By Chris Johnson, Washington Blade
Despite a history of expressing anti-LGBT views, the U.S. Senate confirmed on March 2 former neurosurgeon Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development by an 58-41 vote with the support of six members of the Democratic caucus.
The six members of the Democratic caucus who joined with the Republicans to vote for Carson were Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Angus King (I-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.). All Republican senators who were present voted for Carson; Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) wasn’t present to vote.
Six Democrats join Republicans to vote for Carson even though the new HUD secretary has no experience in managing housing or urban affairs and a long history of comments denigrating LGBT people. After his success as a neurosurgeon, those remarks animated his career as a conservative commentator and Republican presidential candidate.
Carson has called transgender people the “height of absurdity” and “a few people who perhaps are abnormal,” suggesting amid opposition to them using the restroom consistent with their gender identity they their own bathrooms specifically designated for them.
During his presidential campaign, Carson waxed nostalgia for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and expressed opposition to allowing transgender people in the armed forces. The candidate signed a pledge with the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage to, among other things, back a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage nationwide and “conduct a review of regulatory, administrative and executive actions taken by the current administration that have the effect of undermining marriage.”
In 2013, Carson landed in hot water when, as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University, he compared LGBT advocates to pedophiles during an interview on Fox News. Outcry over the remarks led him to apologize “if anybody was offended” and to cancel plans to give the commencement address for the medical school.
During his confirmation hearing, Carson derided LGBT rights as “extra rights” under questioning from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on LGBT issues.
“What I mentioned in the past is the fact no one gets extra rights,” Carson said. “Extra rights means you get to redefine everything for everybody else. That, to me, doesn’t seem to be very democratic.”
Carson as HUD secretary has the authority to rollback Obama-era regulations barring discrimination against LGBT people in government-sponsored housing and transgender people in homeless shelters, but that should remain in place if Carson keep to his words. In written testimony to the committee, Carson said he doesn’t believe protecting equal access to housing for LGBT people is “extra rights” or something that should be withdrawn.
In a statement, Warner cited Carson’s personal story of “rising from an impoverished background to become an accomplished surgeon” as a reason to confirm him to HUD.
“The Secretary of Housing & Urban Development plays an important role in addressing affordable housing, combatting homelessness and upholding civil rights and non-discrimination laws,” Warner said. “During our meeting in January, I questioned Dr. Carson’s commitment – based on previous public statements – to upholding those fundamental responsibilities. He assured me that he is a ‘huge fan’ of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and its subsequent amendments, which prohibit discrimination in housing, and will vigorously enforce laws proscribing redlining.”
Alluding to housing challenges facing West Virginia, Manchin said in a statement he voted to confirm Carson because of the importance of having a team in place running the government.
“I believe he understands that the housing and development needs facing West Virginia are different than those facing America’s urban communities and I look forward to working with him to improve the lives of West Virginians,” Manchin said.
Heitkamp said in a statement she voted to confirm Carson because in meetings with her he expressed a commitment to “recognize the full social and economic scope of impediments to safe, affordable housing.”
“I’m supporting Dr. Carson today because that approach is crucial to spurring housing opportunity for rural and low-income families on tribal lands and in rural communities alike – and I intend to hold him to his word,” Heitkamp said. “Any successful blueprint begins with a solid foundation, and I look forward to laying the trauma-informed groundwork with Dr. Carson so that our nation’s housing solutions are strong enough for communities that have withstood poverty, crime, abuse, and other adverse experiences and are built to last.”
Donnelly said in a statement he voted for Carson because the secretary made a commitment to East Chicago, which is experiencing a lead crisis.
“The families of East Chicago are counting on him and it is critically important we keep our focus on assisting these families,” Donnelly said. “I also have been encouraged by Dr. Carson’s understanding of issues important to Indiana, including housing assistance for homeless veterans, addressing housing blight, the nexus between housing and health outcomes, and the need for access to affordable housing.”
The Washington Blade has placed a call in with the offices of King and Tester seeking comment on their vote to confirm Carson.
In a committee vote to approve Carson, Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs, joined Republicans to support him unanimously, much to the ire of many progressives who objected to their support for a Trump nominee.
Of those Democrats on the committee, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) voted “no” during the floor vote to confirm him, although Heitkamp, Tester and Warner doubled-down to support him again.
The 62-37 cloture vote Wednesday to proceed with debate and confirmation of Carson in the Senate was about the same as the confirmation vote, except Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) Menendez and Brown were among those voting to move forward.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, criticized the Senate for confirming Carson despite his lack of experience in housing and anti-LGBT comments.
“The Senate has just voted to confirm a man who called over 1.4 million of his fellow Americans who are transgender ‘abnormal’ and referred to acknowledging their very existence as ‘silly,’ ‘beyond ridiculous,’ and ‘the height of absurdity,'” Carson said. “Even setting aside Dr. Carson’s self-professed inexperience, these mean-spirited statements alone should have been disqualifying. The Senate will now own those comments.”