Discover more from Steve Ahlquist
Educator and entrepreneur Don Carlson is running for Congress
"...the idea that Social Security should be at risk, that's crazy. It's a beautiful thing that people can retire with dignity and grace and live out their lives in comfort..."
I'll be interviewing as many candidates as I can ahead of the special election to fill the House seat vacated by David Cicilline. My seventh interview is with Don Carlson, educator, entrepreneur, Eagle Scout, and father.
We conducted the interview on the porch of his Jamestown home. The interview has been edited for clarity, but not brevity.
See my other Congressional District One race interviews here:
See my other articles on the Congressional District One race interviews here:
Update - August 27, 2023
Carlson Releases Statement Regarding Decision to Suspend Campaign
I am announcing that I am suspending my campaign for Congress in Rhode Island’s First Congressional District effective immediately.
This campaign has been an extraordinary adventure from start to finish. 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. 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.
This was my first time running for elective office. 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 September 5. This decision was not easy, but I’m confident it is the right one for my family.
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. 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. At a debate earlier this month, I said I would support Sandra if I wasn't running myself-- and I intend to hold true to my word. I will support Senator Cano in every way I can.
I am deeply grateful to all of the hundreds of volunteers, contributors, house party hosts, door knockers, and canvassers who have joined us in our joyful adventure. I also want to thank my incredibly hardworking campaign team who dedicated their time and talent to our cause.
I have taken inspiration every day from your hard work and generosity. While I am sorry not to have been able to see us through to victory, please know you will always have a special place in my heart.”
Steve Ahlquist: Why you and why this job?
Don Carlson: It's a great question. Why me is that I by far have the most relevant experience of any candidate in this race. I grew up here in Rhode Island. The beginning of my childhood was in a two-family tenement house in Providence on Seventh Street. My parents were part of the exodus that left Providence and went out to the suburbs, so I grew up in Warwick and went to public schools, grades 1 through 12, in Warwick. It was a great childhood. Warwick was a wonderful place to grow up. At that time in this state, we were still investing in education so I had the great gift of going to Winman Junior High School. It was a brand-new school and part of the Tollgate High School complex.
We were still investing in education. Maybe it was because the greatest generation or the baby boomers or whoever it was who was in charge then really believed that they wanted their children to have a great education. I got a first-rate education in Rhode Island public schools, and one of the great tragedies of our time is that we're not delivering that great education, across the board, in Rhode Island public schools today.
Some schools are excellent, but we're not seeing that across the board so a lot of kids growing up in Rhode Island don't have the high-quality public education that I had, which is a shame.
That's a little bit of my background. I have deep roots in Providence. My family's been here for generations. My granddad was a Providence firefighter his whole life and rose to the rank of battalion chief. He was an amazing guy who taught me a lot about public service and commitment to the community and the sacrifices one makes to commit to the community.
I had a great upbringing. You can imagine riding around in the chief's car was a privilege when you were five years old. So was sliding down the fire pole and all that kind of stuff. I got my first job at Newport Creamery, then went on to Camp Yawgoog where I was an Eagle Scout. And at one point I received Scout of the Year from the Narragansett Council, and then I worked at Camp Yawgoog with a lot of my guys who are still my closest friends in the world. Just yesterday we put up a campaign banner at Our Place Tuxedo in North Providence, owned by one of my buddies from Camp Yawgoog. He's worked there his whole life.
I have very deep connected roots, a lot of it through the Boy Scouts because my troop was a real institution in Providence. Troop 82. Donald Dewing was a scoutmaster there for 65 years and did an amazing job. He often said he never had children, but had 700 sons. I feel like a lot of my values are grounded in that tradition, in terms of service, trustworthiness, integrity, and commitment.
I'm a lawyer and I've practiced law in many jurisdictions. I'm also an educator. I've taught at Williams College, Bard College, Harvard University, and now Yale University, and honestly, that's probably my first love. I'm an educator at heart. Standing up in front of a classroom is when I get into the flow. I continue to cycle back into my role as an educator at different times of my career, including now with my full-time job at Yale Law School.
