Fred Karger may be the most intriguing Presidential candidate you have never heard of. As a Glencoe teenager, his favorite pastime was hopping the train to Chicago and crashing posh charity galas; later, in California, long before any performing ambitions, he crashed the Academy Awards three times.
The gay Republican hopeful hails from Chicago’s North Shore and aims to use his election campaign to shake up the attitudes toward homosexuality and Republicans.
"My main purpose for running this campaign is three-fold: love of country, [concern for] the Republican party, and impact for LGBT youth and seniors," said Karger, who grew up in . "I thought I could add to the dialogue and bring back optimism of Reagan and bring some sense to the dialogue."
After Michigan's primary results on Tuesday, Karger was in good spirits.
"It’s the best scenario for me because if this turns into a two-man race, and I become a third candidate in the race, I would hope to be that third voice of a more moderate position," said Karger. "When that happens anything is possible."
A longtime Republican political operative, the retired businessman worked in nine Presidential campaigns before his own. He calls himself moderate; others might say quirky. He’s pro-choice, against the war in Afghanistan, and said he would lower the voting age to 17. Plus, he wants a full airing of gay issues.
Karger’s real target is not the Oval Office but the election process, as he aims to crack open hard-line Republican positions and turn the campaign conversation into a civil one. It’s not so much his own voice he wants heard, but the muffled ones of America’s side-lined gays.
"The biggest surprise is the number of people who open up to me and tell me the most unbelieveable stories around the gay experience," said Karger, who came out in his 50s. "They reveal that they are torn ... I am also flattered and honored by that."
One such individual is Lihy Epstein, 23, of Northbrook, who met Karger at the Conservative Political Action Conference in D.C. and then became a campaign volunteer.
"A lot of things about Fred align with my personal interests in the sense that I am from the suburbs, I’m Jewish, I’m queer and I’m a Republican," said Epstein. "I feel like people like me are ousted from every circle ... Fred has the values that I have, being queer but having conversative values politically. People say that the two cannot coincide, but I feel that the issues he talks about are very relevant and I wish the political realm will let him in."
Yet for the positive moments, Karger is also hampered by meager funds and a small staff. He speaks of “clawing” his way into the campaign: his battle for an announcement venue, a wrangle with “slippery” debate criteria, and a denial of exhibit space at Washington’s high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference in Feburary.
“Just give me a seat at the table!” said Karger, who maintains that one solid debate performance could improve the entire election dialogue.
Although absent from primary debates thus far, he won ballot slots in New Hampshire, Michigan, Maryland, Puerto Rico, California and Utah.
"I haven't seen polling data, or a vote projection featuring Karger from Illinois yet, so I don't know how much of the vote he is expected to pull," said Caitlin Huxley, president of the Illinois Chapter of Log Cabin Republicans (LCR). "Obviously, he would do better with more money and more volunteers, but, the same is true for all candidates in his race."
According to the polls, said Karger, Americans will soon be ready for a gay president, and he does not believe they want a Mormon one. Of Rick Santorum’s recent resurgence, he is dismissive. “It shows the desperation for an alternative to Romney,” says Karger. “I’d like to be that alternative.”
Karger employes a dry, disarming sense of humor to flavor his campaign, entitling his recent autobiography Fred Who? and prominently displaying his birth certificate on his campaign website. He's also a big proponent of social media's democratizing features.
"Social media is what has opend up the ability for me to run," said Karger. "Twenty years I couldn't have done this, the cost of postage alone."
One of Karger’s strategies is simply to hang on; expecting that as the field of hopefuls thins, the more likely he is to be heard.
"I've been telling people that even if they're going to vote for Obama but they don't like any [other] Republican presidential candidates, vote for me now and Obama later," he said.
For now, with growing press coverage, his persistence seems to be working.
"I definitely believe that every time a candidate or elected official who is affiliated with the Republican Party runs for higher office, they are furthering the cause that LCR fights for," said Huxley. "The more the party recognizes that LGBT individuals vote Republican, the more they will be forced to include us."