One of the most influential people in Ben Carson’s political orbit has no role in his actual campaign.
Armstrong Williams, 56, is a black conservative radio personality, a real estate investor, TV station owner, publisher and former political operative for figures as diverse as the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In interviews with Carson, as well as top current and former campaign officials, the message is clear: Carson and Williams come as one.
“It’s a package deal, no question about it,” Carson told The Hill.
Williams describes himself as a confidant and business partner to Carson. They met in the 1990s when Williams interviewed Carson, who was at the time a world-renowned brain surgeon, on one of his TV shows.
The two have since fostered what those close to them describe as a “brother-like” relationship.
They talk multiple times a day about business, family, life and politics. Their families vacation together. They go to Baltimore Ravens games. Williams even has a room in Carson’s Maryland home where he keeps reserve clothes on hand for visits.
Williams often uses the quieter Carson as a sounding board, bouncing ideas and suggestions off him on everything from medicine to fashion. Sometimes Carson listens, sometimes he explains to him why he’s wrong.
Carson, 63, uses the more outgoing Williams for guidance in real estate deals, recommendations for attorneys and negotiating contracts with the publishers of his books.
“Dr. Carson knows at the end of the day that if he needs a straight answer from someone who will tell him the truth, he can count on Armstrong to do that,” said Mike Murray, president and CEO of TMA Direct, the marketing firm Carson hired to manage his small-dollar donations.
“Armstrong is experienced, well-respected and spent a lifetime in Washington and knows the inner workings here,” Murray said. “That’s very important for Dr. Carson, who is not a politician and new to this whole process.”
Williams’s forceful personality is in stark contrast to that of Carson's, who has an other-worldly calm. He has been known to step in as Carson’s enforcer when the presidential candidate would rather eschew confrontation. He has a reputation as a fixer.
“He’s brash,” said Terry Giles, a Texas-based attorney who briefly served as Carson’s campaign manager and is now helping the candidate raise money through a nonprofit group that will likely one day become a super-PAC.
Giles said of Williams, “Sometimes he’s brusque, I think. But I’ve had a number of issues with clients where they needed to come to Washington to resolve an issue and he’s been instrumental in sorting it out. It’s what he does.”
When The Hill followed Carson on a recent trip around Washington, it was Williams who arranged for a driver in a black SUV to pick up Carson from Capitol Hill. He obsessively watched the clock and murmured out loud about the time, worried the candidate might be kept waiting.
As the SUV arrived, Williams instructed an aide to relieve Carson of the briefcase he was carrying, passed documents along to Carson for review and choreographed a trip with a reporter and photographer to a retailer in Georgetown to document Carson picking out the suit he’d wear at the first Republican debate.
“He wants to make sure that Ben Carson the person, not the doctor or the candidate, is what’s getting out there,” said Ed Brookover, a senior strategist for the Carson campaign. “Whether it’s on the business or political side, he’s taking care of Carson the man, rather than Carson the commodity.”
Williams’s history is compelling, and not without controversy.
He grew up wealthy on a tobacco farm in South Carolina and first met Thurmond when he was 16. Thurmond told him to look him up if he wanted to work for him and did just that, becoming an adviser, helping the long-time senator get reelected at a time when he was seeking to rehabilitate his image on race.
From there, Williams worked in the Reagan White House, where he helped with black outreach.
That’s when he met Giles, who at the time was representing comedian Richard Pryor on a litany of legal issues. Williams booked Pryor for a speech that boosted the Reagan administration in its effort to make Martin Luther King Jr. day a national holiday.
Williams went on to work for Thomas, with whom he remains close.
In the late 1990s, Williams’s political career was derailed by scandal, when it was revealed that he was publicly advocating for President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law without revealing that he was being paid to do so by the Department of Education.
He has acknowledged the “bad judgment,” and spent the time since reinventing himself as an entrepreneur.
Williams has built a substantial portfolio in the arena of real estate, including a hotel in France. He owns several TV stations in South Carolina, Michigan and Alabama, publishes a magazine on politics and race called American Currentsee (which Carson helped launch), and conducts a radio show that’s broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio and Sinclair Broadcast Group from his office near Capitol Hill. He has also been a contributor to The Hill.
His media reach extends into philanthropy. He’s chairman of the Howard Stirk Holdings Journalism Foundation, and last Friday announced that in conjunction with Coastal Carolina University, the foundation has committed $50,000 for college students from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking careers in journalism.
But Williams’s latest chapter features Carson, whom he fondly refers to as “Doc.”
Williams buys wholesale into what Carson is selling, believing the neurosurgeon to be a brilliant visionary, and making it his mission to get as many people as possible to share that view.
Even before Carson gave the National Prayer Breakfast speech that turned him into a conservative superstar, Williams says he saw a man with a future as a political leader.
“He will tell you, I’m the guy who was telling him he could be president of the United States before any of this happened,” Williams told The Hill. “He said he thought I was joking, but after that prayer breakfast, I told him his life would never be the same.”
Carson skyrocketed to fame after lambasting President Obama, who was seated directly next to him, at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013.
Perhaps Williams’s greatest influence over Carson pertains to his media strategy.
Williams steers Carson toward media opportunities he believes will be beneficial, and is aggressive in seeking out reporters to make the candidate available when the campaign is dealing with difficult headlines.
“Armstrong is a media machine,” Giles said. “He gets it. He understands how the media works. I think his advice to Dr. Carson is primarily related to the media, and his expertise there is indisputable.”
Reporters often circumvent the campaign and go directly to Williams for access to the candidate, knowing he’ll have the Carson’s ear.
It’s an arrangement with the potential to provoke tension between Williams and those running the campaign operations on a day-to-day basis.
But most of those in the upper tier of Carson’s campaign have known Williams in some capacity for decades, and newcomers get to know him quick.
“Every candidate has that person in their life who is their Armstrong, and there’s potential there for it to drive a campaign manager crazy,” Giles said. “But when I was involved, there was never strife because everyone held Armstrong in such high regard.”
The Federal Election Commission has rules governing the employment of campaign staffers that the Carson campaign says it follows to the letter.
“We were also very cautious to make sure nobody could make the argument that Armstrong was in some way working as part of the campaign,” Giles said. “We had a lot of conversations about that.”
Williams says his media career is too important for him to give up to go to work for the campaign. He says he likes the freedom that being a political outsider affords him.
Even if Carson wins the White House, Williams contends that nothing will change.
“I wouldn’t be interested in being in his administration, I’d never give up what I’m doing,” Williams said. “I’m satisfied. I’m at peace. There’s no ambition here to do anything other than protect him and make sure he’s getting the right advice.”