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R.I. renewable energy investor poised to run for Congress

Don Carlson, of Jamestown, has tentatively scheduled an announcement for April 16 as the field of Democratic candidates for the First Congressional District continues to grow

Don Carlson, a Jamestown Democrat, is considering a run for Rhode Island's First Congressional District seat.Handout

PROVIDENCE — Don Carlson, a renewable energy investor from Jamestown, is poised to enter the rapidly growing field of Democratic candidates for the First Congressional District seat that US Representative David N. Cicilline is vacating.

On Tuesday, Carlson said he had not made a final decision, but he has tentatively scheduled an announcement for April 16 at Rejects Beer Co., a Middletown brewery that he co-owns.

“I am in the ‘strongly considering’ phase, putting pieces together and seeing if it’s a feasible option,” Carlson said. “There are a lot of great candidates in Rhode Island. It’s an evolving picture.” But “at the current course and speed,” he plans to make an announcement at 4 p.m. April 16.


Carlson, 62, is senior executive director at the Tsai Leadership Program at Yale Law School who spent 23 years as an investor in companies “that are moving toward a renewable energy economy.”

Carlson has never run for public office before, but he served as legislative director and counsel for former US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, a Massachusetts Democrat. He was a Michael Dukakis delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1988.

In 2008, he helped to elect his best friend, US Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat. And he said he served as his chief of staff from Election Day through orientation and about four months after Himes was sworn in.

Now, Carlson said he is assembling a “world class” campaign team. “One of my themes is that Rhode Islanders should think big,” he said. “So I’m trying to model that with a terrific team of campaign pros.” That includes David Hamrick at RSH Campaigns, Ed Peavy and Maren Hesla at Mission Control, and Mark Mellman, a pollster who worked for US Representative James R. Langevin.

Carlson said that if he enters the race, he would aim to raise about $1 million, including his own money. That would be a significant amount given that two of the most well-funded potential candidates — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and former CVS executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes — have decided not to enter the race.


Carlson grew up in Rhode Island, graduating from Toll Gate High School in Warwick before receiving a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

He said an academic scholarship helped him enjoy the benefits of a high-quality education, and one of his motivations for considering a run for Congress is to help provide such opportunities to more people. He said he supports proposals such as those forwarded by US Senator Bernie Sanders to make college education free for millions “based on merit” and hard work.

Carlson is a volunteer emergency medical technician in Jamestown. “I was at ground zero on 9/11 and made a promise that I wouldn’t ever be caught unable to help in a crisis like that again,” he said. He added that it took him 18 years but he took the EMT course and passed the exam in 2020.

Carlson lives in The Boulders, a house designed and built by Charles Bevins in 1888, that sold for $1.6 million in 2018. “I bought a very old 1888 house with a lot of history at an auction in 2018,” he said. “Deep Jamestown history with some interesting quirks. Just like me!”


Cicilline is planning to step down from Congress on June 1 to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

Carlson said Cicilline was “absolutely spectacular” and “right on all the issues” during his 12 years in Congress. “He brings tremendous passion to his work,” he said, predicting that Cicilline will have an even bigger impact on Rhode Island as head of the state’s largest philanthropic organization.

If he enters the race, Carlson would be joining a Democratic field that includes Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, Senator Sandra C. Cano, Representative Nathan W. Biah, Providence City Council member John Goncalves, former state Senate candidate Nicholas A. Autiello II, former secretary of state candidate Stephanie E. Beauté, former US House and Senate candidate Allen Waters, and former RIPTA bus driver Mickeda Sebastiana Barnes. And there is a long list of other potential candidates.

Aaron Guckian, the only Republican to publicly declare interest in the First Congressional District race, on Tuesday said he began working this week as the Rhode Island Dental Association’s executive director, so he won’t be running for the congressional seat.

Arlene Violet, the former nun who made history in 1985 when she became the first female attorney general in Rhode Island and the nation, is “giving serious consideration” to running as an independent.

Governor Daniel J. McKee has announced the special election schedule, setting the primary for Sept. 5 and the general election for Nov. 7.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.