On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team announced its plan to nominate Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Fudge spoke to The 19th’s editor at large, Errin Haines, in her first interview since being nominated, and discussed the diversity of the emerging new administration and what she plans to bring to the role.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Errin Haines: Tom Vilsack was also named today as Agriculture secretary nominee, a role you were also being considered for. We’re already seeing Black leaders and lawmakers expressing concern about this pick. What would you say about those concerns about him?
Marcia Fudge: I had the opportunity to speak with [Vilsack] yesterday, and we talked about the opportunities to work together. Everybody knows how passionate I am about feeding hungry children and school lunches and the kinds of things we do with food and nutrition. It is my passion. I can do so much of the same things with HUD.
Certainly, I do believe that he is willing to hear some of the things that I and others have been talking about and thinking about. And I think that it’s going to be pretty successful. I know that he’s going to be somewhat controversial, but I believe that the President-elect has made a decision, and that he is putting together a team that he feels comfortable with and that can carry on his agenda. And I’m just going to believe that he knows exactly what he’s doing. And I’m on the team.
You were among several people who were announced by the Biden transition team today, including more women and more people of color. There have been concerns raised by some outside groups that have been pushing for diversity as the administration begins to take shape. What are your overall thoughts on the racial, the gender and the ideological diversity of the emerging administration?
I think diversity is important, and not just diversity of color, or gender, but also of thought. I think he’s really doing pretty good. I’m pleased to this point with those that I have seen that have been appointed, but there are more than 1,200 positions that have to be confirmed by the Senate. There’s a long way to go with this, so I’m just going to wait and see. You’ve got undersecretaries, you’ve got all kinds of people who are going to be a part of this administration, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much more excited I’m going to be about working with people who I think are really top notch.
Does that mean you are hoping to see even more diversity — and specifically, more Black women — in some of these roles when all is said and done?
Oh, yes. And I think we will, I’m confident that we will.
Let me ask about your reaction to being nominated as HUD secretary. When did you get the call? What did President-elect Biden say to you about why he wants you for this role?
I received the call on Tuesday with the official offer and I was absolutely elated. The one thing that I have learned in my life is that God puts you where he wants you to be. And I’ve always felt that that was the case with me. I have looked, to do many, many things, but to do things that I believe change people’s lives. I have always wanted to be a voice for those people who have no voice, and to show people that people like me, public officials and public servants really can make a difference in their everyday lives. And so I was honored and privileged to be asked to do something that so very few people in this country ever get to do, to serve in a Cabinet position with a president that I think is going to be outstanding. So, I was truly excited about the opportunity.
Talk to me about what you bring to this role in terms of your lived experience as a Black woman, federal lawmaker and former mayor?
I was the mayor of a city that was almost 98 percent Black, and what I know is that people who are hopeless or feel helpless rely very, very heavily on those that they put their confidence into electing. I’ve worked an awful lot with public housing, I’ve worked with hardest-hit funds, I’ve worked to make sure that we could keep out the people who would come in and ravage our neighborhoods just by flipping houses and leaving houses in disrepair.
I’m very passionate about the fact that every single person in this country should have a decent place to lay their heads. I’m very passionate about the fact that we need to find ways to start to eradicate homelessness. This is the big part of this for me, is to empower communities to understand that public housing or low income housing should not be a lifetime, it should be a just a stopping point. The only way we make that happen is by empowering them to get jobs in their own communities.
When I think about urban development, I think about how we put the people in these communities to work, because that’s what lifts them from poverty. I also think about making sure that we empower neighborhood health programs and local credit unions and all of the things that make communities thrive. It’s also an attitude, it is bringing hope to people, it is giving them a way out. That’s what’s exciting to me.
HUD is the federal agency that has had the most Black Cabinet members. Why do you think that is and why do you think it matters? Is there an opportunity to reimagine this role in this moment as not just about lifting people out of poverty, but about building wealth?
If we don’t do this now, it will never happen, in my opinion. We have gone for so long — with administrations like the Trump administration, and even some Democratic administrations — that have allowed for disinvestment in HUD. We need to focus on making sure that people have the basics, but also find a way to lift themselves up. We all know that homeownership is the fastest way to wealth for people of color. This is the opportunity we have. And what we really have to make people understand is that government does have a role, and it can make a difference. And I think this is the time to do it.
To get more specific, how would you rate HUD during the Trump administration under [Secretary] Ben Carson, who has been one of the longest-serving Cabinet members? He certainly had his own ideas about what HUD should and shouldn’t be.
I think that what they did was just gut an agency that was already in trouble. I anticipate that there will be significant time spent just on trying to figure out how much they destroyed, and trying to just build back that part.
I think the more pressing and urgent situation is how we protect those through this COVID pandemic, yes, from being evicted from their rental units or from their homes, absolutely, to start with just the basics. And so COVID, right now is driving, where this is going to go, at least in the short term. And I think as we address that, we can also start to try to find out what has been done, or what hasn’t been done over the last four years. So that actually may give us a little time because the number one priority is going to be addressing the adverse impacts of COVID cases.
I think that we do need to refocus, and not just look at just solely housing, but look also at development. We have cities that are in crisis. We know right now there is a dearth of affordable housing across this country, we can’t build it fast enough for there to be enough affordable housing.
Cities need to have some control. What we have been doing over the last probably 10 years or better, is we’ve now decided that we’re going to let governors run everything. So we send all of the resources through governors, and so then cities become put in a position where they are at the whims of a governor. If money is earmarked for cities, it should go to cities.
So the resources should be coming from HUD to the cities, because HUD really is the voice and the spokesperson for cities as it relates to the federal government, but we’ve never looked at it that way. We look at it as just something that has, unfortunately for too long, made wealthy investors more wealthy, and has left those who are having difficulty in worse condition. So we need to turn that around and empower cities and empower neighborhoods and communities.
What is the role of HUD in a pandemic that has exposed housing and wealth inequality for women and marginalized communities? What could you do as secretary to address these disparities in the short and long term?
Short-term, we have to make sure that we keep people from being evicted from their homes and from their apartments, and also try to protect these small landlords as well. They’re suffering as well, by not being able to collect the rents or the mortgage payments.
The other thing that I just want to do is to have some time to talk with the president-elect and the vice president-elect to find out what their vision is, because I think that we want to make sure that we work together, that we are walking together that we are singing from the same hymn. I have tons of ideas, because I live in a community now where I see people in need every day. So many people don’t. I envision an agency that is much more bottom up than top down. I want to talk to people who run public housing, I want to talk to people who live in public housing, I want to talk to people who build low-income housing. I want to be a part of making this work.
How does your potential role fit into the larger message from the president-elect that racial equity is among the four crises Biden and Harris will confront when they take office?
It’s probably the main place to address racial inequality, because it is the place where poverty should end. When you think about poverty, you think about maybe just feeding, but it starts with housing.
As a kid, I lived in a community that people today would say was a very poor community, I never knew that I was poor, because I had a home, I always had a place that was a safe place for me. That begins to change the psyche of people.
So it is as important as any one thing you can do, to start to eradicate poverty. And more importantly, to give people some sense of pride and dignity. When people feel good about who they are, their lives change. So it is as much psychological and emotional, as it is just saying here, we’re going to find some place for you to sleep. It’s different. But if you’ve never been poor, or if you’ve never been around people who are poor, or if you’ve never lived in neighborhoods that are poor, you don’t get it.