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From idol to 'sellout': How Ben Carson is losing his legacy

Ben Carson was a folk hero to the Black community. Now as a presidential candidate and the only African-American in the GOP field, he may be losing that legacy.
Ben Carson listens to a question during an interview during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)
Ben Carson listens to a question during an interview during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

Growing up in the predominantly black neighborhood of Forest Park in Baltimore, Erica Puentes considered Ben Carson her ultimate role model.

“We were fed a healthy diet of Ben Carson. Ben Carson is the figure you have to look up to, model yourself to be,” Puentes, a 20-year-old University of Maryland College Park student, recalls now. “We were working class students of color and he just represented hope.”

But now, as Republican presidential candidate and the only African-American in the crowded GOP field, Carson may be losing that legacy and disillusioning legions of fans who grew up idolizing him.

"We were fed a healthy diet of Ben Carson."'

The renowned neurosurgeon – who overcame hardscrabble roots in inner-city Detroit to become the head of neurosurgery at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University and the first person ever to successfully separate twins conjoined at the brain – has been a folk hero, role model, and icon for many minority families. His memoir “Gifted Hands” was made into a TV movie, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. Last year, he tied for sixth in a Gallup poll as the most admired man in America.

Carson’s place in the nation’s cultural psyche was immortalized by “The Wire,” HBO’s acclaimed series set in Baltimore. When a teacher in one episode asks troubled kids their aspirations, most say they want to be drug kingpins. But one boy says, “I wanna be a pediatric neurosurgeon like that one n***er.”

But now, with his very conservative views and harsh criticisms of President Barack Obama, Carson has disillusioned many who once looked up to him. 

Related: Carson campaign faces turmoil, staffing shake-up

“Everyone I’ve spoken to is just completely disappointed. The community definitely does not support him,” Puentes said. “He was a working class hero to us and now he’s advocating on behalf of a party that we believe and know advocates for the interests of more wealthy people.”

Carson’s party affiliation alone is a big problem, explained Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kenney School of Government and author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.”

“African-Americans fundamentally believe that the Republican Party does not care about Black people and that’s a very hard legacy to overcome,” Rigueur told msnbc. “Historically, Black Republicans … do not fare as well amongst black audiences.”

When Carson went to meet with community leaders in Baltimore after riots broke out following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, community leaders clashed with him over how to address the racial unrest plaguing the city where Carson had worked for three decades. Carson, according to those who attended the meeting, reiterated a message of self-reliance and turning the other cheek. 

J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney representing some who had been arrested in the protests, said he found Carson’s message simplistic.

“Oh how novel, work hard and go to school,” Gordon told msnbc. “We’ve been teaching ourselves and our kids that for decades and generations … Dig a little deeper.”

Gordon said that while Carson’s legacy in Baltimore is strong – “I’ve seen judges require defendants read his book [as part of sentencing],” he said – it’s fading now.

“He’s losing credibility with the Black community because he’s disconnected himself,” Gordon said. “The man has done great things in his time, it’s unfortunate that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but only a minute to lose it.”

‘Why do you wanna muck it up with politics?’

In 2002, then-Maryland state Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele – who went on to be the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee -- sat down with Carson, who at the time was interested in getting involved in politics.

“Having an enormous amount of respect for him that I did at the time – and still do – and the incredible legacy that he’s created,” Steele told msnbc. “My question to him was why do you wanna muck it up with politics?”

Eleven years later, in 2013, Carson broke onto the national stage unexpectedly, when a speech he gave at the National Prayer Breakfast, criticizing President Obama who sat two seats away, went viral. A YouTube video of Carson’s lengthy, rambling address has received 3.7 million views to date.

Many on the right cheered on the Black conservative who’d taken on the president, but the Black community balked immediately.

“Ben Carson is this really big figure within American circles but especially within Black circles, but here he is willing to disparage the biggest name in Black circles,” Rigueur said. “People did not take kindly, whatever their politics are.”

Carson soon became a fixture on Fox News, spouting off controversial view after controversial view: Obamacare is the worst thing ‘since slavery,’ he said. He likened homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, when he said none of the three “get to change the definition of marriage.” Americans are “guilty” of human sacrifice in abortion, he said.

No matter what you did before, Steele said the presidential bid “becomes the first paragraph in your biography.”

“He’s losing credibility with the Black community because he’s disconnected himself.” '

Now, as a presidential candidate, Carson is polling well: a late May Quinnipiac poll saw Carson join the top tier, tying with five candidates including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a national poll of Republican voters. A few days earlier, he won the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's straw poll, besting Walker, one of the field's leaders.

The candidate, whose staff ignored repeated inquiries for this story, promises to balance the budget, lower taxes, fight for socially conservative policies, and be tough on Russia, but his campaign slogan -- "Heal, Inspire, Revive" -- signals that his campaign is rooted in that folk hero status as much his hard-line politics.

‘Mythical creatures’

Black Republicans are a small group that tends to be fairly quiet, Rigueur said, because they struggle to find comfortable footing both within the GOP and their own communities. She estimated that 30% of African-Americans identify as socially conservative, but don’t vote for national Republicans.

“We treat Black Republicans like these mythical creatures that don’t really exist, but they do,” Rigueur said.

The most vocal Black Republicans – the ones you see, who receive funding and a following within the GOP -- are the most conservative ones, Rigueur added.

Related: Does Ben Carson have a liberal side?

“Black Republicans who receive a bigger platform within the GOP tend to be the ones who mirror the conservative Republicans. We’re going to see more Tim Scotts, Mia Loves, Hermain Cains, Ben Carsons,” Rigueur said, referring to the South Carolina Republican senator, Utah Republican representative, and 2012 presidential candidate, and Carson, respectively.

As such, they tend to win more white votes than black ones: in Sen. Scott’s 2014 election, for example, just 10% of the district’s Black voters cast ballots for the South Carolina Republican, according to NBC News exit polling, while 88% of the district’s white voters did the same.

‘That resonated with us’

Puentes recalled an incident when she was in the fourth grade when a fellow student acted out in class. Instead of chastising the boy, Puentes said, the teacher reminded them that Carson had overcome anger issues as a child – even that he’d once tried to stab a friend over an argument over what was on the radio. 

“She said, don’t write off your fellow students because we matter. No matter what we’re going through, we have to stop and think,” Puentes recalled.

“Our teachers would tell us he also came from a low-income family,” she added. “People wrote him off, told him he wasn’t intelligent and that resonated with us a lot because we’re people of color, we’d been written off too.” 

Now, Puentes said, Carson is a “sell out.”

“I can’t really trust him and it’s really disappointing to me, because I really did look up to him,” she said.