PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Congressman John Lewis never would have endorsed Gov. Gina Raimondo for re-election had he known his “very, very good friend” Matt Brown was challenging her in this year’s Democratic primary, the famed civil-rights leader said Monday.

“When someone spoke to me about endorsing the present governor, they never informed me that Matt Brown was a candidate,” Lewis told Eyewitness News in a phone interview. “And I know Matt better than I know the incumbent governor.”

“If I had known what I know now then, I would have remained neutral – either that or endorsed Matt,” Lewis continued, though he said he was not formally rescinding his support for Raimondo.

So how did the allegiance of a 78-year-old Georgia congressman, revered for marching with Martin Luther King Jr., wind up as an issue in Rhode Island’s gubernatorial race?

The controversy dates back to May 14, when Brown described Lewis as “a mentor of mine” during a campaign event. Brown referenced him again in an email to supporters the following day, telling them, “My old friend John Lewis says that when you see injustice in the world, get in the way.”

Brown and his advisers were taken aback, therefore, when Raimondo’s campaign announced June 1 that Lewis had made an endorsement in the race – backing her over Brown.

“On the march toward justice, we can’t turn our backs on progress,” Lewis said in a statement distributed by Raimondo’s campaign. “With training for good jobs, raising the minimum wage, reforming the justice system and breaking down barriers to a good education, Governor Raimondo has fought for Rhode Islanders who have been left out and left behind. She deserves to serve four more years as governor.”

The announcement appeared to undermine Brown’s claims of a close relationship with Lewis, to the evident delight of Raimondo’s team, which is working to cut off oxygen for the underdog progressive challenger ahead of the Sept. 12 primary.

On Monday, however, Lewis indicated he was not given a full picture of the political scene in Rhode Island at the time. “The people who came to me and said, ‘We want you to endorse the present governor’ – they never told me that Matt was a candidate,” he said.

Lewis declined to identify who solicited his support for Raimondo. But Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, who serves with Lewis in the House, confirmed he made the ask.

“When he made the request, he didn’t know that Congressman Lewis knew Matt Brown,” Cicilline spokesman Rich Luchette said.

Lewis agreed that there was no ill intent. “I don’t think there’s any misleading – it just wasn’t an understanding of who was running and who was there,” he said.

“I didn’t get all the information,” he added. “I was not informed.”

Michael Collins, Lewis’s chief of staff, told Eyewitness News it is “customary for members of Congress and other people to ask other members or their colleagues for support, and so that’s kind of how a lot of endorsements happen – it’s usually through verification of somebody who knows them – and that’s what happened in this particular case.”

Emily Samsel, a spokeswoman for Raimondo, did not reveal details about what led Cicilline to seek Lewis’s endorsement for her.

“Like all campaigns, we’ve worked to get endorsements from Democrats in Rhode Island and across the nation,” Samsel said in an email. “John Lewis was among several Democrats in Washington whose endorsement we sought.” Others who have backed her include prominent U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who roomed with Raimondo’s husband at Yale Law School, and Kamala Harris of California.

Lewis described Brown as “a very, very good friend” whom he has known “for several years.” He expressed particular appreciation for Brown’s co-founding of the youth service organization City Year. “He worked to help organize and be a part of so many good efforts,” Lewis said, adding, “He’s a wonderful, able young man.”

In a statement responding to Lewis’s comments, Brown said, “John Lewis is an American hero. One of the great blessings of my life has been to have him as a friend and mentor.”

As for Raimondo, Lewis said he met her for the first time just last month at Harvard University’s commencement, where she served as chief marshal and he was a speaker. Asked if he knew much about her prior to that, he said, “I really didn’t.”

Republicans quickly seized on Lewis’s comments, with gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan accusing Raimondo of “deceit.”

Ted Nesi ( covers politics and the economy for He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook