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In the city that claims him, Ben Carson falls from grace

Last Updated Aug 20, 2018 at 7:00 am EST

BALTIMORE – The portrait used to hang in the hallway, welcoming children and parents to the Archbishop Borders School in Baltimore: A smiling Dr. Ben Carson in surgical scrubs, rubbing together the careful, steady hands that helped him become the nation’s most famous black doctor.

“The person who has the most to do with your success is you,” it reads.

That was before Carson’s presidential bid, before he withdrew from the race and endorsed Donald Trump, before he was tapped to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was before he worked for a president who failed to condemn white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. And before Carson pushed policies critics say walk back civil rights protections for those living in subsidized housing.

“I took it down,” said Principal Alicia Freeman of the portrait she’s since placed out of public view. Although the school, whose student body is majority Hispanic, black and low-income, has a reading room funded by Carson’s foundation, the doctor’s inspirational message now feels hostile, she said.

“He was starting to become offensive.”

Carson’s story of growing up in a single-parent household and climbing out of poverty to become a world-renowned surgeon was once ubiquitous in Baltimore, the overwhelmingly Democratic city where Carson made his name. In some schools his memoir was required reading, an illustration of the power of perseverance. For a working-class, majority African-American city wracked by racial division, poverty, drug addiction and neglect, Ben Carson was hope.

But his role in the Trump administration has added a complicated epilogue, leaving many who admired him feeling betrayed, unable to separate him from the politics of a president widely rejected by African-Americans here.

“The Trump virus is weakening Ben Carson’s image,” said Bishop Frank Reid, a former pastor at Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church who met Carson at Yale, where both received their bachelor’s degrees. Carson is still respected, Reid said. “But he is no longer the hero he once was.”

Carson declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he sent a written statement.

“I understand what it means to be poor because I grew up poor,” the statement said. “I was fortunate to have my mother who was my compass – always steering me on course, helping me to see beyond our circumstances. That’s what I hope to do for the millions of low-income families HUD serves.”

Carson was born in Detroit, but Baltimore is the city that claims him. He rose to fame for his groundbreaking surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and launched his scholarship program here. Carson would sometimes arrange for high school students to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on the city’s east side, where a figure in his likeness stands glossy and smiling in a white lab coat and stethoscope, in the middle of the Famous Marylanders display.

But since taking the reins at HUD, Carson has proposed sweeping rent increases for the poorest subsidized housing tenants, and delayed key Obama-era regulations designed to address racial segregation. Carson has considered stripping anti-discrimination language from the department’s mission statement, and voiced strong support for implementing work requirements for housing aid recipients. In a radio interview shortly after being confirmed, Carson said poverty “is a state of mind.”

Promoting self-sufficiency is a cornerstone of Carson’s leadership, and he enthusiastically embraces the bootstrap ideology popular with conservatives.

Such themes have always informed how Carson frames his own history.

“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them,” Carson wrote in his memoir.

But those messages take on a new tone coming from a politician.

Shaun Verma, a Ben Carson Scholarship recipient and Johns Hopkins graduate, says Carson’s use of his story of hard work and determination to justify scaling back the safety net for the same communities that raised and revered him “is really, really disappointing.”

At 15, Verma founded MDJunior, a non-profit that aims to improve health care accessibility to underserved communities. As a Carson scholar he attended board meetings and banquets, and got to know Carson personally. Carson’s politics “has tainted his long career and commendable service. It’s hard to associate all this with a person I looked up to for years,” said Verma, who grew up in Georgia and is now living in New York.

Some Maryland conservatives view Carson differently. Antonio Campbell, a professor of political science at Towson University and state chairman for Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign, said he “remains impressed” with Carson, and that those disappointed with his performance as HUD secretary likely feel that way because of fundamentally divergent values.

“The question is, what is the role of government?” said Campbell, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. When assistance is scaled back, those accustomed to the status quo are bound to be disappointed, he said, adding that Carson “is learning” how to sell his policies to skeptics.

Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first elected African-American mayor, said Carson “has left a substantial segment of the community scratching their heads.” But he added that Carson’s vast achievements and philanthropic work haven’t been entirely eclipsed by his foray into politics.

“You can’t take away the fact that he’s done outstanding things for people throughout his life, that can’t be erased,” said Schmoke, who has been friends with Carson for decades. “But I do think there’s clearly more people who view him through a political lens and that affects how he’s viewed here.”