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As ‘gay Republican,’ Karger smiles as he nudges open closed doors

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Fred Karger has mixed political gatherings with gay-pride events. Karger favors abortion rights and gay marriage but quotes Ronald Reagan. Campaigning in New Hampshire, Fred Karger has mixed political gatherings with gay-pride events. Karger favors abortion rights and gay marriage but quotes Ronald Reagan. (David Kamerman/ Globe Staff)
By Shira Schoenberg
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2011

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MANCHESTER, N. H. - Fred Karger is quick to tick off the slights to his presidential campaign. The Conservative Political Action Conference wouldn’t rent him a booth. He wasn’t invited to speak at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. He didn’t meet the criteria for inclusion in a New Hampshire debate.

“It hurts,’’ Karger said. “I’m getting a lot of arrows in my back from a lot of people.’’ A self-described “political junkie,’’ Karger is no stranger to the tough world of presidential politics. As a Republican consultant in California, Karger worked on nine presidential campaigns. Yet as the first openly gay presidential candidate - in a Republican Party that opposes gay marriage and gays serving openly in the military - Karger, who is campaigning in the state this week, faces additional challenges.

“When I go into meetings and people are uncomfortable with me, it’s very difficult,’’ Karger said. “I think why didn’t I just stay in the closet?’’

At the same time, the opposition has put Karger in the position where he seems most comfortable - fighting the establishment with legal challenges and good humor. With a quick smile, a bagpiper, and a supply of blue Frisbees emblazoned with the slogan “Fred Who?’’ Karger recently campaigned door to door here. Once he drove several blocks out of his way to see a big “Karger for President’’ sign that his intern planted on his lawn.

The combative Karger filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission after he was not invited to the Iowa forum. He set up “Let Fred In’’ websites arguing why he should be invited to debates in South Carolina and New Hampshire. He bought air time during the New Hampshire debate for an ad hitting Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson for profiting as gas prices are rising.

Bob Naylor, who worked with Karger while both campaigned for Ronald Reagan, describes Karger: “He’s mild-mannered, soft spoken, and tough as nails.’’

He’s also down-to-earth. On a recent visit house-hunting here, Karger looked at a six-bedroom house that he considered turning into a campaign headquarters, with living space for his staff, himself, and weekend volunteers, and enough bathrooms to go around. At age 61, Karger said, “I’d like my own bathroom.’’

Karger drives his own rental car, gives his cellphone number to reporters - and answers it himself. A native of Illinois, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver and attended acting school before becoming a political consultant. He quit that in 2004 and two years later came out as gay, organizing a campaign to save a gay bar from development in his hometown of Laguna Beach.

Since then, gay rights have been the centerpiece of his activism and his presidential campaign. During the 2008 debate over California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8, Karger created a group that aggressively boycotted donors supporting the proposition. He complained to California’s Fair Political Practices Commission that the Mormon Church organized an anti-gay-marriage campaign without reporting its contributions. The commission found the church committed 13 violations of campaign finance laws and fined the church $5,539.

Last April, he trained his fire on former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who had made statements harshly critical of gay marriage and, at the time, was still considering a run for president. Karger published an op-ed taking Huckabee to task for his commutation of the sentence of a prisoner who went on to allegedly shoot four police officers.

Karger’s campaign platform centers on making the Republican Party more inclusive. He supports gay marriage, wants to prohibit businesses from discriminating in hiring based on sexual orientation, and would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In New Hampshire, he mixes meet-and-greets with gay pride events.

Asked why he is running as “the gay Republican,’’ Karger acknowledges that it’s a political strategy. “It gets me a seat at the table. A gay Republican is newsworthy,’’ he said. But it’s also personal. Karger wants to send a message to gay and lesbian people: “You can do anything you want to do, even run for president of the United States.’’

Many of Karger’s stances are unlikely to appeal to Republicans. He favors abortion rights and wants to legalize marijuana and raise taxes on millionaires. He wants to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his first New Hampshire meetings was with gay Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. Asked what makes him Republican, Karger stresses a belief in a strong national defense, toughness on crime, small government, lower spending, and personal responsibility. Karger often quotes Reagan, referring to him as “my old boss.’’

Karger has support from the state’s gay community. Mike Jacobsen and his husband, former New Hampshire state representative Robert Thompson, both Democrats, have taken Karger to gay clubs and introduced him to local politicians.

Whether Karger can harness support from his target audience - young Republicans and independents - is unclear. He hasn’t registered at all in most polls. R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay rights organization that Karger belongs to, said Karger’s candidacy sends a message that sexual orientation does not preclude a Republican from running for office. But Cooper said conservatives could be turned off by “identity politics.’’

“The good news is being a gay Republican running for office is not so unique anymore,’’ he said.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com.