Senate GOP sees fresh perspective in Ben Carson's pick for Housing

Republican chairman of Ben Carson: 'Housing needs him.'

Dr. Ben Carson, the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who was chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, appears to be well positioned for confirmation after the Republican-led Senate convenes early next year.

Democrats have questioned Carson's credentials for the position, which controls a $39 billion budget and programs that house millions of families — tens of thousands of them in Baltimore. Trump's pick will also help execute his loosely defined plans to revitalize the nation's stressed cities.

Carson rose to prominence as a trailblazing pediatric neurosurgeon — the youngest to lead a major division at Hopkins, and the first to separate conjoined twins connected at the head. He has no experience in housing and has never led an organization as large as HUD.

But key Senate Republicans told The Baltimore Sun that Carson will bring a fresh perspective and a brilliant mind to a huge bureaucracy. None have threatened to block his confirmation.

"Housing needs him," said Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which will consider Carson's nomination.

"He'll bring a new wrinkle, and a lot of brain power."

Carson, 65, rose from urban poverty to earn degrees from Yale and the University of Michigan medical school.

In his 1990 autobiography "Gifted Hands," he wrote at length about the housing conditions he endured as a boy in Detroit and Boston. He described living in a home that was "about the size of many garages today" and confronting "armies of roaches" streaking across his room.

In one passage, he wrote of settling into a new home in Boston at age 8.

"A lot of winos and drunks flopped around the area, and we became so used to seeing broken glass, trashed lots, dilapidated buildings, and squad cars racing up the street that we soon adjusted to our change of lifestyle," Carson wrote. "Within weeks this setting seemed perfectly normal."

But Carson has never worked in government, let alone led a massive agency with 8,000 employees. And while he grew up in poverty and his mother occasionally relied on food stamps, Carson acknowledged last week that he never lived in public or subsidized housing — which, just days earlier, his aides had held up as a qualification for the job.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have pounced on his lack of housing experience. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat on the banking committee, stressed he has not decided how he will vote on Carson's nomination — but he sounded skeptical.

"It's taking a fish out of water and expecting him to be able to do it," he said. "I know he's a smart cat, but the truth is these agencies, they risk — without good leadership at the top — being run by the bureaucracy."

Sen. Ben Cardin praised Carson's background in medicine. But the Maryland Democrat said his confirmation hearing should focus on "his knowledge of and plans to carry out the important mission" of the housing department.

Carson, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Housing advocates have raised concerns about Carson's background, but most say they see potential areas of agreement on a number of issues. Several have said they will be watching to see whom Carson names as deputies, which will likely offer some insight into his vision.

"He is probably the most well-known person to be nominated, in terms of sheer name recognition," said Chris Estes, president of the Washington-based National Housing Conference. "The fact that he is well-known outside of the housing field presents some real unique opportunities: He has a bigger pulpit, and I think he will generate more news."

Advocates for low-income housing in Baltimore have echoed that optimism, but have also expressed concern over how Carson will handle budget cuts expected during the Trump administration. They have questioned how trims will fall on development grants, rental assistance vouchers and enforcement of housing law.

Carson told an audience at Yale late last week that any suggestion that he wants to end programs to help the poor is "a bunch of crap."

While Carson's presidential campaign this year never took off, he developed a loyal following among conservatives throughout the country. He raised more than $64 million for his campaign, and has 2.5 million followers on Twitter.

The relationship between Trump and Carson was contentious for much of the primary election. Trump often described Carson as "low-energy" during debates, once compared him to a child molester, and said that he appeared to have "pathological disease."

It's not the first time a Republican HUD nominee has drawn criticism for a lack of experience in housing. In 2008, then-Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, questioned President George W. Bush's nomination of Steven Preston, whose background was in finance.

Samuel R. Pierce Jr., was a prominent attorney in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan selected him for the job. Pierce was the only Cabinet secretary to serve all eight years of Reagan's administration, but his tenure was clouded by corruption investigations after he left office, and aides said after his death that he never developed an interest in housing policy.

Democratic presidents have typically drawn on big-city mayors or city officials for HUD. Current Secretary Julian Castro was the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, before he took the job in 2014.

His predecessor, Shaun Donovan, had led the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

"My sense is, opponents will try to raise the fact that he's not a housing expert," said National Association of Home Builders CEO Jerry Howard. "But the reality is, if you look back at the history of HUD, what's critical is being able to be a leader."

Carson met with several Republicans on Capitol Hill last week, lawmakers said.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who sits on the banking committee, met with Carson on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Corker told The Sun that he two had a "good, productive meeting" and "engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about Dr. Carson's goals" and "his focus on strengthening communities that are most in need."

Other Republicans were more effusive in their praise.

After meeting with Carson, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, also a member of the banking committee, said he would support him.

"He's going to find people who are outside thinkers, and have an external view of government," Scott said. "He's going to look for ways to implement new perspectives on old problems."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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