John Philip Sousa IV runs a super PAC dedicated to pushing Ben Carson to run in 2016
Carson hasn't said whether he'll run for President
John Philip Sousa IV has a mission: Convince a retired neurosurgeon with no political experience to run for President – and then help him win.
Sousa, 67, launched a super PAC last year that has raised millions in an effort to urge Dr. Ben Carson to explore a White House bid. Since the launch, Sousa and his team have proven to be a fundraising powerhouse, raising a whopping $12.2 million from more than 100,000 donors. That even edged out the effort by Hillary Clinton’s supporters, who have raised $12.1 million for the “Ready for Hillary” super PAC.
Sousa’s group, dubbed the “National Draft Ben Carson for President Campaign Committee,” is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign in early voting states with plans to open a second office in Iowa later this month.
If Sousa’s last name sounds familiar, that’s because it should. He’s the great grandson of John Philip Sousa, the composer known for his patriotic music.
Sousa’s effort is adding to the buzz surrounding Carson, who catapulted onto the national political scene at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast by delivering a stinging rebuke to Obamacare – with President Barack Obama sitting just a few feet away. He has captivated some Republicans with stories of his difficult childhood and placed second behind Mitt Romney in a CNN/ORC poll last month that asked the GOP about their preferred presidential nominee.
Carson himself has said he has been considering a run after seeing the outpouring of support.
“It definitely seems to be having an impression,” said Adam Waldeck, a spokesman for the American Legacy PAC, which Carson chairs.
Federal election rules bar Sousa from coordinating with Carson, who hasn’t yet said whether he’ll run in 2016. But Sousa talks about a potential run in the same unvarnished style that Carson embraces.
Sousa recently visited CNN’s Washington bureau. Read the interview below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Why did you decide to start a super PAC?
In August 2013, a few of us got together and wondered what we wanted to do in terms of politics, PACs and so forth. We thought, gee, well, let’s start a PAC and support senators, and candidates in ‘14 and ‘16. That sounded boring since everyone else in the world was doing it. One of us said, “Did you see Ben Carson at the National Prayer Breakfast?” And we all nodded, yes. And someone almost jokingly said, “Why don’t we draft him to run for president?”
What drew you to him?
Because of his background, Dr. Carson can relate. He’s a multi-millionaire now, but when he was a kid, he was far from it. He was a nasty thug in school. Thanks to a mother who probably deserves something close to sainthood, he started reading books instead of watching television. He read himself right into Yale and the head of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins.
His mother worked three jobs. She married when she was 13, and had two boys. Of course, the father took off. So she was on her own. She worked very, very hard in Detroit in the ghettos to provide for her boys. She was cleaning the house of a rather wealthy individual one day and noticed that the television was covered with books. She said to the gentleman, “How do you watch TV with all these books on your TV?” …She went home and she said, “Boys, new rule in the house. No more than one hour of television in the house, and we’re going to read.” …It was thanks to that that really pulled Dr. Carson out of the gutter and to the very top.
That’s a story that lots of people can relate to. More importantly, Dr. Carson knows how to get people out of the rut, out of the ghetto. Because he’s lived it. He’s done it. Not that every kid in the ghetto will become head of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, but Carson has a plan to do that and it’s not simply throwing more money into these neighborhoods.
Have you met him?
I’ve met him once. …We have decided to take the road of being very, very cautious. We don’t want the [Federal Election Commission] knocking on our door.
What happened during your encounter with him?
It was about a year ago. …We talked briefly. I asked him, “Do you like what we’re doing?” He said, “I’m not stopping you.”
What have you done to vet him?
Did we thoroughly vet the guy? No. But we went back through his record as much is public and checked into his family life as much as we could, and we didn’t see anything we didn’t like. But to tell you we thoroughly vetted the guy, that wouldn’t be accurate.
What was the key part of him that made you decide to devote so much effort into him?
A few things: His belief in the United States Constitution, his common sense approach to resolving things, the fact that this man developed the process of separating conjoined twins at the head so both halves lived. …Once he developed the process, he realized that he didn’t know it all. That he needed experts to help him with some of this stuff. So he brought in experts from around the world to help him with that surgery. So that tells us that he’s not an egomaniac, that he’s willing to reach out to professionals to help him in areas where he needs help. I think that’s critically important if you’re going to run a business, do a complicated surgery or run the United States of America.
We like the fact that he is a Christian man—he has a strong belief in God. And quite frankly, we liked the fact that he stood up at the National Prayer Breakfast, two feet from the president, and said, sir, you’re wrong.
How do you plan to convince him to get into the race?