I've also been a business person. I've built a lot of companies along the way and sometimes from the ground up, being involved at the very get-go, raising the first round of funding, getting the company off the ground, or being the first CEO of the company. A big part of my life is being in the business world at that entrepreneurship level - starting with an idea and turning it into practice by building a company around it and having the rigor and the discipline of the private sector market economics build that together. That's not something anybody else in this race has done.
A couple of them have worked in the private sector for chunks of their career, but it's been as an employee and not as a company builder. In the year 2000, I transitioned into sustainability. I got interested in renewable energy and I created a renewable energy company called Greenlight Energy that did well. What accounts for a good chunk of my financial success is investing in companies that are doing something to save the world from climate change. It's a way of doing good financially and doing good for the world at the same time. To me, that's very empowering. It's a great feeling to know that you're putting your talent or your resources to work in the context of something that will pay dividends.
Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. I've had some missteps along the way. I've had some investments that went to zero and companies that I thought were going to save the world that didn't work out. But that's the thing - you take the risk and then reap the rewards or you take the hits when you have to.
I've also worked in the [United States] House of Representatives, and I understand the dynamics of that place. I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for that institution. I need to go back there and fix it because right now it's pretty broken. I was down there in January of this year to see Seth Magaziner get sworn in.
Seth and I have often sat on this porch and talked about policy for two or three hours at a time because that's how we connect. I have tremendous respect for Seth. I was a big supporter of his in the last election and I'm excited to work with him when I get to Washington. When I went down to see him get sworn in, that swearing-in never happened, as you know, because the Kevin McCarthy debacle ensued. I stayed in DC for several days and watched almost all of the 14 votes that happened in that unbelievably humiliating spectacle where House Republicans tried to elect a Speaker. That was depressing because it showed how divided we are as a nation and how incompetent our current leadership is. I'm talking about the MAGA Republicans, McCarthy, and so forth, and how incompetent that leadership is.
I was proud that in every one of those votes, all 213 of the Democrats hung together. Hakeem Jeffries and his team deserve tremendous credit for maintaining the Democrats as a unified force during that time, and not allowing the Republicans to chip away or get us involved in the crazy games that they were playing to see who would become the next speaker. But it led me to think, "Boy, somebody's got to fix this thing." And then David Cicilline decided to resign, and all of a sudden, I had an opportunity to be the guy who can help fix this thing. I don't pretend that I'm going to fix it by myself as a freshman congressman, but I think I can be a productive and constructive voice in bringing some level of sanity back to our federal government.
A lot of House members, about 20 of them, need to get sent home for good. There's a group of MAGA Republicans that are playing to a national audience. They're engaging in their reality TV show on the House floor, using the House floor as a TV series set basically like Trump used The Apprentice. They're using the House of Representatives as the set for the reality TV show they're doing and they gain a lot of national fame and prominence. They do outrageous things so that people all over the country send them money. Those people want to be on the fringes. That's where they do best. It's where they're happiest, and that's where I want to put them, push them right out to the fringes, and try to build a governing coalition in the middle that's comprised of reasonable, more centrist people who are pragmatic and want to get things done to solve the problems we have.
That's why I'm running, and that's why I'm qualified to do this job. I should mention that when I was at Harvard I was a student of Roger Fisher for many years, and then worked with him after I graduated. He wrote Getting to Yes, which is about negotiating principles. It's subtitled Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. His idea was that you can negotiate in a way that's fair and principled and honest - no dirty tricks or deception, and get what you need out of a negotiation by giving the other people what they need as well, by being a good listener, understanding their needs and interests, and devising solutions that meet their needs and interests. That was eye-opening for me in law school, and I've continued to teach and practice that philosophy my whole life. Even now, when I run the leadership program at Yale Law School, the negotiation component is a big part of that leadership program.
Steve Ahlquist: I know that book. Coincidentally, I grew up in Warwick and my dad was a fire chief there. I went to Lockwood Junior High School and Veterans Memorial High School.
