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Questions about government experience dog Ben Carson as HUD hearings loom

WASHINGTO — Ben Carson’s celebrated career as a neurosurgeon leaves no doubt about his medical credentials, but his lack of experience in government and public policy will be questioned at his confirmation hearings to be housing secretary in the new Trump administration.

President-elect Donald Trump tapped Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, turning to a former GOP presidential rival who had backed Trump early on but also suggested he wasn’t interested in a Cabinet-level position. In a quick turnaround, Carson took to Facebook to say he would, in fact, take a role in the new administration, leading a sprawling agency with some 8,300 employees and a budget of about $48 billion.

In prepared remarks for Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Banking, House and Urban Affairs Committee, Carson 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 his remarks, crediting his mom with showing him the power of perseverance and importance of hard work.

Carson said he wants to heal the nation’s divisiveness and that HUD was a vehicle to help in the healing.

“I see HUD as part of the solution, helping ensure housing security and strong communities,” he said.

Ahead of the hearing, Democrats questioned his experience and priorities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in a letter to the retired surgeon 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.

The letter lists dozens of questions, including asking what Carson thinks about the condition of public housing, whether ending homelessness among veterans should be a priority and how he would ensure equal access to HUD programs to same-sex couples and others.

Carson went into the hearings, though, with the backing of several former HUD secretaries from both sides of the aisle.

In a letter to the committee, the former secretaries said they believe Carson will listen to the dedicated civil servants at the agency in order to help HUD’s mission of affordable homes and inclusive communities. The letter was signed by former Clinton administration Secretary Henry Cisneros, and Bush administration secretaries Mel Martinez, Alphonso Jackson and Steven Preston, who all headed the same agency that Carson would lead.

The soft-spoken Carson, the only black major-party candidate in the White House race, grew up poor. He would go 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, at age 35, 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.

Leading up to his confirmation hearings, Carson had said little publicly about affordable housing, homelessness and other HUD-related issues. Last summer, however, he criticized a new Obama administration fair housing rule as government overreach. He said the regulations rely on “a tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws to empower the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ‘affirmatively promote’ fair housing, even in the absence of explicit discrimination.”

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