PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democrat Don Carlson suspended his campaign for Rhode Island’s open congressional seat on Sunday, just days after Target 12 aired a report examining his conduct as a professor at Williams College.
“This was my first time running for elective office,” Carlson said in a statement. “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.”
“In addition, 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 Sept. 5,” he continued. “This decision was not easy, but I’m confident it is the right one for my family.”
Target 12 revealed last week that Williams officials had told Carlson in 2019 he couldn’t return to teach there in the future after he broached a romantic relationship with a student in a text message that referenced a website used by people who pay to go on dates.
Before the initial report aired, Carlson and his representatives spent a week trying to kill the story behind the scenes, then denied its accuracy until a second report aired Thursday with more details. On Friday, Carlson released a video expressing regret over his actions but indicating he planned to remain in the race.
In his statement on Sunday, Carlson immediately threw his support behind a rival in the primary, state Sen. Sandra Cano, who is now one of 11 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to replace David Cicilline.
“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. … I will support Senator Cano in every way I can.”
The Cano campaign responded with gratitude, and initially offered no comment on Carlson’s behavior at Williams.
“We are thankful for Don Carlson’s kind words about Sandra,” Cano’s campaign said in an unsigned statement. “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 1st Congressional District.”
Another candidate, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, expressed surprise at Cano’s response.
“I am very proud to have the support of reproductive rights groups like EMILYs List, Elect Democratic Women, and Higher Heights who trust that I am the best candidate to fight for reproductive freedom in Congress,” Matos said. “This is not an endorsement I would have accepted.”
(Hours later, Cano herself issued a much longer statement distancing herself from Carlson. “The news that has been reported thus far is concerning,” Cano said. “I take neither the accusations nor the implications lightly. It is vital that we hold those who abuse their power to account. At the same time, we must be cautious about addressing news as it breaks and continues to be investigated.”)
A 62-year-old Jamestown resident and multimillionaire from his work as a venture-capital investor, Carlson was making his first run for office, though years ago he served as a U.S. House staffer for then-Congressman Joe Kennedy II of Massachusetts.
Despite the revelations about his time at Williams, Carlson was heading into the final full week of the campaign as the best-funded Democrat in the race, and was one of nine candidates set to participate in WPRI 12’s live prime-time televised primary debate coming up Tuesday at 7 p.m. However, polls by rival campaigns had consistently shown Carlson trailing in single-digits.
Nearly 5,000 people in the 1st District had already cast their votes for Congress as of Sunday through either mail ballots or early voting, according to the secretary of state’s online tracker.
An internal poll by the campaign of Democrat Gabe Amo released last week showed former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg leading the primary field, with Amo in second place and Cano tied for third with Matos. Regunberg embraced the survey, while Cano and Matos suggested the data was flawed.
In response to Carlson’s exit from the race, Amo spokesperson Matt Rauschenbach said: “The reporting into Mr. Carlson’s behavior was troubling. As Mr. Carlson said in his statement, voters deserve to know that there’s a choice, and it’s clear that our campaign is in a strong position to win next Tuesday.”
Regunberg spokesperson Matt DaSilva offered a similar reaction, saying: “This reporting was very concerning. We hope Carlson’s former supporters will strongly consider Aaron, the candidate in this race who’s the unanimous choice of climate and environmental organizations.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.
Eli Sherman and Tim White contributed to this report.