Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon and former GOP presidential candidate, will sit before a Senate committee Thursday morning to make the case that he should be confirmed to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In contrast with past HUD secretaries, Carson has no government experience or expertise in housing and urban development policy, and Democrats on the Senate Banking committee are expected to question his qualifications to lead the $47 billion agency, which is charged with helping millions of poor Americans secure affordable housing.
Instead of a traditional resume, Carson will highlight his impoverished upbringing in inner city Detroit and the rags-to-riches success story that Carson has detailed in books and public appearances in recent years. Carson’s family received government assistance in the form of food stamps when he was a child, though he never lived in public housing. If confirmed, Carson would be the only African-American nominated for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet.
In his opening statement to the Senate Banking committee, Carson will note that he “grew up in inner city Detroit with a single mother who had a third grade education” and will argue that he understands the issues facing the millions of people who rely on HUD programs, according to a copy of the statement released Thursday morning.
“I understand housing insecurity — we were forced to move from Detroit to Boston to live with relatives because she couldn’t afford our house,” Carson says in the written statement.
Carson will also draw on the connection between housing and health during his confirmation hearing, arguing in his opening statement that his background as a medical professional prepares him to address the fact that “housing…is a ‘social determinant’ of health'” and that substandard living conditions can result in health problems, including learning disabilities in children.
He will also look to quell concerns about his qualifications with a letter from four past HUD secretaries, including a Democrat who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, urging his confirmation.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, in particular, appears poised to challenge Carson.
“Although you have many accomplishments in the medical field, there is relatively little in the public record that reveals how you would further HUD’s mission,” Warren wrote in a letter to Carson Tuesday that included dozens of detailed policy questions about his views and HUD policies and programs.
Warren also raised questions about Carson’s criticism of social welfare programs, including those provided by HUD, and his views on poverty.
Carson frequently used his public platform and his presidential run to decry government overreach and drawn on his personal success story to argue against government welfare programs and in favor of a by-the-bootstraps attitude.
He has said the government’s social welfare programs, including housing subsidies, make the poor “dependent” on the government and has called poverty “really more of a choice than anything else,” making a case for personal responsibility.
But while Carson may bring a critical view of government programs to the agency charged with delivering many of those government services, the retired neurosurgeon will also run point on making good of much of Trump’s outreach to minority communities during his presidential campaign — much of which Carson was present for during the campaign. Carson shepherded Trump through inner city Detroit, to a church there and then for a drive through blighted neighborhoods before a brief stop by Carson’s childhood home.
Trump during his campaign promised to revitalize inner city communities, but frequently conflated his outreach to low-income Americans with outreach to black and brown Americans — describing a picture of daily life for African-Americans as a blighted warzone filled with crime and poverty.
“What the hell do you have to lose?” Trump frequently asked during his campaign rallies, sometimes with Carson close by.
Carson served as one of Trump’s top surrogates during the campaign, but his interviews on behalf of the brash billionaire candidate sometimes distracted from his surrogacy efforts.
In one confrontational exchange on MSNBC, Carson chided a female host amid tough questioning and told her to “stop” before asking her microphone be turned off. He also said there were likely better candidates for president than Trump even after endorsing him.
That track record could make for a rocky hearing on Thursday.
But despite Carson’s close relationship with Trump, the retired neurosurgeon nearly didn’t join Trump’s administration.
That’s because Democrats aren’t the only ones doubting Carson’s qualifications to lead the federal department.
Carson himself resisted Trump’s early entreaties to join his Cabinet, declining to come aboard as secretary of Health and Human Services, a more natural fit for the renowned neurosurgeon.
And Carson confidant Armstrong Williams said at the time that Carson has “never run an agency and that’s a lot to ask.”
“He’s a neophyte and that’s not his strength,” Williams told CNN in November after confirming that Carson had declined Trump’s offer to lead the health department.