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Before Buttigieg There Was Fred Karger

The first openly gay candidate to run for president was a Jewish, Republican, former shaving-cream model and now he’s fighting for his place in history

Peter Fox
May 28, 2019
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Fred Karger at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, 2011Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Fred Karger at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, 2011Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If you’ve been following the 2020 presidential race, by now you’ve probably heard of Pete Buttigieg—the South Bend mayor who, if elected, would be the youngest and first openly gay president in American history.

What you might not know, however, is that Buttigieg actually isn’t the first openly gay candidate to run for president. That honor belongs to an elusive retired political consultant and former shaving-cream model from Los Angeles named Fred Karger.

Fred who?

That was his official campaign slogan in fact, as well as the title of his memoir. It sounds like the start of a lame joke: A gay Jewish Republican runs for president … But in 2011 it was no joke when Karger, then 61, made history—not just for being gay, but also for being the first Jewish person to seek the Republican nomination. Fewer people seem to care about the Jewish part, Karger notes, but it is no less historic in his mind.

It’s a story that seems so outlandish it could only be dreamed up in Hollywood—the same place where Karger started his career with modest success as an actor before becoming a consultant to former presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But Karger’s late life transition from a private citizen to a presidential candidate can be traced to a specific series of moments.

It started in 2006. Karger’s parents had died, and having retired two years earlier, he was looking for his next cause. He found it in the closure of the Boom Boom Room, a legendary gay bar in his Los Angeles neighborhood of Laguna Beach. After a lifetime in the closet he suddenly charged out, awakened to his calling, becoming the lead activist in a campaign to save the establishment. His mission was unsuccessful, but this first foray as a gay rights leader garnered media attention and brought Karger some prominence.

Two years later, he founded Californians Against Hate to oppose Proposition 8, the ballot initiative aimed at banning same-sex marriage in the state. He became a crusader in exposing covert funding for the bill from the Mormon Church, and this time he received even more widespread attention.

As the 2012 election cycle approached, Karger was already a public figure in the LGBTQ rights movment, and, as he saw it, running for president was the next logical step in the progression of his activism. He was the first Republican candidate to file paperwork for an exploratory committee, as well as the first to campaign nationally, and the first to air political ads on TV.

His long-shot campaign baffled most people, but felt natural enough to Karger. His great-grandfather, Edwin G. Foreman, was the first president of Chicago’s Jewish Federation in 1900, and, Karger notes, used his position to combat the bigotries of his own time and confront housing and employment discrimination. Karger sees his advocacy for gay rights as a reflection of the values his great-grandfather fought for on behalf of Jews more than a century earlier.

Though Karger says that he has always been proud of his Jewish heritage, he didn’t always feel a strong connection to Judaism. Growing up he was one of the few kids from his Chicago suburb that didn’t have a bar mitzvah. It wasn’t until his first trip to Israel in 2000 at age 50 that it finally clicked and he saw how his dual identities as a Jewish and gay man could be compatible.

Being gay and Jewish weren’t the only points differentiating Karger from his opponents. As a self-described “flaming moderate,” his socially progressive views on everything from abortion rights, to pro-legalization of marijuana, and common sense gun reform put him at odds with most of the Republican Party. He argues that he was even more progressive than Obama.

On the surface it would seem that such a historic campaign would have received more attention, yet his name has mostly been forgotten from history. Karger, certainly, is mystified at not being better known. But for all the historic firsts of Karger’s presidential run, he received no major endorsements and mostly self-funded his campaign. On top of that, he failed to poll high enough to qualify for any of the nationally televised debates and town halls, despite often being tied with or ahead of several of his primary opponents.

Running as a Republican effectively killed Karger’s chances of winning support from LGBTQ groups and, in the end, rather than being honored at Human Rights Campaign dinners or feted by the media, his campaign was treated as as sideshow run by a loon. Nevertheless, Karger chose not to switch parties for reasons he explained to Tablet: “I’m still a Republican because I believe in smaller government, government staying out of people’s lives and a strong national defense,” he said. “I am a moderate Republican because I believe in the 150-year-old history of the Republican Party since Lincoln, which has been helping to lead the way in civil rights for African Americans. It has lost its way on civil rights, but I am hoping that it will soon return to its roots and start to embrace LGBTQ equality.”

It has been a very different story for the next gay candidate running for president, Pete Buttigieg, who rose unexpectedly, and seemingly overnight, from obscurity to national media sensation. Buttigieg is coming in between third and fourth place in most national polls, and news programs and talk shows can’t get enough of him. Just in the past month, the Indiana mayor participated in a Fox News town hall and landed on the cover of Time magazine along with his husband.

Even in 2011 when Karger ran, the country was in a very different place. At the time, only six states allowed same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians were banned from serving openly in the military until September of that year, and President Obama was still opposed to marriage equality—a position he didn’t change until May of 2012.

In a piece he wrote for the Advocate this year, Karger explains that there were two main reasons why he ran. He “wanted to send a message to the entire LGBTQ community, especially our youth, that you can do anything you want in life.” He also hoped that his historic run would make it easier for the next openly gay candidate. As Karger writes in his book, he became “an activist so that younger people don’t have to go through what I went through.”

He’s also made a point of correcting reporters on Twitter who omit his name from their stories of being “the first” like it’s his crusade. More than anything, he wants people to get their gay history straight.

Karger believes Buttigieg can win and is doing everything he can to make that happen. He’s joined forces with Hollywood stars in co-hosting a fundraiser at the home of legendary TV producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) in June.

In February, Karger saw Buttigieg speak at the Brooklyn library and went up to introduce himself. It was a brush of history you won’t hear much about: the first two openly gay presidential candidates—one a Democrat, the other a Republican—coming together in a moment of mutual respect. Buttigieg thanked Karger for being a trailblazer and wrote a note in his memoir, “you’ve made it a little easier for others following in your footsteps.”


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Peter Fox is a social commentary writer whose work has appeared in CNN Opinion, Newsweek, The Jerusalem Post, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.