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Gay GOP Candidate Reveals Closeted History


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, George Zimmerman is back behind bars. We'll find out why. NPR's Greg Allen is with us for the latest in the case against the man who killed Trayvon Martin.

But first, we want to talk politics because tomorrow is one of the final days of the Republican presidential primary race. Voters in Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, and New Mexico are heading to the polls and you might think that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has it all sewn up. And maybe he does.

But first, he has to get past Fred Karger. Fred who, you say? Fred Karger is a Republican candidate for president. He's also the first openly gay person to run for president from a major political party, and he's on the ballot in California and Utah, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

FRED KARGER: Thank you, Michel. That was a great introduction.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. So, I think everybody knows that Mitt Romney is assumed or believed to have enough delegates now to claim the nomination but you are staying on the ballot, and that's important to you. What do you hope to accomplish with that?

KARGER: Well, he did clinch it last week in Texas. It put him over the top. He will be the nominee, but I was greatly honored by my home state's Secretary of State Debra Bowen who put me on the ballot. I'm the only alternative to Romney and I want to send a message out that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right, we need to include LGBT people, younger people, people who might not tow the party line. And I think that's an important message to get across. And then I head to Utah at the end of the week with a similar message.

MARTIN: Well, how exactly are you getting across that message? Now, you've made fun of the fact that most people probably haven't heard of you. In fact, Fred Who? Don't you even have a sign saying Fred Who? But how do you hope that people will even understand that you're there?

KARGER: Well, I was the first to start this campaign two and a half years ago. I was the first to file in Washington just last year. I qualified for the Fox News debate last August in Ames, Iowa. I met their criteria and they changed the rules. I took them to the FEC, which we're still waiting to hear.

But I have had a great platform. I've been getting a tremendous amount of attention, particularly in my home state. We're traveling the state in what we call the California Express. We've been all over this past month and we're taking a message as this alternative to Mitt Romney. A lot of people are not too excited about him in the Republican primary so I want to be that alternative.

MARTIN: And you're hoping that a large vote will send a message to Mitt Romney to change his stance on same-sex marriage or to, say, evolve as the president put it?


MARTIN: Is that the idea?

KARGER: Well, I don't know if I'm going to get a large vote. I've been left out of these debates. My name ID is very, very low. I don't have the millions of dollars to campaign. We do it on a shoestring. But Romney, his hands are tied by his faith. The Mormon Church is very, very much opposed to any kind of equality for the gay community and marriage is top of their list.

They've fought the battle. I've been fighting them on it in 32 states now with our loss in North Carolina. They've led the way, not just on Prop 8 but in every single state. And as the perfect Mormon, he cannot go up against his church. So, I don't think we will ever see him support full marriage equality or many other LGBT rights for that matter.

MARTIN: So then, again, I still have to ask what is the point? What is the point? Is it to show that the Republican Party is a big ten? I mean, I still have to press the question what is the purpose.

KARGER: Well, I'm one of these life-long Republicans who is very discontent because the Republican Party has left me, I feel. Four years ago, I was a maxed out donor to Hillary Clinton. First time I've ever done that. I am fighting to bring back younger people into this party, a message of moderation, inclusion, which Mitt Romney has seemed to distance himself from. The mechanical man, he doesn't look ahead to the future and I do.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Fred Karger. Fred who, you say? He is running in the Republican presidential primaries in California tomorrow. He also happens to be openly gay and he is the first openly gay person to be on a major party ballot running for the presidency of the United States.

So, apart from sexual orientation and your identity as an openly gay man, what are your other reasons why people should vote for you?

KARGER: Well, my number one reason of course is jobs and the economy. And one of my 11 factors for getting into this campaign, and I gave it a tremendous amount of thought, was I was very disappointed with President Obama. As I mentioned, I supported Hillary Clinton four years ago, so I was a little slow to come around, but I did go to the Obama inauguration. I wished him well.

I worked for Reagan and on his inaugural committee, actually, in 1980 and '81 and he came in a very dire situation with this economy, and also with our stature in the world because of the Iranian hostage situation. But he had this undying spirit. He lifted America up. He made us feel good again, spending money. He helped, I like to say, talk us out of that terrible recession with some, you know, legislation things.

But Obama just passed stimulus and went about his merry way to health care and many other things. He had pledged to spend two years on the economy and didn't. Now he's coming around. He's getting a little better. He's in his campaign mode. But I want to talk about my jobs plan and it's putting America back to work. And he's bringing some optimism and spirit to this country, which I think Obama has failed at.

MARTIN: Now, one of the reasons that you can afford to spend this time running for president is that you are in a past life - maybe in a current life - an extremely successful campaign consultant in your own right. Fair to say?

KARGER: You got it.

MARTIN: Fair to say.

KARGER: I can't argue with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Can't argue with that. But you are either credited or blamed, depending on point of view, with the infamous Willie Horton ad which was directed against Michael Dukakis, the Democrat running for president in 1988. And I would like to ask what was your role in that?

