant,” Karger says. “They have driven this with their money, which is unlimited. And they’ve beaten my community in every place they’ve gone.”
Which is where Romney comes in. “It will be very important for the religion to have an LDS president, and [Romney] is as prominent and respected in the religion as anyone,” he says. If the church’s anti-gay marriage efforts become a public relations liability, he thinks church officials will pull back for Romney’s sake. Citing a lyric from The Book of Mormon, he points out that black people were barred from the Mormon priesthood until 1978, when church leaders had a conveniently timed revelation that God had changed his mind. “Well, I can’t deliver a revelation, but I can put the political pressure on them,” says Karger.
After all, Romney’s Mormonism remains a big obstacle with the evangelicals who dominate the Republican primary electorate. A recent Pew poll found that while Mike Huckabee and Romney are tied for leadership of the Republican field, evangelicals prefer Huckabee over Romney by almost 2-to-1. Karger is betting that even if evangelicals agree with the Mormon stance on gay marriage, they’ll still be turned off by attention to the church’s inner workings. Evangelicals, says Karger, “will make or break the primaries in states like Iowa and South Carolina.” Romney wants the religious issue to go away. Karger wants to make sure it doesn’t.
Thus a gay Jewish candidate is running a race based on leveraging what he sees as his party’s intolerance for religious minorities. Karger’s politics have changed, but his gleeful political bloodlust hasn’t. At one point, he insists that he’s a nice guy, and says, “I just want to bring civility back.” I look at him incredulously. Then he says, “I want to let them know if they go after my community or me, I’m going to respond.”