Carson's local donors cite his character

WASHINGTON - Philip Fanning, a retired horse breeder, likes that he can't see his neighbors from his home in Unionville, Chester County, has abiding religious faith ("God bless" is how he ends a phone conversation with a stranger), and so hates government waste that he criticizes his monthly disability checks from the military, saying he doesn't need them.

Above all, says Fanning, 91, he values character. It's that trait that has drawn him to Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has surged in the Republican presidential field, risen to second in national polls, and posted a mighty $20 million fund-raising haul from July through September.

Even before Carson reached those heights, Fanning had become one of his biggest donors, contributing $29,000 to Carson's two super PACs.

"He's a wonderful character, and he's smart as can be," Fanning said in a telephone interview in which he drew a contrast to Donald Trump and President Obama. "He's quiet, he's what I call the anti-Trump, and he's certainly the opposite of Obama."

He adds, "To me, in life and judging my friends and associates, the most important thing has been character. If you have good character, you're my friend."

Interviews with Fanning and a few other Carson donors from the Philadelphia area, called at random, reveal strikingly similar themes. None has met the candidate or seen him in person, and instead formed impressions based on his media appearances, books, and mail from his supporters.

All praised his honesty and inspirational upbringing above any specific policy. Each hoped he could help Republicans win black votes. Each also spoke in terms laced with faith and religious devotion. And all gave significantly more to Carson than they had donated to any other politician.

"I can't give to everybody," Fanning said, "but I do try to do everything I can for this man, including praying for him."

Checks, big and small

Fanning has given big, but Carson's fund-raising has been driven by small contributions, which show grassroots support and allow the campaign to solicit them again and again.

A little more than 6 percent of the money raised by the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee - the super PAC formed before he launched his run - came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, records show.

Many gave $20 or $25 at a time. The average donation in the three states was $51.71.

Like Fanning, Anne Synnestvedt of Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County, had read Carson's autobiography, Gifted Hands, which recounts his rise from poor, hot-tempered child in Detroit to one of the world's foremost brain surgeons.

Both had been longtime GOP donors, and last year both began receiving mailers from John Philip Sousa IV (great-grandson of the famous composer) seeking support for Carson, who has never run for office before.

Mailers have been a major driver of Sousa's fund-raising for the Draft Ben Carson Super PAC and the 2016 Committee, another Carson-affiliated group.

"I've liked the simplicity," of the solicitations, said Synnestvedt, 80, a retired teacher. "They didn't send great big fancy stuff. They've started doing more than that, and I don't like it - don't need it."

In the past she gave to the campaigns of Ted Cruz, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and others. But this year, she contributed more to Carson - 11 donations totaling $4,800 - than anyone else.

"It's the caliber of the man. It's the character that I've been able to discern," Synnestvedt said.

She and Fanning both hoped Carson could help win minority voters.

"He's more impressive than Obama," Fanning said, "because Obama's a politician and he's not."

Building momentum

Non-politicians have so far dominated the Republican race, with Trump leading polls and Carson climbing, along with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

In Pennsylvania, a Quinnipiac University Poll last week found Carson with 17 percent of the GOP vote, behind only Trump, with 23.

His challenge is maintaining momentum. Republican primary voters flirted with unconventional candidates in 2012, but settled on Romney, the establishment choice.

Carson has faced criticism for recent comments, including saying he would have fought back against the shooter who killed nine at an Oregon community college and suggesting a Muslim should not be president. (Later, he said it would be OK as long as the candidate put the Constitution above Sharia law).

Talking about gun control last week Carson said the Holocaust might have been "diminished" if people in Nazi Germany had been armed.

At the National Press Club in Washington on Friday, Carson delivered a speech heavy on his biography, individual responsibility, and freedom. He also attacked the news media, saying they have twisted his words and lost credibility.

"You're down there with used-car salesmen," he said.

His supporters said they expect missteps from someone new to the political stage.

"I'm not sure he's being cautious enough," Synnestvedt said. "I think he's so honorable that he probably [says] exactly what he thinks."

Stephen Busch, a recently retired electrician from Browns Mills, in Burlington County, noted Carson's slips, but called him "an honest man" with sound reasoning.

Busch, 63, and his wife gave $1,562.50 to Carson's two super PACs, their first major donations to a federal candidate.

He said they have dialed into pro-Carson conference calls - some with recorded messages from the candidate - that he described as a mix of politics and prayer.

"A politicians' belief in something greater than himself is important," Busch said.

Carson has done well with evangelicals, and his slogan has a religious ring: Heal-Inspire-Revive.

Asked about Carson policy plans that had won them over, the donors didn't name specifics.

Busch said he is still learning about Carson's positions as the race goes on - but so far, he likes what he hears.

"For the most part," he said, "it's his character."

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

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