Dr. Ben Carson has become a political lightning rod in recent weeks, sparking controversy over the Affordable Care Act and other hot topics. But when he comes to Columbus on Monday to speak at a gala, politics won't be the focus.
Carson, considered a national hero for his rise from poverty, is a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who recently retired from Johns Hopkins University. He is coming to town as keynote speaker for the Sue Marie and Bill Turner Servant Leadership Gala at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
To the surprise of many, Carson, 62, has become a rising star in conservative circles. He's been in the media spotlight since February when he criticized President Barack Obama's health care plan at the National Prayer Breakfast. Last weekend, Carson set off another controversy at the conservative Values Voter Summit, when he said Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened to the country since slavery. He also said women "all riled up" over abortion should be "re-educated."
Earlier this year, Carson also made controversial comments about homosexuality. He withdrew as graduation speaker at Johns Hopkins University because of a backlash from students.
Carson has become such a darling of political conservatives that he was recently hired by Fox News as a contributor, and he came in second in a Values Voter straw poll for potential Republican presidential candidates. Tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won first place.
Ron King, executive director of the Pastoral Institute, said Monday's luncheon has nothing to do with politics. He said Carson was selected as the keynote speaker because Sis Blanchard, who is being honored with her husband, likes Carson and requested that he give the address. King said 1,000 people have already purchased tickets, which are $150 for individuals and $2,500 per table. It seems the controversy has not negatively impacted ticket sales, he said.
"Yes, he's emerging on the political stage, but that's not the focus of what we're doing," King said. "We're celebrating the lives of Sis and Jim Blanchard and how much they've done for this community through servant leadership. What we're having him come do is talk about his experiences growing up as he did and how he was able to think bigger and become a person that has given back in many ways."
Disappointment from some
Dr. Tom Theus, a retired local physician, was one of the first to purchase seats for the event. He has read several of Carson's books and heard him speak in Columbus about 15 years ago. Carson, who is Seventh-day Adventist, spoke at the Columbus First Seventh-day Adventist Church and at local high schools. Theus said he would vote for Carson if he ran for president or any other office.
"I admire him so much for being such an outstanding physician and where he came from," said Theus, who is also Seventh-day Adventist. "I was impressed with what a soft-spoken guy he was. That's one of the things that impressed me most in addition to all the other things he has done with his life."
However, some in the black community said they're disappointed with Carson's recent comments and strong affiliation with Fox News and tea party conservatives. Some are longtime fans of the neurosurgeon whose autobiography, "Gifted Hands," has inspired many black youths. Carson, the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate Siamese twins, also has a foundation that awards scholarships and promotes excellence. In 2009, a movie about his life premiered on TNT starring Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr.
Janet Allen, the wife of Dr. Richard Allen, a local physician, said she is a longtime Carson fan. She and her husband went to hear him speak at a Republican event in Eufaula, Ala., a month ago. But Allen, who described herself as an independent, said she doesn't agree with some of Carson's recent comments. She was particularly turned off by the slavery comparison.
"That was so bad, just horrible," said Allen, who is black. "You have to be selective how you state things. The health care act has nothing to do with slavery, and I don't know how he could make that statement.
"Tell me who in the Affordable Care Act is going to be whipped and beaten and dehumanized," she added. "That's a strong example that should've never been used."
Charlene Mitchell, office manager at HairWorks on Wildwood, a black hair salon, said Carson has been such a hero in the black community and it's disconcerting to know that he thinks that way.
"I'm excited to hear he's coming, but disappointed he took that stance," she said.
But for some, Carson's trip to Columbus is just family coming to town.
Carson's brother, Curtis, is married to a Columbus native, Dr. Janice Carson, now a physician in Atlanta. Her brother, Stan Stovall, still lives in the Columbus area, along with his wife, Malinda, an assistant principal at Wynnton Arts Academy.
Stovall said he will be at the gala with his 16-year-old granddaughter, J'haria Dallas, to welcome Carson with open arms.
"We call each other brother-in-law," said Stan Stovall, a local insurance adjuster.
Stan and Malinda Stovall said they're trying to stay out of the politics surrounding Carson's visit. Stovall said they hang out with Carson and his wife, Candy, whenever they're in Atlanta visiting Carson's brother, Curtis, and his wife, Janice.
Stovall said the Carsons stayed at his home in Columbus when Curt and Janice got married 30-something years ago. And he and Carson worked together many years ago when Stovall was a housekeeping manager at John Hopkins. He said the last time he saw the Carsons was last Christmas in Atlanta, and they didn't talk about politics.
"To be honest, whenever Ben and I get together, we just sit and talk about relaxing things," he said. "He's just a regular down to earth person when he's not in the limelight, just another guy."