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Monday, December 5, 2016

New cabinet pick a true no-brainer

You wish.

HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination; and transform the way HUD does business.

-Mission Statement of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development

HUD was created in 1965 to coordinate federal programs scattered across other government agencies. Its secretary is 12th in line of succession to the presidency.

For reasons unknown- for it has always been on Republicans’ most-despised list- it was not one of the cabinet agencies Texas governor Rick Perry wanted to abolish in his 2012 presidential campaign, unless he forgot it that he forgot it.

(Perry is now being considered to run the Department of Energy, which he actually did forget he wanted to abolish. As late night TV host Seth Meyers commented November 24, “Every day is gonna be like ‘Fifty First Dates’ with him: ‘Oh, man, Department of Energy, I hate that place! Wait, you mean ah work here?!?’”)

In the new ABC television drama, Kiefer Sutherland plays a HUD secretary, Tom Kirkman, tapped to sit out the president’s state of the union address (By tradition, one cabinet member- lest the rest of the government, assembled at the Capitol, be wiped out by what Lady Bracknell would call “a revolutionary outrage”- has to stay home). Sure enough, a bomb goes off, and the show follows new President Kirkman’s attempts to be taken seriously.

In that way, the program is art imitating life. Many of  HUD’s seventeen acting and confirmed secretaries have been hard to take seriously. The job has mostly been used by presidents to make their cabinets look more diverse; to reward party hacks; or as a place to park past rivals, and up-and-comers, where they can do no harm- or not much.

Today, President-election Trump ticked all three categories when he announced he will nominate the retired African-American brain surgeon, Ben Carson, to be secretary of HUD.

Carson will be the fourth black HUD secretary. The third, Samuel Pierce, was also the longest-serving incumbent. He was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 and lasted through all eight years of The Gipper’s tenure because everyone promptly forgot he was there.

Pierce, like the first HUD secretary, Robert Weaver- who was also African-American- came up through the administration of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1950s, and served as President Eisenhower's  undersecretary of labor, then as Nixon’s Treasury Department general counsel. He settled in with a white-shoe New York law firm and well-paid sinecures on Fortune 500 corporate boards before being plucked from obscurity by the Reagan transition team headhunters.

Pierce didn’t want the job, and told friends he wouldn’t accept it, but caved in the end because he fantasized of being appointed to the US Supreme Court after service in the outer orbit of the president’s inner circle.

Yet even there, one obituarist put it, he remained enshrouded by a cloak of invisibility:

By nature a reticent man, he kept such a low profile that he was known as "Silent Sam." At a White House reception for big-city mayors late in the Reagan administration, Pierce shook hands with the president, only to be greeted with "Hello, Mr. Mayor. It's nice to see you."

Pierce told an embarrassed Reagan, "I'm a member of your Cabinet, Mr. President."

Pierce was like Catch 22's Major Major, whom you could only see when he want’s in his office. He left the running of the department to lower-level Republicans charged with carrying out the GOP anti-housing, anti-urban development agenda, and who possessed the consistent trait of mid-level Reaganauts in department after department: the urge to line their pockets while they were at it.

As one summary of Pierce’s tenure put it,

During Pierce's tenure, HUD appropriations for low-income housing were cut by nearly half and funding all but ended for new housing construction...After leaving office he was investigated by the United States Office of the Independent Counsel and the United States Congress over mismanagement, abuse and political favoritism that took place in the department during his tenure. These investigations found that under Pierce's stewardship the department engaged in political favoritism and trading of influence.

Millions of dollars of federal government money was given to projects as sought by connected politicians of both parties, in violation of rules governing such grants and expenditures. Through the 1990s many of Pierce's closest aides and confidants at the department were charged and convicted on felony charges related to the political favoritism and inappropriate expenditures that pervaded the department during Pierce's tenure. Pierce himself was not charged. Samuel Pierce was loyal to his friends and associates. He was one of the very few cabinet members to see outgoing President Reagan off at the airport, after President Bush was sworn in. And he stood by friends that had run afoul with the changing moods in the White House. Asked what the reason was for associating with people no longer needed at the White House, he replied: "He's a friend of mine."

When Pierce died in 2000, The Los Angeles Times noted,

Elaborating on his decision not to bring criminal charges against Pierce, [Independent Counsel Arlin] Adams said he took into consideration Pierce's failing health and a written statement from Pierce that acknowledged responsibility for the scandal.

Pierce said that "my own conduct failed to set the proper standard" at HUD.

"On a number of occasions," he said, "I met or spoke privately with personal friends who were paid to obtain funding for [moderate-rehabilitation] projects . . . which created the appearance that I endorsed my friends' efforts and sent signals to my staff that such [consultants] should receive assistance."

Friends said Pierce's poor management of HUD was understandable. For example, Kheel said, "Sam was a distinguished lawyer [but] he was not a distinguished administrator."

Richard Nixon backwatered his 1968 GOP challenger, Michigan governor George Romney, at HUD during his first term. Romney was succeeded by James Lynn, an Ohio lawyer who’d been general counsel and undersecretary of commerce before his two years at HUD, and spent two more years as budget director afterward. He didn’t know anything about housing.

