Step by step, Trump is assembling an administration far more conservative than his campaign
The selection of Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development fits the pattern of stocking the Cabinet with social conservatives.
Donald Trump expressed fondness during the presidential campaign for some of the big federal programs that serve the country’s most vulnerable, but whatever warmth he may feel does not seem to be shared by the people he is choosing to run them.
Monday’s selection of Ben Carson, the former pediatric neurosurgeon and Republican presidential hopeful, to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development was the latest move to fit the pattern of stocking the Cabinet with social conservatives deeply skeptical of the government agencies they will be asked to oversee.
Trump chose Carson despite the physician’s protest last month that he lacked the credentials needed to run a federal agency. As a child, Carson lived in what he has described as a housing project in Detroit. Since becoming a doctor, however, he has had little other direct experience with urban policy or housing issues.
He would assume a post overseeing an agency that was elevated to the Cabinet level as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society effort to combat poverty — something that Carson has declared an epic failure.
The job would test Carson’s management ability. The department, with an annual budget of $48 billion, oversees big development contracts and the distribution of lucrative grants to communities, and it has been historically susceptible to corruption in times of weak oversight.
During Ronald Reagan’s tenure, HUD money was regularly misappropriated to contractors with political ties, leading to multiple felony convictions. The agency’s standing in that administration seemed to be crystallized by Reagan’s failure to recognize his HUD secretary, Samuel Pierce, during an encounter at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1981. Reagan addressed Pierce as “Mr. Mayor.”
Carson’s first test at managing a complex, multi-state operation came in the presidential campaign. He proved gifted at raising money, building a small-donor network that was surpassed only by that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Carson’s campaign and the network of allied super PACs that supported him also stood out for how little money they spent on campaigning and how much was plowed back into payments to contractors.
His lack of experience drew attacks from many prominent Democrats.
“I have serious concerns about Dr. Carson’s lack of expertise,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. “Someone who is as anti-government as him is a strange fit for Housing secretary, to say the least.”
Schumer vowed Carson would be pushed during confirmation proceedings to prove he “is well versed in housing policy and has a vision for federal housing programs that meets the needs of Americans across the country.”
In Los Angeles, which works closely with the federal housing agency as it carries out a $23-million anti-homelessness initiative, one of the country’s largest such programs, Mayor Eric Garcetti was more cautious.
“Los Angeles stands at the forefront of the very challenges that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was created to tackle,” Garcetti said in an email. “I am hopeful that as a physician, Mr. Carson will create the much-needed connection between public health and community development in neighborhoods everywhere.”
In 2014, the last year for which full figures are available, 492,000 Californians received HUD-funded vouchers to help with rent. The city of Los Angeles received $52 million in community development grants from HUD that year.
In the Cabinet, Carson would join a list of social conservatives that includes Trump’s pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, Georgia Rep.Tom Price, and Betsy DeVos, who has been tapped to head the Education Department.
Price is a budget hawk and crusader for cutting Medicaid and Medicare, the latter of which Trump, in the campaign, said he opposed cutting. DeVos, the wealthy former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, is a strong backer of voucher programs, which provide tax money to families to spend on private schools.
Carson would be in charge of an agency that is at the forefront of federal efforts to create opportunities for those in poverty. It provides vouchers for housing assistance and Community Development Block Grants that cities rely on for revitalization.
More recently, the Obama administration has been using the department’s authority to enforce the Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968, to give low-income families options to move out of economically depressed and racially segregated neighborhoods into areas with better schools and employment opportunities.
Writing in the Washington Times last year, Carson called that policy an example of the federal government’s failed “mandated social engineering schemes.” In another instance, he likened it to the kind of government dictates common in communist countries.
At a CNN town hall during the presidential primaries, Carson said poor Americans were better off when the social safety net barely existed. Taking care of the indigent, he said at the South Carolina event, is “not the government’s job” but that of their friends, neighbors and families.
“Starting in the 1920s, the government started getting involved in everything,” he said. “It kept growing, metastasizing. By the time we got to the 1960s, LBJ was saying, ‘We the government are going to eliminate poverty.’ Nineteen-trillion dollars later, 10 times more people on food stamps, more poverty, more welfare, broken homes. Everything is much worse.”
The former neurosurgeon was one of Trump’s most loyal surrogates in the general election.
That alliance was all the more valuable to Trump following a bitter primary. At one point during the primary fights, Trump tweeted that Carson “has never created a job in his life” and that “Carson wants to abolish Medicare — I want to save it and Social Security.”
On Monday, by contrast, Trump said in a statement that he and Carson had “talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”
“He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump added.
The HUD post could be of particular interest to Trump as he pushes his plan for a massive increase in infrastructure spending.
Exactly what form that infrastructure plan will take and whether it will involve federal spending or primarily private money remains unclear. But much of the money could be routed through HUD. Installing a loyalist with no experience in building or construction could enable Trump to more easily ride herd over the plan.
Carson’s supporters say his personal experience growing up in poverty gives him a valuable perspective. Carson’s family received food stamps when he was a child and spent stretches in rough housing projects in Boston and Detroit.
That won him some cautious praise from housing policy experts.
“The fact that he grew up in poverty in a quintessential American city like Detroit should serve as an asset,” said Amy Liu, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-oriented think tank in Washington.
“I hope he can use his upbringing and home city as a platform for giving a voice and an ear in these issues,” she added. “But the concern is that he doesn’t believe in government being a force for good, particularly when it comes to low-income families.”
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