In November, reports circulated that Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who was a brief front-runner for the GOP nomination for president before becoming one of now-President Donald Trump’s top campaign surrogates, backed away from a cabinet position because he felt he lacked experience.
“Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” one of his advisers and confidants, Armstrong Williams, said at the time. “He’s never run an agency and it’s a lot to ask. He’s a neophyte and that’s not his strength.”
Then, Trump nominated Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Carson accepted.
Carson has never run a federal agency before, and has no experience with housing policy. He has, however, publicly criticized portions of the Fair Housing Act used to combat segregation. As Secretary of HUD, he’ll be responsible for enforcing rules against LGBTQ discrimination. Carson himself believes homosexuality is a choice and opposes same-sex marriage.
His nomination spurred widespread outcry and questions about his qualifications. Yet on Tuesday, he was unanimously approved by the Senate Banking Committee.
There are 11 Democrats on the committee, including progressive Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Is Carson qualified for the position?
Carson has never held a political office. He’s also never led an agency, let alone one on the scope of HUD, which had a budget of $49.3 billion in FY 2016 and manages approximately 1.2 million housing units nationwide.
Trump allies have defended Carson as qualified to run the department because they said that he had lived in public housing — except, he didn’t. Carson said after his nomination that “despite what you may have heard from people,” his mother made sure that they did not live in public housing when he was growing up.
Experience living in public housing is not a prerequisite for leading HUD. A familiarity with housing policy and running large government agencies, however, usually is.
Julian Castro, Carson’s immediate predecessor, was formerly the mayor of San Antonio. Shaun Donovan, who held the post before Castro, led New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Before that was Steve Preston, who ran the Small Business Administration.
Carson, meanwhile, often seems confused about who actually uses public housing. In remarks after his nomination but before his confirmation hearing, Carson often drew on stereotypes characterizing people living in government housing as completely dependent and uninterested in upward mobility. In truth, public housing primarily serves people who are elderly, disabled, or already working.
What has Carson said about housing policy?
In his hearing, Carson said he believes many of HUD’s programs are “good” though ineffective, and voiced support for “holistic” approaches to poverty. He seemed, however, uncertain that housing was a priority. He also said he supports limiting how long people can stay in public housing.
Other than that, however, Carson hasn’t said much by way of concrete plans for his HUD tenure, and before he was nominated, he wasn’t known for strong stances on housing issues — with one exception.
During the Obama administration, the Justice Department used the part of the law that Carson criticized to get major settlements from banks engaged in discriminatory practices. Carson argued that those types of suits should be eliminated — which would be a big win for banks, and a huge blow to anti-discrimination efforts.
As HUD Secretary, Carson will also be responsible for enforcing the Equal Access Rule, which prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in housing that is insured by the Federal Housing Administration or that receives funding from HUD. The housing agency also recently finalized a rule allowing trans people to stay in homeless shelters with people of their gender.
Providing services for LGBTQ people will soon be a crucial part of Carson’s job. LGBTQ people are about 5–10 percent of the youth population but 20–40 percent of the homeless youth population. Gay and lesbian couples are less likely to receive positive responses to housing applications as compared to straight couples, and 19 percent of transgender people have been refused housing. Meanwhile, only 20 states and the District of Columbia prohibit housing discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Carson, meanwhile, firmly believes that homosexuality is a choice. In 2013, he compared same-sex couples to child molesters and people practicing bestiality. He said that transgender people were the “height of absurdity.”
As HUD secretary, Carson wouldn’t need to roll back the rules against discrimination to seriously affect LGBTQ individuals — he could just stop enforcing them.
In his hearing, Carson promised Senator Sherrod Brown, when asked about his previous comments about LGBTQ people, that he would “enforce the laws of the land.” He then added, however, that it wouldn’t be “fair” to grant “extra rights” to some LGBTQ people — extra rights such as allowing trans individuals to use the bathroom matching their gender.
Now Carson is a bipartisan-approved HUD Secretary nominee
Carson sailed through his confirmation process despite his lack of experience running anything close to the agency he’ll now be responsible for and his history of inflammatory remarks against the very people he may now be tasked with protecting. He still has to face a vote in the full Senate, but he’s very likely to be confirmed.
In a survey of 14 states conducted about a month after the election, between 56 and and 61 percent of voters wanted Democrats to act as a “check and balance” on the incoming President. Crucially, every state surveyed went either red or purple in the election — meaning a majority of voters in even Trump states voiced support for strong Democratic opposition.
Yet, when faced with Carson’s confirmation, Democrats didn’t offer even nominal resistance.
For her part, Sen. Warren said in a statement that she is supporting his nomination “in light of” promises he made in his confirmation hearing about how he’ll act in the future — including pledging to enforce the existing anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws, expand affordable housing options, and reduce levels of lead in public housing units.
Despite her vote, she also said she “[continues] to have concerns about Dr. Carson’s inexperience in the field and his comments on poverty and government dependency.”
Sen. Brown, who is the ranking member on the committee, also expressed reservations about Carson despite his vote to approve him.
“I would not have chosen him because of his lack of experience and his often troubling public statements over the last three years,” he said. “But despite my reservations and my disagreements with some of his positions, I’ll give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt.”