If Democrats want to make the case that Dr. Ben Carson is unqualified to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they can use the words of Carson himself: “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience; he’s never run a federal agency,” his friend Armstrong Williams told reporters, when rumors of Donald Trump’s plan to put Carson at HUD first emerged. Carson told Trump, “I preferred to work outside of government as an adviser.” But on Monday, Trump tapped Carson to head the $47 billion agency that oversees home-mortgage lending, public-housing administration, desegregation efforts, and fighting housing discrimination.
Late in his campaign Trump frequently took to asking African Americans living in the “inner city,” “What the hell do you have to lose?” They may be about to find out.
Carson’s selection is easy to mock, especially given the way Trump mocked him during their primary campaign. The eventual GOP nominee ridiculed Carson for his warnings of his own “pathological temper,” comparing him to a child molester. “I don’t want to say what I said, but I’ll tell you anyway,” Trump told his supporters. “I said that if you’re a child molester—a sick puppy—you’re a child molester, there’s no cure for that.” He reenacted Carson’s story of trying to stab a friend only to have his belt buckle block the blow. “Give me a break, the knife broke?” Trump declared, twisting his own belt buckle. It was a cringeworthy display of Trump bullying. When Carson dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump, all was forgiven, on both sides.
Democrats are signaling a fight over Carson, however. Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called him “a disturbingly unqualified choice.” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley agreed, saying he was “deeply concerned that the incoming Administration has proposed someone who believes ‘poverty is really more of a choice than anything else’ to lead American urban development. Telling people that their lack of means is their own problem is not a solution.”
One of the things that makes the choice of Carson painful to fair housing advocates is that hidebound HUD has made “fundamental shifts” during the Obama years, in the words of PolicyLink’s Angela Blackwell. (Full disclosure: I’m on PolicyLink’s board.) “The big shift that took place is in understanding that housing has become a proxy for opportunity.” HUD’s mission, therefore, became broader, and the agency began to collaborate with others targeting economic opportunity, to think about access to transportation, jobs, grocery stores, schools.
Though he grew up poor in Detroit, it’s unlikely Carson knows much about the evolution of HUD or other federal agencies. The 65-year-old surgeon has had little to say about urban policy during his career. But last year, as he ran for the Republican presidential nomination, he published an op-ed that criticized some of HUD’s more innovative desegregation efforts, arguing that “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse.” Also during the campaign, he attacked a program to relocate Chicago residents to middle-class areas in Dubuque, Iowa. “This is what you see in communist countries, where they have so many regulations encircling every aspect of your life that if you don’t agree with them, all they have to do is pull the noose. And this is what we’ve got now.”