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Carlson drops out of R.I. congressional race amid controversy over conduct with student

The Jamestown Democrat says he will support Senator Sandra Cano in the Sept. 5 primary for the 1st Congressional District race

First Congressional District Candidate Don Carlson responds to a question during a debate sponsored by the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island on August 17, 2023. The debate is moderated by Boston Globe reporters Edward Fitzpatrick and Steph Machado. (Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe)Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Don Carlson dropped out of Rhode Island’s First Congressional District race on Sunday, just nine days before the Democratic primary and two days after defending his conduct with a student at Williams College while he was a professor there in 2019.

Carlson responded in a video statement Friday to the allegation in an investigative report by WPRI 12, which said Carlson was asked not to return to teach at the college after he allegedly sent a text message to a graduating senior in which “he suggested a relationship modeled on a website where people can pay to go on dates.”


The WPRI report said Carlson “allegedly indicated he would have liked to have given the student about $5,000 to help the student financially.” In the video, Carlson said he offered the $5,000 to the student as “seed capital” to start a geothermal company on the West Coast after graduation. The plan never came to fruition and he didn’t pay the money, Carlson said.

“We also had an awkward conversation one time, where he was describing a dating website to me and I somehow misinterpreted the description as a suggestion of a different relationship after graduation,” Carlson said. “I was wrong about that. He gently corrected me and I apologized profusely.” He said he never had a romantic relationship with that man or any student. “And no cash changed hands.”

On Friday, Carlson’s campaign told the Globe that he planned to attend an Aug. 29 debate hosted by WPRI. “Of course, Don will be taking part in the WPRI debate, he is looking forward to it,” spokesperson Chelsea DeCesare said.

On Sunday, Carlson issued a statement saying he was immediately suspending his campaign.

“This was my first time running for elective office,” he said. “I was prepared for the high level of scrutiny and nonstop challenges to my positions and character. But this race has brought extraordinary stress on my family and close friends, as well. That very high personal cost is more than I’m willing to pay for the honor of public service.”


Carlson — a millionaire investor from Jamestown, R.I., who took a leave of absence from his current job a Yale Law School in order to run in the race — had spent $703,866 on the race after pouring more than $600,000 of his own money into his campaign. That was more than any of the 11 other Democrats or two Republicans running for the congressional seat that David N. Cicilline vacated on June 1 to lead the Rhode Island Foundation.

But in Sunday’s announcement, Carlson said, “We took a hard look at the numbers and the logistics of this race and have concluded that there does not appear to be a viable path to victory on September 5. This decision was not easy, but I’m confident it is the right one for my family.”

As he bowed out, Carlson said he will support state Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, in the First Congressional District race.

During an Aug. 17 debate at Roger Williams University, 10 candidates were asked who they would vote for in this race if they could not vote for themselves, and Carlson named Cano.

Democratic candidates in R.I.'s 1st Congressional District race are asked, "Who would you vote for?"
During an Aug. 17, 2023 debate at Roger Williams University, Democratic candidates in RI's 1st Congressional District race are asked, "Who would you vote for?"

“Through all these months of campaigning one candidate stands out to me in terms of her warmth, her intelligence, her experience, and her commitment to serve: Senator Sandra Cano,” Carlson said. “Sandra is in public service for all the right reasons: She cares deeply about people – people of every race, gender, and identity; her generous heart is full of gratitude; and she has a deep yearning to do the hard work of bringing us all closer as a people to the ‘more perfect union’ dreamt of by our founding mothers and fathers.”


The Cano campaign issued a statement Sunday, saying, “We are thankful for Don Carlson’s kind words about Sandra. Voters deserve someone in Congress they can trust and Sandra’s actions have demonstrated that she is that candidate. We hope to earn the support of Mr. Carlson’s supporters – and all residents in the First Congressional District.”

Carlson said described the campaign as “an extraordinary adventure.”

“I’ve connected with so many old friends and met so many new friends in every city and town in this District. I will cherish all those friendships – new and old – in the years to come,” he said. “I remain passionately committed to the causes that brought me into this race, and I will continue to work hard to combat climate change, improve education, defend reproductive freedom, and fight for gun safety. But I will do so strictly as a private citizen.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.