Ben Carson takes up offer to run US housing department for Trump

Prominent African-American doctor to oversee renewal agenda in inner cities

US president-elect Donald Trump has named Ben Carson as his housing and urban development secretary three weeks after the retired neurosurgeon's manager said he was not qualified to serve at cabinet.

Dr Carson, Mr Trump’s most prominent African-American supporter and a former presidential candidate who lost out to the property mogul and television celebrity, had questioned his own suitability as a cabinet pick last month saying that he would be “a fish out of water” as a federal bureaucrat.

The 65-year-old surgeon, who has never held public office before, is at the centre of the latest unconventional move by the incoming Republican president. In charge of the department of housing and urban development, he will oversee affordable housing developments and enforce equal housing legislation.

“Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities,” Mr Trump said in a statement.

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“We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”

Compelling nominee

Armstrong Williams, Dr Carson’s business manager, poured cold water on suggestions last month that the retired doctor might be Mr Trump’s health or education secretary, saying that he had never run a federal agency and “the last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

Dr Carson later said that after discussions with the Trump transition team, he felt that he could “make a significant contribution, particularly to making our inner cities great for everyone”.

The former surgeon’s life story makes him a compelling nominee to take charge of housing policy, though past political comments would put him at loggerheads with anti-segregation policies of minority groups.

Born in inner-city Detroit, Michigan, he was pushed by his single mother to overcome his poor background and troubled youth through education, earning academic honours and a place in medical school.

He became director of paediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 33 and found fame for his groundbreaking work separating conjoined twins.

“I grew up in the inner city and have spent a lot of time there, and have dealt with a lot of patients from that area and recognise that we cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities,” he has said.

If confirmed by the US senate, Dr Carson will lead Mr Trump’s efforts to overhaul what the president-in-waiting has painted as a dystopian picture of inner-city life where African-Americans are struggling with high crime and poverty rates, bad education and zero employment.

Political correctness

Dr Carson rose to political prominence when he criticised President

Barack Obama

when they shared a stage at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 2013 and he railed against political correctness.

He has condemned Mr Obama’s efforts to use regulatory powers to increase racial integration in housing.

Late last year he soared as a candidate in the presidential race drawing the same outsider appeal as Mr Trump, drawing attacks from the Manhattan businessman who questioned his religious faith as a Seventh-day Adventist and questioning his childhood anger issues as recounted by Carson in his memoir. Mr Trump said Dr Carson’s “pathological temper” was like the incurable sickness of a “child molester”.

A week after ending his presidential bid in March, Dr Carson endorsed Mr Trump saying that the two had “buried the hatchet”.

Explaining his support for the businessman, whose campaign and conduct were at odds with Dr Carson’s soft-spoken and calm manner, he said that there were “two Donald Trumps” – the one the public saw and the more reserved “cerebral” man who “sits there and considers things very carefully”.

Mr Trump has nominated most of his cabinet, though the key role of secretary of state remains unfilled. He has picked Hollywood financier and former Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin as his treasury secretary; billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, a former director of Bank of Ireland, as his commerce secretary, and retired general James "Mad Dog" Mattis as his secretary of defence.

Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos is his nominee to be secretary of education and he has chosen Elaine Chao, the wife of senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, as his transportation secretary.

In another development, Mr Trump on Monday met former US vice-president Al Gore to discuss an issue he has long scoffed at – global warming.

After Mr Gore emerged from the meeting in Trump Tower, the Democrat politician-turned-climate activist said: “I had a lengthy and very productive meeting about the transition.”

Mr Gore, who campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton and shared in the 2007 Nobel peace prize for his climate-change work, added: "It was a sincere search for areas of common ground. I found it an extremely interesting conversation and to be continued, and I'm just going to leave it at that."

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent