Long-shot presidential candidate Fred Karger figures he's got a few things going for him as he vies with some heavy-hitting Republicans, including Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann, for his party's nomination.
For one thing, the Laguna Beach resident is the only Californian running for the highest office in the land — if you don't count Romney's move last year to San Diego — and for another, he had the privilege of working for the last Californian-turned-president, Ronald Reagan.
Karger, running as the first openly gay U.S. presidential candidate, thinks the current Congress and president could take a cue from Reagan, who, Karger says, did not condone the bitter feuding that resulted in a dangerous stalemate over the country's debt limit.
"I want to bring back the American spirit of getting along, which was Reagan-esque," Karger said Monday. "The problem in Washington is one of attitude. That's why there is an inability to raise the debt limit. [Elected leaders] are not putting the interests of the country first."
Karger was home in Laguna this week for several California fundraisers, including one in Beverly Hills where he was introduced by Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a Democrat who was the first openly gay councilman in that city.
Laguna Mayor Toni Iseman, a Democrat, spoke at his Laguna fundraiser.
"I'm working with both sides," Karger said.
Karger said this mirrors his mentor Reagan, who as president was a friend of the late Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and made it his business to work with the opposing party.
As for the Tea Party and its effect on his party, Karger says he's "still trying to figure them out" but is determined to change the Republican Party, even as an independent and moderate.
"I know I'm a longshot, but I've come a long way," he said. "I've been included on CNN and other news media lists of [serious] candidates."
Karger says he now has enough money from donations and his own funds to carry him through the primary season and, with seven paid staffers, has his eye on the Feb. 14 New Hampshire contest.
He is renting a beautiful old home in Manchester, N.H., where he will spend the next four to seven months persuading voters in the state to pick him over the bevy of other candidates.
"I'll miss Laguna," he said. "But if I can get into a debate, I know I can break out of the pack."
Taking on gay bashing
His challenges to Romney and Bachmann have earned him credibility as "Fighting Fred." He challenged Bachmann's husband to a debate over the issue of the couple's Christian-oriented counseling service, which was revealed to be trying to persuade gays to change their sexual orientation — a practice discredited by psychiatrists.
"I called Michelle Bachmann a liar and hypocrite, because she called gay people barbarians and prayed over the desk of a gay person, and has been particularly vicious in her attacks," Karger said. "One of the big reasons I want to do this [run for president] is to take on gay bashing."
He said that one of his inspirations was Bob Gentry, who made history when he became one of the first openly gay mayors of a city in 1982. The city was Laguna Beach.
At the time, Karger was "in the closet" as a Republican Party strategist, working against Democrats. He was unable to reveal his sexual orientation and felt it necessary to bring a "skirt" — a fake girlfriend — to social and political events as a cover. It was a dark time of fear and suffering.
Then he retired, and the former behind-the-scenes politico was suddenly let out of the closet in more ways than one.
Over the past five years, Karger has led a fight to try to keep the legendary gay bar, the Boom Boom Room, open in Laguna Beach. He has taken on the Mormon church over its alleged funding of initiatives to kill same-sex marriage rights in California, Maine and other states.
He says his inspiration as an activist started in Laguna Beach.
"Bob Gentry had a big impact on me," Karger said. "I owe a huge debt to him, and I'm trying to do for others what Bob did for me."
Now he is having the time of his life, while other Republican candidates sweat it out.
"I was at an event and [conservative candidate] Rick Santorum said to me, 'You're having fun, aren't you?'" Karger said. "He is not having fun, but I am."
His appearances and news articles have generated a constant stream of messages from teenagers as young as 13, who are pouring their hearts out about feeling demonized because of their sexual orientation.
"I've gotten thousands of emails, many from kids with heartwrenching stories of suicide attempts and not being accepted by their families," he said. "I get messages every day. I'm doing this for the younger people, but the other day when I said that, I got a message from an 82-year-old man who was in the closet his whole life and said that my running for president was for him, too.
"My message is getting out there, and it's giving people hope."
That may be why, for Karger, just running for president is a win.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.