The Closing: Ben Carson

The HUD Secretary defends his controversial tenure in the Trump administration and says he doesn’t listen to ‘the garbage’

Ben Carson (Photos by Stephen Voss)
Ben Carson (Photos by Stephen Voss)

Ben Carson’s office is what one might expect from a former neurosurgeon: clean, with few distractions, in a sterile, hospital-like setting. The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has routinely characterized the agency’s 1960s-era concrete semi-circular structure — the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building — as the ugliest in Washington, D.C.

One of the few paintings in his office is of members of the president’s original cabinet, including Carson, crossing a swamp behind the White House in a boat. It is signed by Donald J. Trump, his political rival-turned-ally. Just four years ago, when they were both seeking the Republican nomination for president, Trump was bashing Carson, claiming the doctor had never created a job in his life. Now, Carson is one of Trump’s few remaining original cabinet members.

At HUD, Carson oversees a budget of $44 billion and a staff of more than 6,500 people. He’s tasked with running an agency that makes housing policies for more than 9 million low-income Americans through rental assistance. Under his tenure, HUD claims it has reduced regulatory barriers and Obama-era rules that discouraged investment in distressed areas.

But critics, including many Democrats and housing advocates, accuse Carson of repealing crucial protections for marginalized communities. Some have also dismissed him as woefully unqualified for the job since he had never worked in government and had no background in housing policy.

Carson, meanwhile, has faced his share of controversies. In 2017, HUD ordered a $31,000 dining set for his office, which Carson later canceled and was cleared of wrongdoing on.  And the Washington Post reported this September that Carson had made disparaging remarks about the transgender community, telling HUD staffers he was concerned about “big hairy men” staying at women’s homeless shelters. He later defended the remark, saying, “political correctness is going to destroy our nation.” He’s also had a fair share of gaffes, notably confusing the real estate term REO with the cookie Oreo.

But despite the criticism, Carson’s life trajectory has been indisputably impressive. Born into poverty, he won a scholarship to Yale University and then went to the University of Michigan Medical School before becoming one of the youngest chiefs of pediatric neurosurgery in the country at age 33. He was also the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins at the back of the head. Carson and his wife, Candy, have three grown children and a reported net worth of $20 million, according to Forbes. So why did he take the position at HUD? That’s something Carson seems to wonder himself.

Was there any part of your childhood growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit that led you to [HUD]? Well you know, Detroit wasn’t that bad at the beginning. My parents lived in a little G.I. home — it was 700 square feet, but it was our 700 square feet. When my parents got divorced for a little while [when I was eight], we were homeless. My mother eventually moved in with some relatives in Baltimore in a very typical tenement there. There were rats and roaches and crime, and both of my older cousins were killed. It was that kind of place. I had the opportunity to see first-hand what it was like to live in those conditions, and the thinking of people who lived in those kinds of conditions. How they thought about life. Did they think about getting out of there?

What’s your view of Detroit today? Detroit has had many sputtering starts. People were going to do this, they were going to develop the harbor [terminal], but it never really took hold until recently. The mayor now, Mike Duggan, seems to have a much better grasp of how to get things done. He was a hospital administrator. He had to deal with business and he knows the value of people being able to see progress.

Your late mother was a big inspiration for you. Did she say anything that motivated you to take a role in federal government? She was constantly saying from the time I was a little kid, “Ben you are smart. You can do anything anyone else can do, but you can do it better.” That is always what she said. But she fully understood the need to take care of people. Even though we were poor ourselves, she was always trying to help other people.

I remember one time there was this homeless guy and he was so hungry and she said, “I am going to fill that guy up until he feels like he is going to burst.” And she did. That’s the kind of person she was, even though she had a very difficult life herself. She grew up in a huge family in rural Tennessee, got married when she was 13 and then found out her husband was a bigamist.

Was there any inspiration from faith or from the Bible that pushed you into this position? There is no question that I have a belief in the Bible. And the Bible talks a lot about our obligations to the poor. … It says in James 1:27 to visit the fatherless and their widows and to keep oneself unspotted from the world, which means you take care of the poor people, and you don’t act like the rest of the politicians.

What was it like going from running against Trump to working for him? During the campaign, [Trump] and I became friends, because philosophically, we are very much the same. Personality-wise, we are extremely different. He’s actually a lot of fun when he’s in a pleasant setting and not being attacked. He’s very good to work with because he trusts my judgement. Even if there are  disagreements, he says, “I know that you have thought this through, and I am sure you know what you are talking about.”

What was your impression when he first called you? Where were you and what did he say? Actually, I was in Trump Tower, and I was going to talk to him about some various issues — what kind of things we could do to get the country back on the right track. Vice President Pence was there, and [former] Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was there, and who is the guy who played such a big role in the beginning and then left?

Bannon. Steve Bannon. Yeah, and Steve Bannon. After they listened for a little while, they said, “You really should consider a cabinet position, you would be so good at this.” Somehow they managed to convince me even though I really didn’t want to come into government. You know, I had a very comfortable life. I was making a ton of money [from writing books and sitting on boards] and could do anything I wanted to do, so to give all that up, I said, “Oh boy, do I really want to do this?” My wife wasn’t too sure either, except when the grandchildren started coming over, she said, “absolutely we should do this because we’ve got to make sure they have the same opportunities.”