What do you see as the two or three biggest problems or opportunities facing Rhode Island right now?
Don Carlson: I think our state government cannot work effectively with the private sector. We saw that when the Tidewater Landing Project collapsed and when the Cranston Street Armory project was put on indefinite hold. There's been no progress in building more affordable housing in the urban core where it's so desperately needed. Those are things you need to partner with the private sector to do and I don't think there's anyone in state government who is well-equipped to deal with the private sector in a way that holds people accountable, but also gives them opportunity to deliver for the state. I think it's because they've never worked in the private sector.
Steve Ahlquist: Governor Daniel McKee says he has worked in the private sector.
Don Carlson: What did he do in the private sector?
Steve Ahlquist: According to his biography, he was an officer of McKee Brothers, a heating, air conditioning, and home heating oil delivery business his grandfather founded. He also ran a health and fitness business for more than 30 years. That said, I’ve never seen any business talent in him.
Don Carlson: It's a mystery to me because I don't understand how these deals can fall through. Let's take Tidewater as an example. The statement that the funding has fallen through is not an explanation. That's a statement of the problem. When that happens in the private sector, people get sued and people lose their jobs. There's accountability in the private sector and the notion that halfway into a project or however far into the project they are when shovels are already in the ground and the area has already been cleared, you can't at that point say the funding's fallen through. That doesn't happen. So the fact that we're all accepting that as the explanation for what's going on is a little crazy.
Steve Ahlquist: This often happens in these public-private partnerships. The private part of that partnership knows they don't have to come up with the funding because once the state commits, the state is committed and the taxpayers will come up with more money if they need it. I think that's what's going on with the Superman Building.
Don Carlson: Another good example.
Steve Ahlquist: I think that's what went on with the Fane Tower, which never got off the ground. There was a commitment, and then the price tag of that commitment kept going up. We see these kinds of deals constantly. Look at the Armory deal, which many people see as McKee simply being petty because the developer, Scout, made him look bad.
Don Carlson: I think on that one they were just trying to staunch the bleeding.
We got a taste of professional, capable, competent, and honest government with Gina Raimondo, six years of a governor who had real experience in the private sector and who understood business.
Let's take the wind energy example. I talked to somebody just this morning who said Gina was the one who lit a rocket under the wind energy phenomenon in Rhode Island. If she were still around, we would be seeing a very different pattern right now. Governor McKee's inability to do that, his inability to work effectively with the private sector, is holding us back
For example, on affordable housing, I think it's a pretty good idea to build actual public housing owned by the government. That's something that Joe Shekarchi has been talking about lately, and I don't have any problem with that. I think you could do it in a very capable way. Maybe you still contract out to a developer, but the state owns it. But by and large, what you need to do is to have developers build housing and that to do that, you have to have public/private partnerships. The state can't own all the housing. At some point, you've got to find ways to give incentives to the private sector to build affordable housing, yet we seem to trip all over ourselves on this.
Steve Ahlquist: What would those incentives look like? Because the problem with affordable, or even low-income housing is that there is no incentive to build either. Even when there's an approved project with 10% affordable housing, the developers go back to the town or city council and negotiate themselves out of it. They'll pay an extra fine to avoid having to do to build affordable or low-income housing. If it's worth spending money to avoid something, that's a disincentive.
Don Carlson: It's a complicated question because we don't want developers to get unjustly enriched by these programs, and part of that is a federal issue that your congressman should be working on. We need to be bringing enough housing subsidy vouchers into Rhode Island and find tenants who can afford to pay a market rate rent or something close to a market rate rent so that the developer can make a decent return on their investment. That should be a thing that we do through the federal government by giving out housing vouchers, often called Section Eight vouchers.
Steve Ahlquist: I know them. We have a lot of landlords who actively do not want to take those.
Don Carlson: They shouldn't be able to negotiate their way out of that...
Steve Ahlquist: Source of income discrimination is illegal, but it still happens.
