Ben Carson was relaxed, even chatty, the morning before he addressed the 2019 Western Conservative Summit in Denver.
This was his crowd. Carson is the only person to win the presidential straw poll at the summit two years in a row, after he spoke at the large annual gathering of conservative activists, pundits and supporters in 2014 and 2015.
The secretary of Housing and Urban Development spoke before Gov. Jared Polis on the morning of July 12, then joined Polis at the groundbreaking for an Aurora apartment complex for people living at 60% or below the area’s median income.
Carson spoke of the issues that hamstring the Denver metro area’s robust economy: affordable housing, poverty and homelessness.
The acclaimed pediatric brain surgeon was raised in mended thrift-store clothes by a single mother who worked three jobs. She picked vegetables for free in exchange for a share, which she would preserve in jars to feed Carson and his brother.
Sonya Carson died in 2017. “If anyone had a reason to make excuses, it was her, but she absolutely refused to be a victim and would not permit us to develop the victim mentality either,” Carson tweeted at the time.
His life story inspires Carson to get people like his mother in homes they can afford — a problem that is crippling the finances of families and young people trying to make it in expensive markets such as metro Denver.
Carson’s solution starts with cutting regulations on building affordable housing.
“If there’s one thing a surgeon is good at, it’s using a scalpel,” he said later in the morning, in his address in the main ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center. “And deregulation isn’t just about cutting red tape — it’s cutting costs, so we can help more hard-working Americans.”
Carson said HUD is working with local community leaders “to break down burdensome regulatory barriers to new home construction and development, which can account for 25% to 40% of costs.”
Colorado took a similar but different tactic, passing legislation in 2017 aimed at reducing litigation over construction defects, which they said was depressing the construction of affordable housing.
Carson said revitalizing communities depends on addressing homelessness, especially for veterans.
“Many of our country’s bravest military men and women come from the American West,” Carson told the summit crowd. “These soldiers dedicate their lives to protecting our freedoms, and some struggle financially when they return to civilian life. In turn, the challenges of veteran homelessness often fall disproportionately on the Western states from which they hail.”
HUD, he said, is making “tremendous strides” in getting veterans into their own homes, putting out a report that indicated homelessness among former military members dropped 5% in 2018.
Carson, who grew up poor and worked his way to the top, is an odd companion to a president who was born into wealth and has enjoyed a lifetime of privilege, who verbally stumbles his way into trouble on issues of race.
Carson told me that before he agreed to endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016, they had a long talk about poor people, especially minorities.
“The president is a believer in a rising tide lifts all boats,” Carson said, “so he doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing in identity politics, saying ‘this group’ and ‘this group’ and ‘this group.’ Let’s just fix things so that everybody benefits.’”
The morning we spoke was the same one as when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta stepped down. Acosta couldn’t escape questions about a lenient plea deal 11 years ago for accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, when Acosta was a prosecutor in Florida.
“I’ve faced it, too, people calling for me to resign — over the table situation,” Carson said.
The table he refers to was a $31,561 custom hardwood dining room set with chairs and a hutch sought for his executive suite last year, at a time his agency faced $6.8 billion in cuts requested by the White House.
Carson said in a statement at the time, “Nobody was more surprised than me,” though the New York Times cast aspersions on that claim.
Carson told me when the outcry for his ouster began, Trump called him and said, “Please don’t listen to those silly people.”
It comes with the political territory, said Carson, whose life story was picked apart when he was a top-tier presidential candidate.
He stands by those stories still. Asked how he maintains his peaceful demeanor, Carson repeats the often-told story about how he tried to stab another teenager and the knife broke against his intended victim’s belt buckle. He said he cried and prayed on a bathroom floor for a chance at a better path, one guided by God. Carson lives by that guidance still, he said.
Trump was among those who doubted Carson’s stories, calling the knife claim “crap.”
Yet Carson has proven to be one of Trump’s most durable allies in a Washington swamp that runs on character assassination.
He wouldn’t say whether he might run for president again someday. That’s up to God to lead him there, said the youthful 67-year-old.
“The president always says to me, ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t win?’” Carson said. “I have to say no.”