In first public office role, Ben Carson confirmed by Senate to lead HUD

This will be Carson's first time holding political office. He and Republicans have pointed to his personal experience being raised on public assistance in inner-city Detroit to explain his selection for the role.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, left, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, before President Donald Trump's address to a joint session of Congress.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and presidential candidate on the 2016 Republican ticket who has never held political office, won Senate confirmation on Thursday for secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

President Trump’s cabinet member will oversee nearly 5 million homes that receive rental assistance, programs that provide assistance to low-income Americans, and a $47 billion annual budget. But how exactly Dr. Carson will put his own stamp on the nation’s housing policy remains unclear.

Acknowledging his lack of experience, Carson has said he will embark on a “listening tour” to hear from career HUD employees and public servants across the country, according to the Chicago Tribune. Other than that, though, Carson has not publicly shared specific plans for the department.

The agency has about 8,300 employees, and provides billions of dollars in housing assistance through vouchers and public housing. It also enforces fair housing laws, and offers mortgage insurance through the Federal Housing Administration.

Dubbed conservative in his views about public assistance, Carson has called for a “holistic” approach that involves more partnerships with the private sector and religious groups.

"What has happened too often is that people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage development of any innate talent in people," he said at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, according to the Tribune. "Hence we have generation after generation living in dependent situations. It's not that they're bad people, it's that this is what they've been given, and it's all they know in some cases."

Beyond that, however, housing experts have found little clarity on how he would direct HUD.

Both Carson and Republicans have emphasized his personal experience growing up on public assistance. Born in Detroit, he was raised by a single mother with a third-grade education. Carson went on to attend Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School before he was named the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, the first African-American doctor to fill the post. In 1987, he become famous for pioneering surgery to separate twins joined at the back of the head.

On Thursday, Carson won the nomination largely along party lines. Six Democrats and one independent joined 51 Republicans in voting for him.

The vote came after he received unanimous approval from the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in January.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, one of the most prominent liberal voices in the country, was one of the members the committee who voted for Carson at the time. She defended her decision in a statement she posted on Facebook.

"Dr. Carson's answers weren't perfect. But at his hearing, he committed to track and report on conflicts of interest at the agency. In his written responses to me, he made good, detailed promises on everything from protecting anti-homelessness programs to enforcing fair housing laws. Promises that – if they're honored – would help a lot of working families," she wrote.

"If President Trump goes to his second choice, I don't think we will get another HUD nominee who will even make these promises – much less follow through on them," she added. "If Dr. Carson doesn't follow through on his commitments, I will be the very first person he hears from – loudly and clearly and frequently."

Ms. Warren did not vote for Carson on Thursday, however.

Progressive activists and urban policy experts also said they will hold Carson accountable for statements he previously made. Sarah Edelman, the director of housing policy at the Center for American Progress, said Carson had made “disparaging statements about families experiencing poverty, LGBT people, and fair housing that raise questions about his ability to be a fair and effective leader.”

Prior to the Senate vote, Mr. Trump praised Carson this week, calling him a “totally brilliant neurosurgeon” who saved many lives.

"Ben is going to work with me very, very closely. And HUD has a meaning far beyond housing. If properly done, it's a meaning that's as big as anything there is, and Ben will be able to find that true meaning and the true meaning of HUD as its Secretary," said Trump.  

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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