News / People

Karger runs longshot bid for president

DU alum Fred Karger is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. president.

Since announcing his intention to run for president in 2012, Fred Karger has made a name for himself as the openly gay Jewish Republican candidate whose platform includes reforming education, lowering the voting age and bringing a spirit of cooperation back to Washington.

Lately, though, Karger (BA speech communication ’72) has been making headlines not for what he has to say about America, but for not being allowed to say it.

On Aug. 18, Karger filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission after being excluded from a Fox News debate among Republican presidential candidates; more recently he was shut out of the upcoming GOP convention in Los Angeles.

Still, Karger is soldiering on at his temporary home in New Hampshire, where he plans to stay until the state’s primary in February. A longtime campaign strategist who’s worked on campaigns for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, Karger is taking a page from the Obama playbook for his New Hampshire campaign, targeting young voters with “Fred Frisbees” and bagpipe-assisted precinct walks.

Karger recently spoke with DU Today

Does it dismay you at all that in 2011, sexual orientation is still such a big factor when it comes to something like running for president?
There’s a generation out there to whom it’s far less important, but as we’re seeing in polls, there are still a lot of people who are very concerned about it. I go into meetings and I can tell whether people are at ease or not — it was a lot easier when I was in the closet. I’ve been in thousands of meetings and I’ve never had anyone act uncomfortably around me or anything. Well, now I do sometimes. And I’m thinking, “Gee, what am I doing this for? Why am I out there?” I have to remind myself that I really want to do this to make it easier for younger people, so if I can help in that respect, then I can take some more bruises. 

What do you mean when you say you’re doing this to make it easier for young people?
As the first out gay candidate to run for president of the United States, it sends a very powerful message to young LGBT people around the country: “You can do anything you want; feel good about yourself; you’re just fine; you can even run for president.” I said on “The Rachel Maddow Show” that I’m doing this for younger people and I got a wonderful Facebook message that night from a gentleman who said, “Just know, Fred, that you’re not doing this just for younger people. I’m 82 years old, I’ve been in the closet most of my life, and you’re an inspiration to me. Thank you.” I hadn’t thought of that, that there are so many people struggling and who have struggled. I had a very difficult time for so many years — I’m OK now, I’m fine — but it’s not easy. The times are better, certainly, and attitudes are better, but for each person who has an easier time, there are others having a much tougher time. 

Do you think the novelty factor of being an openly gay Republican candidate has also helped you in some regards?
It makes for a good headline, I’ll tell you that. I understand that because of the novelty, it gets me the story in The Washington Post, it gets me a lot of the early coverage, but I’m just starting now to move beyond that. It’s an interesting story because of my personal situation and having been in the closet for so long, having been involved in a lot of high-level campaigns, it makes for an interesting story. But I want to talk about the issues, and that’s what my main goal is, is to talk about how I can help transform this country and bring that spirit back. 

You worked for Ronald Reagan on his initial campaign and on his re-election campaign in 1984. What lessons can you take away from his campaigns or his presidency?
What he did was very unique. Here’s a very conservative Republican from California, but he went to Washington and the speaker of the House of Representatives was Tip O’Neill, a very liberal Democrat who had been there for many terms, and Reagan invited him to the White House right off the bat and they became friends. Miles apart philosophically, but they forged this alliance and they got a lot done based on friendship. When President Obama came into office, he didn’t invite the Republican leader of the Senate to the White House for a similar one-on-one meeting for 18 months. One of my first actions would be to invite all the leadership — Republican and Democrat — for one-on-one meetings. Have them over, watch football, have dinner. I want to bring back a cordial feeling and getting along in Washington. Obviously it’s a long shot to get in there, but I want to at least talk about that during the campaign and use whatever influence I have to help get things done in D.C. now. 

One of your big platforms is education reform. What do you think needs to happen there?
I’ve met with so many experts that I’m a little discouraged, but I’m also encouraged by some of the new innovative ideas out there, like public charter schools. It basically goes around the school system — the school board and the union. And the unions, as I’ve learned, are a big part of the problem. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Teachers Association — those are the two big national teachers’ unions, and they’re the ones that protect teachers at all costs. They put teachers first, and we need to put students first and pick the best teachers that we can put into these schools. But what happens with these two big national unions is that, as unions do, they protect their members. And that’s a problem because bad teachers continue to teach. As I am told, that is one of the major problems, if not the major problem, with our school systems. 

You’re also in favor of legalizing marijuana. What effect would that have on the economy?
It could free up our prisons, which are a huge drain on the government; it could also be a huge source of income for a government. Sixteen states have medical marijuana now, and there’s no great tax situation in any of those states, but if that price were stabilized and tax was a big portion of it, that could have a big impact on government. It’s a huge new source of money. And I think too much police time and law enforcement time is devoted to these nonviolent crimes like marijuana usage. Other drugs I think we need to control and should not be legalized, but marijuana I think absolutely should be. 

After graduating from DU you moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. How did that lead you to a career in politics?
[Politics] was always tugging at me, but I wanted to give the acting thing a try. I made a personal commitment to myself, and I figured if I didn’t make it big, I would move on. And I was actually working regularly; I got a lot of work and I got a couple of [TV] pilots and one big commercial. Then in 1976 there was a race for U.S. Senate and another good moderate Republican, a guy named Bob Finch, who had been lieutenant governor and the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, [was running]. I went and interviewed and got hired as an intern and worked on his Senate race and just loved it. I was the youth coordinator, and the manager of that campaign was Bill Roberts, a famous political consultant. He had run Reagan’s campaign for governor and a lot of big campaigns, and he offered me a job with [campaign consulting firm] the Dolphin Group. I was hired for a three-month special election, and I ended up staying 27 years.

You’re very active on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. How has the Internet changed political campaigns?
It’s completely changed the way campaigns are run. I could not have afforded to do what I’m doing 20 years ago, before social media and before the Internet really took hold. I’m taking full advantage of it — I said at my announcement back in New Orleans in April last year, when I announced my intention to run, that I will out-Obama Obama with digital and social media. Just as far as communication with my supporters, I’ve got a huge email list now and I send out weekly updates and raise money that way. Normally in campaigns you have to print a newsletter and you spend weeks on writing it and producing it, then you have to go to a mail house or you get volunteers to fold it and stuff it and seal the envelopes and stamp it. Now it’s the push of a button. New media has dramatically changed the way campaigns go and opened the door for candidates like myself that are running on limited budgets.

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