KARGER: Well, there were two campaigns, both independent expenditures. We ran a committee completely separate from the commercial you're referring to, which was done by Richard Viguerie, I believe in Virginia showing Horton's picture. We never did. We just strictly talked about the victims. The victims did our commercials. There was no photo of Horton. There were these verity spots of the people affected, very close up.

So I repudiated that commercial you're talking about. I think that was done to play the racial card. And we took a very different tack and, as I say, I thought that was inappropriate and I think it was a big mistake.

MARTIN: And you think your role in it was fair? You think the ads that you advanced were Ok, were on point and were fair?

KARGER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Avoided the race baiting. OK.

KARGER: Crime victims at that point in the '80s were an untold story, which we worked with, and for about two decades, to help tell their story. And we helped change laws and keep prisoners in prison and help toughen laws out there. And I think that was very important.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you about you for a minute, your personal life? I mean, I read in one of the profiles of you that you were actually in the closet for most of your life. Is that true?

KARGER: It's very true, about 30 years, Michel. And it was a very difficult time. I've always been gay. I realized it and acted upon it about 18 years old, and I kept it a secret for many years from my friends, my family, my coworkers. But I had a healthy gay life on the side. I was partnered for 11 years. We lived together. Neither of our families knew. We didn't spend one Christmas together.

And of course this is a different time. I'm 62 years old and that is all, for a lot of us now, past history and that is one of the reasons I'm doing what I'm doing, running for president as the first openly gay candidate of a major party in history. I want to send that message to people like young Fred Karger who were so scared to come out that it's OK. You can be gay. You can be lesbian, bisexual, transgender and do anything you want to do in life. You can even run for president.

MARTIN: How do you feel now that you are out? You know, you're not just out - you're out out.


MARTIN: You're out, loud, and proud.


MARTIN: How does it feel now?

KARGER: I've created a monster. Well, it's because I suppressed that for so long. I lived that double life. I lied. I'd take girls to office parties and I did what so many people have done. I was lucky I didn't get married and have kids and live that lie like so many people of my generation and were really tormented and tortured.

So by keeping that in, by suppressing it, by retiring - I was lucky enough to retire eight and a half years ago. I didn't have family and kids to send to college, so it gave me some more independence and I have now dedicated my life to gay activism. I'm going to fight until full marriage equality is the law of the land because that, to me, is our civil rights act and it sends that powerful message to anyone out there that you're equal to your brother, your sister or your best friend. And so I am now, I guess, angry at the way I live my life and I don't way anyone else to have to live the way I did for so long.

MARTIN: I do wonder, though, if you think about what your life would have been had you not been in the closet all those years.

KARGER: At the time, and I've talked to many of my contemporaries about this, there was no alternative. I was petrified I might lose my job, which I loved, working as a Republican political consultant. I was scared to death that family might not be my family anymore. I had a pretty tragic situation when I was 21 years old and struggling with my sexuality. My mother's younger brother, Uncle Buddy, who I had run into in a gay bar and hid from, took his own life at 46 years old.

And I was always compared to him and I saw how that went over with the family because his note indicated he was gay and it was a very difficult situation for me that I couldn't share with anybody because that was my secret. And that kept me in the closet, I think, and kept my secret from my family for far longer than it should have.

I think they would've taken it a lot better than I had anticipated, but it's irrevocable. So I have a lot of regrets but I don't look back. I look forward and I want to make it easier for others.

MARTIN: I'm sorry about your uncle.

KARGER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, June is LGBT Pride Month so designated by the administration and previous ones also. So I just wanted to ask before you let you go, is there any particular message that you would want to send to people as they observe this month, those who do?

KARGER: I guess it's the message I heard from Bill Clinton when he spoke at the HRC dinner about two years after he became president, first sitting president to speak to our LGBT group. And he said, everyone in this room and everyone around the country who's gay or straight - gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender needs to come out to your friends and your families and your co-workers.

Only then will things change. And that's what we're seeing now more and more, coming out younger and younger and that's why these poll numbers are just off the charts in support of full marriage equality. So that is my message. It's a decision you need to give tremendous amount of thought to because as I mentioned, it's irrevocable.

But that is what pride is about. It's being out and proud. And if you can do it, do it. Your life will be so much better.

MARTIN: Fred Karger is running for the presidency of the United States. He is a Republican. He's on the ballot in California and Utah, and he joined us today from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California. Fred Karger, thanks for speaking with us.

KARGER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, if you are a fan of reality TV, then you have probably seen an episode or two of "The Bachelor." But you've never seen a bachelor or bachelorette of color get serious consideration.

CYRUS MEHRI: How do you explain zero? How do you explain zero for 23 when they claim they're looking for people of color?

MARTIN: That's what some would-be bachelors are asking in court. We'll check in with the man who's taken their case. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.