WASHINGTON — While Ben Carson’s celebrated career as a neurosurgeon leaves no doubt about his medical credentials, his lack of experience in government and public policy are raising questions about his qualification to serve as housing secretary.
President-elect Donald Trump wants Carson, a former rival for the Republican presidential nomination, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a sprawling agency with 8,300 employees and a budget of about $48 billion.
Carson, in remarks prepared for Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Banking, House and Urban Affairs Committee, talked about growing up in inner-city Detroit with a single mother who had a third-grade education. She worked numerous jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
“I understand housing insecurity,” he said in the prepared testimony, and credited his mother with showing him the importance of perseverance and hard work.
Carson said he wants to help heal America’s divisiveness, and that the department could play a role. “I see HUD as part of the solution, helping ensure housing security and strong communities,” he said.
Democrats in the GOP-run Senate are questioning his experience and priorities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told Carson in a letter that the agency needs a strong, capable leader who believes in its mission.
“There is relatively little in the public record that reveals how you would further HUD’s mission to ‘create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all,'” Warren said.
Among the dozens of questions in the letter: What does Carson think about the condition of public housing? Should ending homelessness among veterans be a priority? How would he ensure equal access to HUD programs to same-sex couples and others.
Several former HUD secretaries, Democrats and Republicans, wrote the committee in support of Carson, saying they believe Carson will listen to staff to help fulfill HUD’s mission of affordable homes and inclusive communities. The letter was signed by Henry Cisneros, secretary under President Bill Clinton, and Mel Martinez, Alphonso Jackson and Steven Preston, who worked for President George W. Bush.
The soft-spoken Carson, the only black major-party candidate in 2016 presidential race, grew up poor. He attended Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School, and was the first African-American named as head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
In 1987, at age 35, Carson pioneered surgery to separate twins joined at the back of the head. In 2013, he entered the national political spotlight when, during the National Prayer Breakfast, he railed against the modern welfare state. President Barack Obama was sitting just feet away.
Carson had said little publicly about affordable housing, homelessness and other HUD-related issues. Last summer, he criticized an Obama administration fair housing rule as government overreach.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.