Some LGBT advocates are criticizing Senate Democrats for joining Republicans to vote unanimously in favor of Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, despite his characterization of LGBT rights as “extra rights” during his confirmation hearing and his history of anti-LGBT views.
The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs approved Carson on Tuesday unanimously by voice vote, which means the 11 Democrats on the committee agreed to his confirmation, including progressive champions like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Deborah Shields, executive director of MassEquality, said she was perplexed over why Warren would vote in favor of Carson given the nominee’s record.
“We don’t usually get involved, per se, in national politics in that way, but I have to admit we’re very shocked given that she’s been such as advocate of economic justice and civil rights and his record belies that,” Shields said. “So, I have no idea what she was thinking. And yes, we do strongly object and given what a champion she’s been, it’s really quite shocking.”
During his confirmation hearing, Carson derided LGBT rights as “extra rights” when asked by Sen. Brown for assurance HUD would have a duty to promote equal access opportunities to LGBT people.
“If confirmed in this position, of course I would enforce all the laws of the land, and I believe that all Americans regardless of any of the things that you mentioned should be protected by the law,” Carson said. “What I mentioned in the past is the fact no one gets extra rights. Extra rights means you get to redefine everything for everybody else. That, to me, doesn’t seem to be very democratic.”
The remarks from Carson, who has called the LGBT community “a few people who perhaps are abnormal” and undeserving of equal protection under the law, are consistent with his political career of attacking LGBT rights.
During his presidential campaign, Carson opposed same-sex marriage and backed a constitutional amendment against the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality.
Most notably, 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 cancel plans to give the commencement address for the medical school.
Carson’s views on LGBT rights raise questions about how he’d handle his role as HUD secretary. Among other things, he’d have authority to rescind a rule prohibiting government-funded housing from discriminating against LGBT people, or institute a religious exemption for that rule that could substantially limit its reach. Carson could undo the extension of that rule prohibiting homeless shelters from turning away transgender people based on their gender identity.
In a statement, Brown said Carson is “not the nominee I would have chosen to lead HUD” and has made “often troubling public statements over the last three years,” but voted for him because of commitments the nominee made.
“This includes Dr. Carson’s promises to address the scourge of lead hazards that threaten the health and futures of children in Ohio and nationwide; uphold the Fair Housing Act and the housing rights of LGBTQ individuals; and advocate for rental assistance, investment to end homelessness, and including housing in the president’s infrastructure plan,” Brown added. “I will do everything in my power to hold Dr. Carson accountable for making good on his promises.”
Explaining her vote on Facebook amid discontent among progressive grassroots activists, Warren said in a post beginning with “OK, let’s talk about Dr. Ben Carson” she voted for the nominee even though she disagrees with “many of the outrageous things” he said because he made commitments to manage HUD fairly to all Americans in written responses to her questions.
“Can we count on Dr. Carson to keep those promises?” Warren wrote. “I don’t know. People are right to be skeptical; I am. But a man who makes written promises gives us a toehold on accountability. If President Trump goes to his second choice, I don’t think we will get another HUD nominee who will even make these promises – much less follow through on them.”
In his response to written questions from Brown, Carson clarified his reference to LGBT rights as “extra rights” and rejects any notion he would remove LGBT protections during his tenure at HUD.
Asked whether he could think of any instances of protecting equal housing opportunities for LGBT people as “extra rights,” Carson replied, “I can not.” Asked if he thinks HUD institutes “extra rights” for LGBT people that should be withdrawn, Carson replied, “I do not.”
In addition to Warren and Brown, other Democrats who voted in favor of Carson were Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) as well as newly seated Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
Christian Fuscarino, executive director of the New Jersey-based Garden State Equality, said his organization objected to Menendez’s vote in favor of Carson.
“I think it’s important for all lawmakers to consider those most vulnerable who will be impacted by Carson’s lack of education in housing needs and issues,” Fuscarino said.
The office for Menendez didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request to respond to Garden State Equality about his vote.
Patrick Paschall, executive director of the Maryland-based FreeState Justice, said Van Hollen’s vote for Carson in committee is “disappointing” based on Carson’s remarks against LGBT people.
“We have deep concerns about many of Trump’s nominees, including Dr. Ben Carson,” Paschall said. “He’s said some overtly anti-transgender things in the past that target the transgender community for discrimination and exclusion, and we’re certainly very concerned about his nomination to run a department he himself has said he’s not qualified to run and knows nothing about.”
Bridgett Frey, a Van Hollen spokesperson, pointed to her boss’ comments about concern over the nominee in response to the criticism.
“Sen. Van Hollen raised serious concerns at the Banking Committee confirmation hearing on Dr. Carson, and looks forward to the full floor debate on his nomination,” Frey said.
It’s unknown when Carson’s nomination could come up for a vote on the Senate floor, although it should happen soon now that the committee has approved the nomination. Under Senate rules, only a bare majority is required for confirmation.
The Human Rights Campaign in response to the committee vote said the position of the nation’s largest LGBT group, which has previously opposed Carson, remains unchanged.
For the record, our opposition to Ben Carson is unchanged. We remain deeply concerned and hope Senators will vote no on his confirmation.
— HumanRightsCampaign (@HRC) January 25, 2017
In response to a question about whether the Human Rights Campaign would include the vote on Carson in its congressional scorecard, a spokesperson for the organization said those scoring decisions are made at the end of the congressional session. The spokesperson declined to comment on individual senators like Brown and Warren voting for Carson in committee.