We think we’ve gone just about as far as we can go in convincing Dr. Carson to run. We’ve raised close to $12 million. We’ve spent close to that.
I send Dr. Carson a letter once a week and with that letter is anywhere between four and six thousand petitions encouraging him to run.
He never responds?
We know he gets them. We know he reads them.
How have you spent the money you’ve raised?
Direct mail is very expensive, so a lot of money went to direct mail. Fundraising is expensive, period. We ran ads in black communities in North Carolina and Louisiana in the Senate races. Spent about half a million on that total.
You’ve spent almost as much as you’ve raised. What do you say to critics who say this is just a lucrative project for contractors and consultants?
I mean, the Post Office is doing really well, the printer is doing really well…these things all cost money. Our fundraising firm, Eberle, cut their prices pretty substantially for this cause. They’ve been good friends of mine for a lot of years. I’ve used them on a lot of campaigns. They earn every single dollar that they’ve charged us and I begrudge them not a penny.
Anyone who wants to say this is simply an effort to raise money to support a fundraising firm is just dead wrong. We are very committed, and I think our success over the last 16-18 months has been proven. Carson never talked about running before we started this.
I don’t want to say we get credit for Carson running, but we have been instrumental in showing how many people like him and want him to run. That’s been our role, and I think we’ve done it damn well.
Do you ever have second thoughts about him when he says Obamacare is the worst US policy since slavery or uses compares policies to Nazis?
Listen, if I were a little bug on his shoulder I might pull on his ear and say, “Stop that!” But I’m not. Show me a presidential candidate who hasn’t tripped on their tongue.
But do you think that could hurt his chances to be president?
I want Dr. Carson to be Dr. Carson. That’s the guy who I really like and who I want to run this country, and if he trips on his tongue occasionally, OK, people are going to have to come along and clean it up. But geez, that’s what candidates do, right? Rick Perry, two years ago, and [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie almost every time he opens his mouth. We can pick on Dr. Carson, but they all do it. They all say things they probably shouldn’t have. Or they don’t explain what they meant is articulately as well as they should have.
On policy, he acknowledges that he doesn’t have all of his positions set yet.
If you want to support somebody, you don’t know where he necessarily stands on many of the issues. Doesn’t that give you pause?
No, and I’ll tell you why. He’s a very firm believer in the Constitution of the United States. His policy will be driven by the Constitution. His policy will be driven by being a Christian. His policy will be driven by being a good human being. His policy will be driven by being good to the American people, and not because a bunch of lobbyists have given him bucket loads of money. The great thing about Dr. Carson running is that he is beholden to no one.
Until he is beholden to somebody.
Until he is. But today he’s not.
What if he doesn’t run? What will come of the super PAC?
We haven’t really thought. But we have such an infrastructure in place that we will probably sit down around the same table and say, OK, is there anyone we believe in that we can use this infrastructure to help win in 2016?
Are there any candidates you would you rule out?
I don’t think we would support [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz because I don’t think he can win.
I don’t think we would support Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney, because they’re just too close to the center and it’s more of the same.
If Ben Carson can win and Ted Cruz can’t, what are the differences?
Big differences. I like what Ted Cruz says about the issues, but I think he’s a bull in a china shop. He’s too polarizing. The media will absolutely fry him every time he opens his mouth—not that they won’t go after Carson—but Carson is not loud. He’s not forceful. Ted Cruz will go on for hours about a given subject jumping up and down—again, I like his positions—I just don’t think his methods can get him elected.
The other difference is that we believe Carson will get at least 17 percent of the black vote.
What do you base that on?
I mean, what data have you seen that shows that?
Herman Cain’s campaign polled it and showed that 17 percent at a minimum would support him.
If Carson gets 17 percent of the black vote, he wins. He can’t take 17 percent of the black vote away from the Democrat and have the Democrat win on a national basis. It just won’t happen.
Are you planning to try to replicate those polls for the new cycle?
We’re going to be out shortly doing our research.
What are the next phase for your super PAC?
We will go from “Run Ben Run” to “Ben Carson for President.” We will begin increasing our paid staff in the Carolinas and Florida. We will open another office in Iowa.
We’re spending a lot of time working on Iowa. We have committee chairman in all 99 counties. We’re paying a lot of attention to Iowa an dhow we knock everybody else out of the box.
Who will his biggest competitor be?
I don’t know.
But if I die before the debates, I’m going to be really angry. Because I can hardly wait to see Dr. Carson take on any of them in the debates. His style is so different and so smooth. Nothing seems to get under his skin. I think he will absolutely tear them apart.