WASHINGTON — Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson defended his experience and credentials Thursday to serve as the nation's new housing secretary, turning to his life story to show that he understands the needs of the country's most vulnerable.
President-elect Donald Trump wants Carson, a former White House rival, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a sprawling agency with 8,300 employees and a budget of about $48 billion.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, House and Urban Affairs Committee, the famed neurosurgeon talked about growing up in inner-city Detroit with a single mother who had a third-grade education and worked numerous jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
"I have actually in my life understood what housing insecurity was," he told lawmakers.
Democrats in the GOP-run Senate questioned his experience. Carson said one of the things he's learned in private life as part of various boards is how to find a good CEO. He said a good CEO doesn't necessarily know everything about running a particular business, but he knows how to select people and use their talents.
Carson said HUD's rental assistance programs are "essential" to millions of Americans. The department, he said, has a lot of good programs, but "the progress perhaps has not been as great as one would like to see."
He added: "We don't want it to be way of life. ... We want it to be a Band-Aid and a springboard to move forward."
Ranking Committee Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., grilled Carson about whether he could guarantee that no HUD money would benefit Trump or his family, which has made its fortune in real estate.
"I will not play
Carson displayed a softer approach toward the role of the federal government than he sometimes did on the presidential campaign trail. When reminded that he had called for across-the-board agency spending cuts of 10
Carson talked about a more "holistic approach" to helping people and developing "the whole person." For example, he said, HUD could work with other agencies such as the Education and Labor Departments on better access to a quality education and apprenticeship programs to train workers.
Several former HUD secretaries, Democrats and Republicans, wrote the committee in support of Carson. 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 the 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, 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.
Before Thursday's hearing, Carson had said little publicly about federal housing issues. In a 2015 opinion piece, he criticized an Obama administration fair housing rule as government overreach. At his hearing Thursday, he told lawmakers he would work with local HUD officials to "make sure that fairness is carried out."
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.