A Former GOP Mastermind Is Now Fighting to Save Gay Marriage and Unmask the Mormon Church
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In the summer of 2008, Fred Karger was keeping a close eye on the California ballot initiative known as Proposition 8, the measure that would eventually outlaw gay marriage in the state. He didn't have much background in the marriage-equality movement—hell, he'd only really been out for a few years. But after retiring from 30 years in politics he wasn't quite ready to give up the game, and Prop 8 struck a nerve with him. He checked out the campaign finance reports for the main organization backing the initiative, ProtectMarriage.com. Polls had shown that the initiative was likely to fail, and the fundraising records dovetailed with that—Prop 8's supporters weren't raising nearly as much money as their Hollywood-backed opponents.
But then, in midsummer, Karger noticed something new. Suddenly, money started pouring in to ProtectMarriage.com, and by August, the group was raising about $500,000 a day. Karger wondered where all the money was coming from. Most of the donors, he soon realized, had never made a political contribution before. Some had given to just one candidate: Mitt Romney. Quite a few were graduates of Brigham Young University. It wasn't hard to connect the dots: This was Mormon money.
Once he knew what to look for, Karger found Mormons everywhere in the Prop 8 campaign: as actors in the TV ads, as volunteers, organizers, and political consultants. Just as intriguing, he would discover eventually, the group that had done the lion's share of the work to get Prop 8 on the ballot to begin with, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), also had deep ties to the Mormon Church—and the church itself had been engaged in a campaign to block gay marriage across the nation for more than a decade. What he was looking at, he realized, was a stealth campaign much like the ones he'd run during his long career as a Republican political operative.
As a political professional, Karger—who for decades worked for one of California's premier campaign consulting firms, a shop that had helped invent modern opposition research—was grudgingly impressed with what the Mormons were doing. "They completely altered the landscape," he says. "They took over every aspect of the campaign." Karger estimates that Mormons ultimately contributed $30 million of the $42 million total raised in support of Prop 8, which passed easily in November 2008. (By contrast, anti-Prop 8 forces raised $64 million.)
But if the opponents of gay marriage won the battle, they also ensured themselves a big headache. In Karger, they galvanized an adversary who has now dug in to fight for the long haul—and who brings a dramatically different skill set than the rest of the marriage-equality movement. As Karger notes, most of the prominent gay-marriage advocates are, well, married people: risk averse and unschooled in the political dark arts. "I'm a different kind of gay activist," he says. "I'm a little wilder."
HE'S ALSO a little more, well, Republican. At 14, growing up in Glencoe, Illinois, Karger took the train to Chicago to work phone banks for Nelson Rockefeller. He was deputy campaign director for former California governor George Deukmejian and spent 27 years with the Dolphin Group, one of the country's most sought-after Republican consulting firms. The firm did a lot of work with Lee Atwater, the late bad boy of Republican politics. As part of Atwater's most infamous play, during the 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis, Karger personally tracked down the victims of furloughed murderer Willie Horton and took them around the country for press events. "We made a huge splash," he notes. "This is kind of my niche."