Did your wife talk you into this? Well, I was leaning toward it. But I wasn’t going to do it if she didn’t want it. I realized that it would have an impact on my kids, too. Not only will certain people go from loving you to hating you, but also because one of my sons [Ben Carson Jr.], in particular, is a very successful businessman and is involved in lots of ventures. And now everything he does is examined under a microscope. But you have to weigh that against what is going on in our country. A long time before we came along, there were people who made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that we had the freedom we have now.

You are one of the few original Trump cabinet members that are still here. Why do you think that is? It’s not that [people] didn’t try to get rid of me. If you remember with furniture-gate they tried to get me to resign. A couple of months ago, they said, “Carson should resign because Carson thinks women’s shelters are for women.” That’s crazy stuff. I don’t listen to that mess. Some of the cabinet members have had to leave simply because they couldn’t withstand the financial burden. Because when you are accused of something, you have to hire these $900 per hour lawyers.

But then why are you still here? I can afford $900 [per hour] lawyers. And I don’t listen to the garbage. My mission here is to change this agency from a place that just sort of puts people in shelters and puts them in different programs to a place that gets people out of poverty.

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Do you ever miss neurosurgery? It was very nice. There was no question. You go into the operating room and you are in the sanctuary. You don’t have to worry about anything except that patient, and sometimes you are in there for many, many hours. But you are only affecting one life at a time. In this job, you are affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

In a previous interview, you said running HUD was more intricate and complicated than brain surgery. What did you mean? In the sense that there are more things here that don’t make sense.

What doesn’t make sense? For instance, if you are getting housing assistance and you earn more money, you have to report that, so your rent goes up. That doesn’t make any sense. Because why would anyone be trying to improve themselves if they can’t get ahead.

What is the most challenging part of the job? The most challenging part in government is dealing with bureaucracy. Because bureaucrats are people who care more about dealing with the rules than they do about the goals. If you know anything about surgeons, they are just the opposite. They say: What is it that we are trying to do? Let’s fix everything else and make sure we can get to that.

One recent report said the 100-plus Opportunity Zones funds that sought to raise $22.7 billion have only raised about $3 billion so far. Do you still believe OZs are a $100 billion investment opportunity? I think there are somewhere between $49 billion and $60 billion right now. Will it get to $100 billion? Yeah, I think that it will go far beyond that. The American business community is very entrepreneurial and innovative. As they become more familiar with something and figure out how they can use it to their advantage, they will as long as you don’t overregulate it.

Where are you getting those [$49 billion to $60 billion] estimates from? This is what I have been told from various sources.

Critics say that under your leadership HUD has rolled back fair housing protections, including repealing an Obama-era rule around disparate impact. Critics say it will lead to more discrimination by developers and lenders on marginalized communities. What do you say to that? I expect criticisms. People are creatures of habit. They don’t like change. What are we trying to accomplish with Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing? [Critics] are trying to stop segregation and in order to do so, create these massive surveys. They come up with all kinds of statistics but nothing changes. We are saying, why is there segregation? People can’t afford to live anywhere except in certain areas. There is no way for them to get into affordable housing. Why don’t we use AFFH to encourage local jurisdictions to remove those barriers to fair housing so that people do have the ability to move to areas that have opportunity?

Do you believe that discrimination is widespread in housing? I don’t know if I would say it is widespread. Does it exist? Of course, and that is the reason the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is so active and has cleared out a backlog of cases. You never hear that from the people who say we are backing off.

HUD reached an agreement earlier this year with the New York City Housing Authority to oversee the agency. Who is to blame for the problems at NYCHA, and what have you done to curtail fraud and abuse in the program? The problems at NYCHA have been chronic. They have been neglected. I am sure you know the story about the cases of lead testing. We were able to negotiate with [Mayor Bill] de Blasio. I said: “Forget about politics, let’s talk about the people.” Let’s have everything we do be aimed at them. Knowing [the people at NYCHA] have traditionally neglected their duties, we couldn’t just take their word that they were going to change. That’s why we put in a federal monitor there.

Are there any parts of your time as a neurosurgeon that have helped you navigate bureaucracy? Well, just learning to take an overall type view as opposed to a very specific. It goes back to the beginning: What is the goal here as opposed to what are the rules here?

What’s next for Ben Carson, neurosurgeon, presidential candidate and HUD Secretary? I hope to retire at some point. I failed at that the first time. But I will probably never fully retire because I will still be doing a lot of public speaking and writing books and doing board work.

I’ve read that you’re a vegetarian. I am not a strict vegetarian, but I prefer a vegetarian diet.

Any reason for that? Yeah, because my wife is a vegetarian and I don’t like to cook.

How do you want to be remembered? I get the legacy question all the time and I answer it the same way. It’s really not about me. It’s about the people … we have a large segment of people in the country who are not realizing the American Dream and we need to find a way to change that.

Do you have any plans to get into real estate? I don’t think I will be getting into real estate, but who knows?

— Edited and condensed for clarity.

Correction: The Real Deals December cover noted that Carson is getting ready to step down, but while the HUD Secretary says he hopes to retire at some point, he did not specify when.