By Jennifer C. Kerr
WASHINGTON — Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who challenged Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, won Senate confirmation Thursday to join Trump’s Cabinet as housing secretary.
Six Democrats and one independent joined 51 Republicans in voting for Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Carson is the 17th of 22 of Trump’s Cabinet and Cabinet-level nominations to win Senate approval. The Senate also voted 62-37 to move ahead on the nomination of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be energy secretary.
Carson has never held public office and has no housing policy experience. Republicans have praised the life story of a man who grew up in inner-city Detroit with a single mother who had a third-grade education.
When his nomination cleared the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in January, Democrats said Carson would not have been their choice, but they welcomed his promises to enforce fair housing and to address lead hazards in housing and other issues. He was approved unanimously in the committee.
Sarah Edelman, director of housing policy at the Center for American Progress, said her group would work to hold Carson accountable for the promises he made. Carson, she said, has “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.”
Carson, 65, will lead an agency with some 8,300 employees and a budget of about $47 billion. The department provides billions of dollars in housing assistance to low-income people through vouchers and public housing. It also enforces fair housing laws and offers mortgage insurance to poorer Americans through the Federal Housing Administration, part of HUD.
Trump lauded his nominee last week, calling him a “totally brilliant neurosurgeon” who has saved many lives.
“We’re going to do great things in our African-American communities,” Trump said, appearing with Carson on a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
“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,” Trump said.
Carson has not shared specific plans publicly for the department under his leadership.
At his confirmation hearing, he told lawmakers that he envisioned forging a more “holistic approach” to helping people and developing “the whole person.” He didn’t offer many details.
Under questioning from Democrats, Carson said HUD’s rental assistance is “essential” to millions of Americans and that the department has a lot of good programs. But he added, “We don’t want it to be way of life. … We want it to be a Band-Aid and a springboard to move forward.”
He also said he’d like to see more partnerships with the private sector and religious groups.
The soft-spoken Carson, the only black major-party candidate in the White House race, grew up poor. He went on to attend Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School before becoming the first African-American named as the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
In 1987, Carson became famous for pioneering surgery to separate twins joined at the back of the head. In 2013, he entered the national political spotlight during the National Prayer Breakfast when he railed against the modern welfare state, with President Barack Obama sitting just feet away.