Fred Karger, 61, has lived in and around Los Angeles since 1972—mostly now in Laguna Beach—but he grew up in Glencoe and graduated from New Trier. He’s about as likely to become president as I am—his campaign slogan is “Fred Who?”—but the pundits are beginning to notice the first openly gay candidate to run on a major party ticket, especially as the issue of gay marriage heats up. He has been interviewed recently by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, by David Frost on Al Jazeera, and was the subject of a full profile on the front page of the Style section of the Washington Post.
Karger is serious about his campaign, spending lots of time in Iowa and New Hampshire, fighting a so-far losing battle to be included in the debates, and making the finishing edits to his memoir, which will be self-published next month. (His writer is Evanstonian Steve Fiffer, a high-school classmate of Karger’s whose credits include working on former Secretary of State James Baker’s memoir.)
Gay, Jewish, and Republican would seem to present serious contradictions and roadblocks, but not for Karger, a retired political strategist—partner in the Dolphin Group, an LA-based GOP consulting firm—who worked on three campaigns for Charles Percy locally, as well as for Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. Karger’s biggest issue is full rights for gays—the skinny, slight, bespectacled candidate calls himself a “big, fat, gay activist.” He created Californians Against Hate to campaign against Proposition 8, an amendment to the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage. (It was approved by the voters but later overturned by a federal judge.) For the past two years, he has been working to stop Mitt Romney from winning the Republican nomination. He describes Romney as “obedient” to the Mormon Church, which Karger chastises for campaigning against Prop 8.
I sat down with Karger earlier this week to learn more about the impact the North Shore suburbs had on his quixotic quest for the White House. He doesn’t budge from his pledge to stick with the Republican Party, although he repeatedly reminds me that he is a “moderate, Rockefeller” Republican. He has never run for elective office and admits that foreign policy is not his forte.
CF: So how does a Jewish boy from Glencoe become a Republican?
FK: My family is full of German Jews, and the second and third generations were doing their best to distance themselves from their religion and to assimilate with gentiles. We celebrated Christmas, had a Christmas tree, and were attracted to the Republican Party.
CF: Your grandfather and his brothers ran the family’s Foreman Bank, which was closed by the government during the Depression, resulting in your family losing a great deal of its wealth. You mentioned that your grandfather, who was one of the Foreman brothers running the bank, “hated” FDR. Did FDR have something to do with closing the bank?
FK: It was more the First National Bank that could have saved it but didn’t. I think the FDR dislike was because he thought FDR was not great for business. I’m quoting my cousin, who is the family historian, on what happened: “There was a run on the bank; everyone wanted cash right away. My understanding is that no one would loan them the money, especially the First National, which eventually took over Foreman’s accounts. No one lost money except the family.”
CF: So your mother’s family went from riches to rags?
FK: My mother’s grandfather started the Foreman Bank in the 1850s. They were hugely wealthy. My mother lived the good life in high school, and then they had to give up the big estate in Highland Park and move into the city, to 20 E. Cedar. My grandfather had to go to work for some gentile friends of his who were in the insurance business. I think the reason they could survive was my grandmother had her own money. My cousin said they were the Pritzkers of their day [before the Foreman Bank closed].
CF: What drew you to politics?
FK: When I was just 14, I used to take the train downtown by myself and go to the basement of the Sherman House and worked phone banks all day on weekends. When Chuck Percy came on the scene in ’64 and ran [unsuccessfully] for governor, I used to ride my bike to his headquarters in Kenilworth. I was gay. I was not a great athlete. I didn’t necessarily fit in. And yet I’d go to these campaigns and I’d get on the phone. They liked me. It was a very safe, comfortable place for me.
CF: During our talk today you have been full of praise for Ronald Reagan. How do you square Reagan with moderation?
FK: Reagan is the reason I’m sitting here today. I’m closer to Obama on issues than I was to Reagan, but at least with Reagan you knew where he was.
CF: Reagan would never have gone for gay marriage.
FK: I don’t know. Mrs. Reagan has more gay friends, and he did, too. He was a nice guy. He signed the most liberal abortion law in the country when he was governor.
CF: What’s with Obama saying he’s “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage?
FK: Obama signed two questionnaires in 1996 [when he was in the state senate] supporting gay marriage. There’s no one on this planet who has ever gone from supporting to opposing except him. He promised us everything and delivered little.
CF: When you were working for George H.W. Bush, you made an ad involving Willie Horton, whose very name evokes memories of race-hate-mongering. (It was on the watch of Bush opponent, then Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, that a state weekend furlough program allowed Horton, a black man convicted of first-degree murder, a weekend pass out of prison. Horton proceeded to rape a woman and stab her husband.)
FK: We did not make the revolving door ad. I repudiated it at the time. We worked with the victims. We took them all over the country to tell their stories. I’m very proud of that.
CF: You describe yourself as a huge admirer of Bush I, but mentioned that you couldn’t bring yourself to vote for his son. Yet in 2008 you supported Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination. What kind of Republican does that?
FK: I couldn’t vote for McCain or for Obama. [Karger voted for Nader, as he did in 2004.]
CF: Could you see yourself voting for Obama in 2012?
FK: I’ve very disappointed with Obama. He should have spent his first two years, as he pledged to do, focusing on the economy. He could have used his political capital and his charisma to motivate people like Reagan did. And he doesn’t know how to negotiate.
CF: You graduated from the University of Denver in 1972, came home for five months, moved into the city, and worked for Chuck Percy. But then you quickly left Chicago for L.A. Why?
FK: I was gay. The time I spent in the city, I was much more comfortable with being gay, but I’d run into people I knew in high school. I knew I had to leave.
CF: When did you stop hiding?
FK: Coming out was a gradual process—not until I was 41 years old to my parents. I was in an 11-year relationship, from 1979 to 1990; neither of our families knew. No one at work knew. We never spent a Christmas together.
CF: So how do you remember your childhood here?
FK: I was Leave it to Beaver’s Jerry Mathers in a real-life sit-com. My older brother was cooler, a jock; my mother was June, and my dad was Ward. My difference was that I had this gay thing going. That created a lot of difficulty, but not so much that I didn’t have a nice childhood. I’m so happy and lucky I did grow up here, a safe place, with a loving family.
CF: You moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. What came of it?
FK: I gave it up after three years and spent 27 years working for a political consulting firm.
CF: If you eventually have to give up your campaign, which Republican will you support?
FK: I think I could break out of the pack if I do get into a debate. I’ve been to New Hampshire 16 times already, more than any other candidate.