Don Carlson: This is an accountability issue, right? One thing the private sector is good at is holding people accountable. If I were still working on Wall Street and I put together the funding for Tidewater, and the funding fell through when the construction was underway, I'd be out the door in two seconds. That level of accountability has to be there, or people will just run roughshod. If you don't know how to engage with the private sector in a way that's tough but fair, you're not going to be able to manage that well.
Steve Ahlquist: I'm wary of public/private partnerships because what happens is that an administration will make promises to the public about how great a proposed project will be. They sell it to the public on a political level, and then when it falls apart, they think, "I made all these promises. I'll look like a fool if we're out." They don't cut their losses, they stay in no matter what. "We just need an extra $10 million or an extra $100 million, whatever it is to make it happen.” I think we're going to see that with the Superman Building, because from the time we negotiated that deal to now, building costs have risen. They haven't done one bit of construction there yet.
Don Carlson: I think you're right about that. I did meet with [Pawtucket Mayor] Don Grebien and talk about Tidewater, and one of the things he was careful to point out, and I give him credit for this, is that he made sure that the government money was last in. So far, the government hasn't put money in. It's been private sector money. So there is still an opportunity for the government to exit that deal without having already spent money on it. I give them some credit for that one.
Steve Ahlquist: I think if you go down there you'll see some government work that's been done. DPW collecting trash, the police clearing out homeless encampments, some improvements to roads, and ancillary stuff.
Don Carlson: The bottom line is that there's a better model. The wind farms under Gina were authorized and moved forward with 100% private capital at risk. All that steel going into the water, that's capital in private hands. It's not government money being put at risk. Investors need a return on that capital and they should get a return when they sell the electricity. However, just yesterday we learned that the McKee administration has torpedoed Revolution Wind. That's a tragedy.
Steve Ahlquist: Was it the McKee administration, or was it Rhode Island Energy?
Don Carlson: This is the problem. The McKee administration has surrendered the authority to make these deals to Rhode Island Energy. That's the core of the problem. They are allowing Rhode Island Energy to make the determination that the electricity is too expensive, and the administration is backing them up on that and going with it. They're surrendering the interests of the state to the interests of a public utility and that's backward. The utility exists to serve the interests of the people of Rhode Island. So we should be thinking broadly about the interests of the people of Rhode Island in terms of the jobs, the factories, the facilities, and the maintenance that could be created right here in Rhode Island to serve those wind farms. That's a lot of jobs. They're good jobs, union jobs with apprenticeships. Massachusetts is playing just a smarter game.
Steve Ahlquist: Is this something that the General Assembly could influence?
Don Carlson: I don't think so. But the Public Utilities Commission [PUC] can. I was involved with Deepwater Wind which was the project at Block Island. In those days, the average price for electricity in Rhode Island was 16 cents a kilowatt hour. When Deepwater was built, the way the economics worked, it was going to be 24 cents a kilowatt hour. Businesses protested and said, "We need to cut that down because that's going to increase the blended rate for our electricity. It's going to handicap business." And then residents chimed in so the project was in peril for a while. Fortunately, it still went forward. Today's prices are way less than 16 cents, so we're getting a good deal 12 years later with inflation and everything. We're still getting a really good deal.
I know for a fact that the contract price that the McKee administration just shot down was below 16 cents. We needed to not compare apples to oranges and look at the price of fossil fuel-generated electricity versus the price of wind-generated electricity. We need to look at the cost that fossil fuels will impose on our society. My constituents in Bristol and Newport County tell me they're afraid of going underwater. There are places in Barrington that'll be flooded if the water raises six inches. They're terrified of that outcome. That's trillions of dollars to address that issue. If we can eliminate fossil fuels more rapidly so we avoid the worst ravages of climate change, then paying a tiny bit more for electricity is well worth it, and it's still less than we were paying statewide 12 years ago.
How is that not a good deal? On what planet do you kill a whole industry that's potentially going to be the economic engine for Rhode Island going forward? Fall River just announced that they're going to build the factory that will make the transmission cables to bring the electricity back to shore. That's a huge new factory that's going up in Fall River. Why the heck aren't we bidding on that? Why isn't that happening in Rhode Island? Why isn't that being put either at Quonset or over in the vacant land in Newport Naval Yards?
