Carlson ends congressional campaign

PROVIDENCE – A Democratic congressional candidate who recently became the subject of a televised news report about an alleged inappropriate relationship with a college student while serving as a professor in 2019 has dropped out of the race to succeed David N. Cicilline in the U.S. House.

Don Carlson, a Jamestown resident who oversees the Joseph C. Tsai Leadership Program at Yale Law School and was running for office for the first time, announced Sunday that he suspended his campaign seeking the 1st Congressional District race effective immediately. Carlson said in a statement he’s withdrawing from the race citing that there “does not appear to be a viable path to victory” in the Sept. 5 primary election after his campaign reviewed the logistics and numbers of the race. Carlson also said the race had also “brought extraordinary stress” on his family and friends, and that personal cost is “more than I’m willing to pay for the honor of public service.”

“This campaign has been an extraordinary adventure from start to finish,” said Carlson, who formally endorsed Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, in her respective quest for Congress. “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.”

With Carlson out, 11 Democrats and two Republicans remain in the race for the open congressional seat.

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Carlson’s withdrawal from the race comes days after WPRI-TV CBS 12 aired last week a two-part report that Carlson was told by Williamstown, Mass.-based Williams College – Carlson’s alma mater – that he could not return as a professor after college administrators were alerted that he made an overture toward a student. The station reported Aug. 24 that Williams College officials informed Carlson in 2019 he was no longer welcome on campus after being alerted to text messages that allegedly alluded to having a possible relationship with a student.

Carlson initially denied any wrongdoing outlined in WPRI-TV’s report. However, in a statement Aug. 25, Carlson admitted to having an “awkward conversation one time” with a student where he described a dating website to him and “I somehow misinterpreted the description as a suggestion of a different relationship after graduation.” The conversation began, Carlson said, when he and the student came up with a plan to start a geothermal company on the West Coast after the student graduated, offering the student $5,000 in seed capital if the student chose to pursue such a venture – the student did not, Carlson said.

“I was wrong about [the awkward conversation]. [The student] gently corrected me and I apologized profusely. He accepted my apology and said nothing had changed about our friendship, and that meant a lot to me,” Carlson said. “The bottom line is that I never had any romantic relationship with that man or with any student present or former at any institution to which I’ve been affiliated, and no cash changed hands. And that’s all that happened.”

Carlson also said Aug. 25 another student who was not part of the conversation “somehow got wind of parts” of that conversation and “put their own assumptions in” and took a report to William College’s dean. Carlson said he never saw that report and has not known what was in it.

Carlson up to this point had the most campaign receipts of all the candidates in the race with $969,541 as of Aug. 16, according to the U.S. Federal Election Commission. However, $600,000 of it was a personal loan to finance his campaign. Carlson’s campaign also spent $703,866, the most of all the candidates, and had $265,674 remaining in his campaign account.

Carlson stepping out of the race also adds to a lengthy storyline outlining multiple controversies involving the Democratic congressional race. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos is still currently under investigation by both the R.I. Board of Elections and R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office over alleged fraudulent signatures submitted by Matos’ campaign to get on the ballot. In that matter, Carlson was the only candidate to issue an official challenge with the state to Matos’ nomination papers.

A formal three-day review by the Board of Elections concluded that 726 signatures submitted by Matos’ campaign were validated, well ahead of the 500 signatures needed for Matos to be eligible for the ballot. But board members, though, felt more questions still need to be asked of Matos’ campaign.

Additionally, the Matos campaign on Aug. 18 filed a formal complaint with the FEC calling on the commission to investigate both the activity of Progress Rhode Island, a super political action committee funded by Aaron Regunberg’s father in-law and mother, and evidence of Regunberg’s potential illegal coordination with Progress Rhode Island.

The complaint also alleges that Regunberg’s campaign set up a “red box” on Regunberg’s campaign website that was only public between July 19 through July 27. A red box is an illegal tactic where campaigns show on their websites messaging to coordinate with their PACs on what they should use in advertising in support of specific candidates.

Regunberg’s campaign denied the allegations.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.