Neither did Carla Hills, an antitrust lawyer (as a Republican, her interest was purely theoretical), who led HUD under President Ford; or Mel Martinez, a Florida fundraiser for George W Bush who left HUD after two years to become chair of the Republican National Committee and serve part of a term as a senator before moving into lobbying and a senior job with Chase Manhattan.

alphonso jackson_2.jpg

Martinez’s successor, Alphonso Jackson, was a Dallas neighbor of President Bush 2's who’d actually run a public housing program before becoming an energy company executive. As HUD secretary, Jackson spent six years in the Sam Pierce mold: after his triumph rebuilding New Orleans housing stock post-Hurricane Katrina, he left office in 2008 under investigation by the HUD inspector general, the FBI, the Justice Department and a federal grand jury for matters ranging from payola contracts for pals, denying contracts to developers who did not support President Bush, steering government work to supporters, and all the while telling a Congressional committee, “I don’t touch contracts.”

With the subprime mortgage crisis building into another hurricane in 2007, Jackson blamed it on greedy, well-to-do groups, telling the National Press Club:

MR. ZREMSKI: Is HUD planning any specific measure to deal with the disparate impacts that the subprime lending crisis is having on minority families?

SEC. JACKSON: Well, it's not only minority families. I wish I could tell you that was the case. We have some young, well-educated kids, who I call yuppies, buppies [“black urban professionals] and guppies [gay urban professionals] -- (laughter) -- that have made these exotic loans. And I like to use an example that is a true story. One person -- two young people; one, Alyssa (sp), bought a BMW, the wife did, and the husband bought a Mercedes. And then they went out and got them a $400,000 home, and they had zero down.

Well, they're in trouble. And I'm not for bailing them out, because both of them are college grads, graduate degrees. But for the person who was bamboozled, that didn't read the fine print, then I am in many ways.

Jackson was succeeded, for nine months, by Steve Preston, a financial services executive and Lehman Brothers partner whose previous nomination to run the Small Business Administration was confirmed despite widespread objections he had no idea how small businesses worked. He didn't know anything about housing or urban development, either, but had the good sense to lie low as his old firm, and the US economy, collapsed around him.

Bush’s father, the first President Bush, took Nixon’s Romney tack, sending congressman, and future vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp to molder at HUD. Jimmy Carter’s first HUD secretary, Patricia Roberts Harris, did well enough to be moved to first string at Health and Human Services. Her place was filled by an important Louisiana Democratic Party dynast, New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu.

Bill Clinton’s first HUD secretary, was a young Texas Hispanic mayor on the move, and won bipartisan praise as perhaps the most effective HUD secretary ever. He was forced out of office when his former mistress revealed he’d been paying her hush money for a decade, after she sold the story to Fox News for $15,000.

He was replaced by Andrew Cuomo, was another hard-charging department leader Republicans- who supported his confirmation unanimously in the Senate- later charged with sowing the seeds of the financial crisis of 2008 in his zeal to expand home ownership. He also got dinged regularly for a nasty, street pol side that has served him with mixed results in his current post as governor of New York.

Today we find ourselves- after eight years of a competent public housing administrator, Shaun Donovan, and another up-and-coming Texas Hispanic mayor, Julian Castro, greeted by the news that President-elect Trump has announced a return to form for GOP presidents.

But even by past standards, the nomination of Ben Carson, a retired brain surgeon who seems to have be the first in his field to entirely remove his own and survive to run for president, seems a choice destined for the express elevator to the bottom of the HUD secretary standings.

Carson has two known views about the brief of his new department. One is a 2015 Washington Times article in which he expressed concern that new Obama Administration rules regulating public housing would have “a disparate impact” on wealthy neighborhoods like the Florida enclave in which he built his retirement mansion.

The other was recapped today, in a Facebook post by the editor of Kentucky Trial Court Review:

Carson, by the way, believes the Great Pyramids of Egypt were grain silos built by the Biblical Joseph, so to some extent, he does have some ideas about urban growth and planning.

Seth Meyers put it nicely in his Thanksgiving cabinet Closer Look:

Donald Trump asked Ben Carson if he’d like to be Health and Human Services secretary: ‘No, I’m not qualified.’ ‘So, what about Housing and Urban Development?’ ‘Well, I do have a house.’

Last week in Seattle’s The Stranger, Tricia Romano published an open letter to Mitt Romney:

[N]ow you’re talking to the Oompa Loompa for the Secretary of State gig and people are saying all sorts of mean things and saying how you have no spine and you’re a total wimp and a sell out and have lost all moral standing.

It might be true, but don’t listen to them. Your name has been tossed around for the Secretary of State gig—and this possibility is a marked improvement from Ghouliani or John Bolton.

Listen, Mitt. Suck it up and do it for your country. If you are Secretary of State in a Trump administration, you will be the only adult in the room. And what a scary room it is—filled with racists, bigots, homophobes, ignoramuses— men (and it’s mostly men) who have fervent anti-women, anti-gay, and anti-everyone-who-is-not-a-white-male beliefs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Carson’s nomination means there is absolutely no tenable argument to be made against giving Sarah Palin a high government appointment.

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