I was at Quonset the other day, and I love what they're doing there. I love what Steve King has accomplished there. It's a very vital and dynamic business park. 20% of the manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island are right there at Quonset, but the only thing they're doing for wind energy right now is they've created a new pier for crew transport. That's a great thing, but it's a relatively small thing in terms of jobs provided for Rhode Islanders. What we need to do is be in the game, competing for the factories, the jobs, and the new business opportunities that are provided by this amazing new industry.
Steve Ahlquist: The Port of Providence says they're ready to do this work, but we still have crappy industries there.
Don Carlson: Crappy as in scrap metal, the only big industry we have left?
Steve Ahlquist: And Shell and the chemical companies.
Don Carlson: No disrespect is intended for the people who recycle scrap metal.
Steve Ahlquist: They could do that anywhere else and be fine. They don't have to be there.
Don Carlson: Probably not. That's a funny industry to have as the only big industry left in Rhode Island. It sucks. We need to become more business-friendly. We do need to provide more jobs, and they have to be good jobs. And I think that's where the unions play a vital role. I've gotten to know Michael and Armond Sabatoni and George Nee and the folks in the labor unions, and they're keeping it honest because they're making sure that when these jobs come in, they're going to be good-paying middle-class jobs that can support a family. They're going to have 3, 4, and 5-year apprenticeship programs where people can learn the skills to be contributors to the emerging economy, which will be about renewable energy.
This morning I was on this debate panel, and Aaron Regenburg said he wanted to sue the fossil fuel companies. That's like fighting yesterday's war. We don't need to sue, we don't need to find villains here because those companies are fading away fast. What we need to do is accelerate the transition to...
Steve Ahlquist: Fossil fuel companies are still the most powerful industries on earth. They're not going away. I'm just pushing back here. They are by far the richest and most powerful corporations on earth.
Don Carlson: ExxonMobil in particular.
Steve Ahlquist: Right? To say that they're going away - I wouldn't count them out yet.
Don Carlson: They're very powerful. You're right. And they make inordinate amounts of profits. Taking on those companies in terms of their profitability and terms of their undue influence on our government, especially in international affairs, is a good thing. And the sooner we can move to renewable energy, the sooner we get rid of those guys.
Steve Ahlquist: We used to send all our energy money to the United Kingdom through National Grid. Now we're going to send it all to Denmark through Orsted. Every dollar we spend on energy in Rhode Island goes overseas. If we could have owned wind energy here in Rhode Island, all that money would be circulating here. But we didn't. Is that a missed opportunity? Would incubating a big company here be the smarter move?
Don Carlson: It's a great question, Steve. I don't know that there's a company in America right now that could take that on, but we should have some. We should have five companies that could take that on.
Steve Ahlquist: We should have had one here in Rhode Island.
Don Carlson: We absolutely should. That ought to be the aspiration. I one hundred percent agree with you on that. It would be nice if that company had some element of public ownership so that money would flow back. I tend to focus on the jobs that get created, and that's important. But you're right, where the profits go matters too. I don't want to lose sight of that because it's really important and it's painful when those profits flow overseas when that money could be reinvested right here in the United States of America.
One thing that I heard the other day is that under the Inflation Reduction Act, there's a provision that gives you an extra 10% tax credit if you source all of your construction materials in the United States. The wind energy companies are scrambling to find enough steel production in the United States to put those wind towers up. It's interesting and a little ironic that the once mighty United States steel industry has contracted to the level where we can't find enough production in the United States to make the wind towers. Maybe that's a business opportunity for United States companies to reinvest in steel.
Steve Ahlquist: I'm sure that's the concept.
Don Carlson: Exactly. I applaud President Biden for making sure that the incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act are tied to domestic material purchases. That provides a stimulus to our domestic economy, to your point. If you buy it from an American company, and the profits stay here in America, you get an extra tax credit, but you don't get that tax credit if you buy those materials, like steel, from overseas. That's very much of a cousin to what you're saying about keeping the profits here at home.
