In Fred Karger's Presidential Run, GOP Stands for Gay Old Party

The OC resident and onetime Republican hatchet man hopes his quixotic campaign can push his party to become more gay-friendly

In February, a Washington Post profile described Karger as "nice."

"I wear that as a badge of honor," he says. "I happen to think of myself that way. Unless you cross me and my community."

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Laguna Beach resident Fred Karger doesn't mind self-deprecation in his march to become the first openly gay U.S. president
Mark Graham
Laguna Beach resident Fred Karger doesn't mind self-deprecation in his march to become the first openly gay U.S. president
The candidate catches a Frisbee toss from a reporter in a Dallas hotel
Mark Graham
The candidate catches a Frisbee toss from a reporter in a Dallas hotel

In the past decade, nobody crossed the gay community in California more than Roy Ashburn. As a state assemblyman and later state senator from Bakersfield, the feisty, 5-foot-4-inch Ashburn enjoyed the label that he was "to the right of Rush Limbaugh." He voted against 40 gay-rights laws, earning himself a 0 rating from gay activists. In 2005, he organized a "traditional family values" rally.

Ashburn nowadays concedes he didn't care about the gay community. He was married to a woman, had children and dreamed of becoming a member of Congress. "I was really cocky," he says. "The Log Cabin table at conventions—that's the one I avoided because I had a dark secret: a double life."

Though rumors swirled for years about Ashburn's sexuality, he thought that he'd done "a masterful job hiding it." His wife figured it out, divorced him in 2003, but remained mum. His anti-gay voting intensified even as he took more risks cruising gay bars. Then, at 2 a.m. on March 4, 2010, the state senator's fake persona imploded.

"Fourteen months ago, I was arrested for DUI after leaving a gay club that had just had the Ms. Latino Drag Show contest," he recalls. "I wasn't a participant, but I was so inebriated that I could have been."

The firestorm accelerated when it leaked that the passenger in Ashburn's government-issued vehicle had been a 29-year-old San Jose gay man; they were on their way to a hotel.

"I was terrible, really terrible," he says.

Four days after the incident, Ashburn revealed his homosexuality. "It was the most incredibly liberating thing in my life," he says.

His announcement wasn't welcomed everywhere. News outlets called him "shameless," "self-loathing" or "a Machiavellian careerist." Jay Leno slammed him in a Tonight Show monologue. Somebody created a Facebook page titled "1,000,000 Gay Men and Allies Against Roy Ashburn Having Sex Ever Again."

From an establishment GOP point of view, Jon Fleischman—a Republican Party operative based in Orange County—told reporters the gay disclosure was like "hammering nails into" Ashburn's political coffin.

But Ashburn says not everyone abandoned him. "The reaction of my Republican teammates [in the Legislature] was great," he says. "They were very loving."

Karger calls Ashburn "a courageous hero" and named him the guest of honor at a June 1 Sacramento fund-raiser. His admiration soared after he saw Ashburn address a liberal gay crowd. "It was a room full of angry people," Karger recalls. "Roy did such an amazing job telling his story that he defused 90 percent of the animosity. Everybody walked away with a better understanding of the extreme acts many of us do in the closet to cover up our [gay] existence."

Ashburn, 57, isn't covering up much anymore. He'll freely discuss his romantic interests with the enthusiasm of a teenager. He sighs in appreciation after describing one boyfriend, a much-younger Latino man.

"All the anti-gay things that I did were because of selfishness," he says. "I can't lie about that. I am truly sorry and am trying to make amends now as a conservative, openly gay Republican."

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According to an April poll by the Pew Research Center, while only 64 percent of staunch conservatives oppose abortion in "all/most" cases, a whopping 85 percent of them oppose gay marriage. It's a sentiment that has led Republicans in Texas to demand a return to anti-sodomy laws and to make gay marriage a felony punishable by prison time. Other conservatives across the nation have blamed natural disasters and terrorist attacks on God's wrath for America's undeniably growing acceptance of gay citizens.

Karger says he often faces that type of hostile climate and kooky opinions. He praises Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus and party chief of staff Jeff Larson for treating him with respect. "They are great," he says.

But Karger—who worked with Lee Atwater, the legendary brass-knuckles GOP/Reagan strategist—notes that not all party bigwigs are happy that an openly gay Republican has entered the presidential fray. He says Steve Scheffler, an RNC member and "Christian Coalition type" from Iowa, didn't just block him from participating in a presidential-candidate forum earlier this year. Scheffler also sent Karger an email: "You and the radical homosexual community are not welcome in Iowa. I am going to work overtime to abort your candidacy and make sure you are defeated here."

"At first, I thought it was a joke, but then I realized this guy was serious," Karger says.

Openly gay West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, a Democrat, doesn't share Karger's politics, but he supports his foray into the race.

"I think it's healthy to have Fred in the GOP primary because it shows his party there are openly gay conservatives," says Duran, who has known Karger for 15 years. "That's a good thing."

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During an LCR convention session on April 29, a gay Republican in the audience expresses frustration that "unions and blacks" in California helped right-wing efforts to ban gay marriage during the Prop. 8 election in 2008.

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