The mayor of a small Midwest city is making headlines as the first gay man to seek a major party presidential nomination.
Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., may be the first presidential candidate in a same-sex marriage, and the first openly gay Democrat to seek the presidency. But he is not the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party.
That distinction belongs to Fred Karger, a California Republican strategist who sought his party’s nomination in 2012, a campaign that included visiting Iowa and hiring staff.
Revisiting Karger’s forlorn campaign illustrates that much has changed in the past eight years, yet how much has stayed the same.
Karger’s candidacy was dismissed by many in the political and media establishments as a stunt, although he insisted he had real conservative credentials and a broad set of policy interests. He worked with dozens of GOP politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Nevertheless, Karger was excluded from candidate forums and debates, including the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition event in March 2011. Karger alleged he was kept out because he is gay and filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, which was later dismissed.
As evidence of anti-gay bias, Karger released an email he received from Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition leader Steve Scheffler, who is also Iowa’s Republican national committeeman.
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“As a private citizen, and knowing literally thousands of caucus goers, I will work overtime to help ensure that your political aspirations are aborted right here in Iowa. Have you studied our past caucuses — you have NO chance here in Iowa!” Scheffler wrote.
While Karger never earned mass support from caucusgoers, he says Scheffler was an outlier — most party officials gave him a warm reception. He said former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus met with him and offered access to the same party resources other candidates receive.
“When I released that Steve Scheffler email, everyone lambasted him for that. That was universally disparaged by everybody in Iowa. That was one of my purposes,” Karger told me recently.
It was grass roots groups outside the official party structure that were most hostile to Karger’s White House ambitions, demanding he end his campaign and even threatening violence.
Eight years later, Karger sees an electorate that is much more receptive to gay politicians than it was when he ran. But unfortunately, homophobic warriors have not gone extinct.
During a campaign tour in Iowa this month, Buttigieg drew protests from the radical anti-gay activist Randall Terry from Washington, D.C. An actor depicting Buttigieg whipped an actor dressed as Jesus, while Terry, wearing a devil costume, cheered him on.
Stunts like that, Karger agrees, demonstrate the weakness of the anti-gay rights movement.
“They’re kind of in a corner now,” he said.
Karger has made a point of reaching out to correct journalists who repeat the claim that Buttigieg is the first openly gay major party candidate. He does not mean to detract from the young mayor’s political success — Karger met and endorsed the candidate early in the process — but he says it’s important not to “distort LGBT history.”
The Republican activist compared himself with former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who became the first African-American and first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. While Chisholm faced gender and race discrimination in her campaign, she is widely seen as opening opportunities for later candidates.
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“She wanted to pave the way and make it easier for the next person, and that was a big part of my motivation — to send a message to the LGBT community that there are no limits now. I wanted to kick that door open,” Karger told me.
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