Republican Ben Carson formally kicked off his presidential campaign in his hometown of Detroit today, with an event that included a gospel choir, five opera singers from Nashville, and a video ad featuring Mount Rushmore, a soaring bald eagle, and amber waves of grain.
The retired neurosurgeon and former Fox News contributor is a long-shot candidate in what’s already a crowded primary field.
But he’s hoping he can build on his outsider status, his powerful biography and his tea party popularity.
Carson has never held public office, and came on the political scene just two years ago with a national speech blasting Obamacare as the “worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery.”
The only black GOP candidate in the race so far, conservatives love his willingness to criticize President Obama. And he didn't disappoint them today.
“I’m saying to people around this nation right now: stop being loyal to a party or a to a man, and use your brain to think for yourself,” he told a crowd of supporters today to big applause.
A renowned neurosurgeon who grew up poor in Detroit
Carson's personal story, as he tells it, centers around his mother.
He says she was from a big family in rural Tennessee, and that she married at age 13 with only a third grade education. Carson says she divorced his father after discovering he was a bigamist, even though that separation plunged the family into poverty.
Throughout his childhood, Carson says his mother was resolute about not going onto welfare.
“And the reason for that is that most of the people she saw go on welfare never came off it. And she didn’t want to be dependent," he said.
"She wanted us also to be independent. And she decided she would work as long and as hard as necessary, leaving at 5 in the morning getting back after midnight, day after day after day doing what other people didn’t want to do.”
He says his mother forced him to turn off the TV and submit written book reports to her “even though she couldn’t read.”
He went on to attend Yale University, where he met his wife, Candy.
“After graduation, Ben would work as an X-ray technician, a bank teller, a school bus driver, a supervisor for highway cleanup crews, and a crane operator in a steel factory,” his campaign website reads.
He went to the University of Michigan’s medical school, becoming a renowned neurosurgeon and then director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins.
“You don’t have to be dependent on the good graces of somebody else,” says Carson. “You can do it on your own if you have a normal brain and you’re willing to work and you’re willing to have that can-do attitude.”
“Get rid of programs that create dependency”
The rest of Carson’s campaign kick-off speech in Detroit focused on two things: his criticism of what he describes as “cradle-to-grave” government welfare programs, and the government’s handling of the economy.
“I have no desire to get rid of safety nets from people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people,” he said.
“We need not only to take the executive branch in 2016. And when I say we, I mean not only Republicans, I’m talking about anybody who has common sense.
“We have to ... bring in people with common sense who actually love our nation and are willing to work for our nation and are more concerned with our nation than with the next election.”
The political road ahead
Carson boasts about his outsider status, saying he’s able to make tough decisions about the economy, business, and social issues because of his work as a surgeon, his service on corporate boards, and the scholarship fund he and his wife created. It’s given out more than $6 million, according to Carson’s web site.
But he’s also been criticized for his views on gay rights.
In a CNN interview in March, he said homosexuality is “absolutely” a choice because people "go into prison straight – and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there?”
He later apologized for that remark.
Still, he’s up against a primary field where his name recognition is minimal compared to probable candidates like Jeb Bush, and his traction with the tea party isn’t as strong as it is for Ted Cruz or Rand Paul.