Ben Carson, Gifted Surgeon and Political Neophyte, Announces Presidential Bid

The famed neurosurgeon and long-shot candidate looks to grassroots for a boost in the deep Republican field.

Surgeon Ben Carson Announces Presidential Bid

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has become a grassroots conservative favorite on the strength of his motivational life story and strong opposition to President Barack Obama, said Sunday that he is entering the crowded Republican race for the presidential nomination.

“I’m willing to be part of the equation and therefore, I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States of America,” Carson told WKRC, a Cincinnati, Ohio, television station, one day before he kicked off his campaign in Detroit. 

The announcement puts Carson, 63, the black former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, into his first political campaign following what his aides have described as a crash course on everything from economic issues to foreign policy.  

Carson has portrayed himself in speeches and interviews as a fighter against political correctness and of politicians on the whole. It's a position reflected in his policy ideas, many of which are laid out in his six published books that don't necessarily follow straight conservative orthodoxy.

He's a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act who, as a world class surgeon, says health insurance companies should be turned into utilities with profit limits. He's a free-market advocate who points to the deregulation of Wall Street in the 1990s as the root cause of the financial crisis. He relied on food stamps during periods of his youth, yet points to President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society era as the start of the steady fall of the country's individualism and independence.

“I'm not going to do and say what's politically expedient, I’m going to say what's right,” Carson said in an interview with Bloomberg before his announcement. “If that's something that resonates with the people great and if it doesn't, that's who I am and I'm not going to change.”

Carson addressed supporters Monday morning in Detroit, the battered city where he spent much of his youth—a period defined by points when his family relied heavily on government assistance. According to his best-selling autobiography, Gifted Hands, Carson had to overcome personal bouts with anger and educational apathy.

His backstory, though, was only a piece of what Carson himself acknowledges as an unexpected political rise that resulted in speaking engagements across the country, regular appearances on Fox News, and, most importantly, viable poll numbers in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. While he remains a long-shot candidate in a deep Republican field, Carson has consistently pulled 5 or 6 percent in those early state polls, which his advisers say was enough to lure him into the race, especially given still-low name identification around the country.

The goal, according to Carson and his aides, is to use the campaign launch as a springboard. “The plan is to be able to speak in a very public forum,” Carson said, adding that he's targeting the debate stage, where he'd face off with at least a half-dozen other Republican hopefuls, as his time to hit the national mainstream.

Carson spoke to supporters Monday in the face of looming personal tragedy. His mother, Sonya, whom he cites as the driving force behind his rise from poverty to become a world-class surgeon, is near death, according to Carson senior adviser Armstrong Williams. Carson will postpone his first official campaign trip to Iowa and instead travel to Dallas after his campaign announcement to be by her side as she battles Alzheimer's, Williams said.

The turn in his mother's health was unexpected: Carson became aware of her worsening condition during rehearsals Sunday night for his announcement in Detroit.

“People are afraid to stand up for what they believe in because they don't want to be called a name,” Carson said in the wide-ranging speech, during which he strode the stage and brought up his campaign team to introduce them by name. “They don't want an IRS audit. They don't want their jobs messed with or their families messed with. But isn't it time for us to think about the people who came before us and what they were willing to do so that we could be free?”

He attacked Obama's record on the economy, saying that many people “buy hook, line, and sinker the idea that our economy is getting much better and that, you know, the unemployment rate is down to 5.5 percent! You know what? If the unemployment rate was down to 5.5 percent, our economy would be humming, OK, but obviously it's not.”

His political launch can be traced back to February 2013, with a single speech at the National Prayer Breakfast challenging Obama on health care, taxes, spending, and the country's direction—all with the president and first lady sitting a few feet away. 

The next day the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “Ben Carson for President.” Just a few months before his retirement from the medical profession, the speech set off a whirlwind two years for Carson. He has criss-crossed the country, sometimes delivering four to five paid speeches a week, and building grassroots support that has filled his campaign bank accounts. In the first 28 days after launching his exploratory committee in March, Carson raised more than $2 million. A super-political action committee established to push Carson toward a run raised more than $13.5 million in less than two years as of the end of 2014, according to Federal Election Commission filings. 

While enthusiasm in conservative circles continued to rise, he also drew unwelcome attention for a series of controversial comments. He's equated what he sees as the loss of personal freedom under Obama's health care law with slavery. He called citizens who refused to stand up against the Obama administration the equivalent of those who stood by and did nothing in Nazi Germany. While defending his belief that marriage should only be defined as between one man and one women, his loose phrasing made it appear he was comparing homosexuality to bestiality. (He later apologized.)

Those comments, and the topline economic policy platform Carson has pursued, have cost him the support of many of the same people who looked up to him as a community leader and role model in Baltimore.

Yet Carson's positions also have been one of his top selling points to his supporters. 

The presidential campaign marks the latest chapter in a life that registers as a political consultant's dream (or Hollywood director's—Cuba Gooding Jr. played Carson in the television adaptation of Gifted Hands, his autobiography). With the support and prodding of his mother, he rose from poor grades, a single-parent home, and poverty to attend Yale University and medical school at the University of Michigan.

He became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, all while becoming the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the back of the head.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, has more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees, and has served on corporate boards including Kellogg Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. (He will now resign from the boards, he says.) His foundation, Carson Scholars Fund, is operating in all 50 states and has given out nearly $6 million in scholarships to students for academic and humanitarian achievement.

Carson, who has three sons, is rarely without his wife, Candy, by his side. Though she has no official title, she's described by aides as a senior adviser on his team.

Before he decided to postpone travel to join his mother, Carson was set to hit the road to early-voting states after his Detroit speech, with appearances in Iowa, South Carolina this weekend, and New Hampshire next week—a cycle aides say will be repeated often in the months ahead.

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