Steve Ahlquist: This is an interesting conversation, but I want to get to some of my questions. On economic issues, there're things like defending Social Security and Medicare. There's the federal minimum wage, which is a travesty. There's the idea of creating a more fair tax structure that takes more money from rich people and less from people who are suffering. there's a wealth gap and equity issues. What are your thoughts?
Don Carlson: I'm a pragmatist, so I believe in doing what works and you just named three programs that have worked unbelievably well. It used to be, in the 1930s, that the words “old” and “poor” were synonyms. They were always linked together, as in "poor old lady." Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal broke that linkage with social security, which was a beautiful thing. Now, to grow old in this country does not necessarily mean that you're poor. That’s a historically important accomplishment, and we should celebrate that every day. The idea that Social Security should be at risk, that's crazy. It's a beautiful thing that people can retire with dignity and grace and live out their lives in comfort.
We should do what we need to do to make sure that Social Security stays solvent and the same thing with Medicare. We talk about single-payer healthcare and the efficiencies of a single-payer healthcare system. We have one, it's called Medicare. People who get to age 65, get healthcare courtesy of the United States government and that's a beautiful thing as well. That dramatically shifts a lot of the healthcare burden into that sector and makes it affordable for a lot of people to take care of themselves as they age and to be healthy as they age.
I don't understand how the Republicans get away with attacking those programs. I mean, they're untouchable programs for a good reason, because the American people have common sense, and they realize that those programs solved enormous social problems over two different generations. Why would we ever abandon those programs or try to weaken or undercut them?
You also mentioned the minimum wage, which clearly should be $15. One of the things that people worry about is automation, right? Robots and artificial intelligence and automation taking all the jobs away. But the fact is, they're going to take away the jobs that are at the very lowest end of the economy. The ones that are routine, repetitive, and often backbreaking. For robots to do those jobs is a good thing. It's nice to have a floor on wages so all the low-value work can be outsourced to the robots so the jobs that go to human beings are the jobs that require some level of human skill or involvement or engagement or reasoning or things like that.
It's hard to outsource massage therapy or psychological counseling to robots. That's going to be a hard lift. Maybe that's something humans are better at doing. We should migrate toward those better jobs. Mining would be another example. If no human being ever has to go down into a mine again, because the robots take over those tasks, the world would be a better place.
The beauty of it is, as we're growing this new renewable energy economy, the jobs we're creating are good jobs where the minimum wage won't even be a factor because they will be jobs that are union jobs that can support a middle-class family.
Steve Ahlquist: Should we be lowering the age for Medicare at a steady rate to bring in Medicare for All? Is that the viable path?
Don Carlson: I love the idea of Medicare for those who want it. There are a couple of times that I was a consultant and I wasn't working for a big company, and I had a devil of a time, before the Affordable Care Act, getting insurance.
Steve Ahlquist: So a public option is what you're thinking.
Don Carlson: Exactly. My wife at the time had a serious preexisting condition, and that was difficult for us because we could never get individual insurance. So if the Affordable Care Act hadn't come along when it did, I think we would've been up the creek.
Steve Ahlquist: That's my life experience.
Don Carlson: You asked about the tax structure. In the last four years of the Clinton administration, our federal government was in surplus. We tend to forget that. We think of deficits as a necessary state of being, but they aren't. Under President Clinton, we had four years of government budget surplus. Why? Because we weren't fighting any foreign wars. It was before Afghanistan and Iraq and the trillions of dollars that were squandered there. We had more fair tax rates. I'm not going to call them fair, but they were more fair than they are now because they were pre-Bush and Trump tax cuts.
We could get back there if we had more fair tax rates. We could have a government that's either in surplus or in a small deficit, which would be much healthier for our economy. One of my favorite polls ever was a poll that asked people who identified themselves as Trump supporters. They were asked, "When was America great?" And the answers are a long flat curve that goes from 1958 to 2007. But here's the weird part: there's one spike in it. And that one spike is from 1998 to 2000. Weirdly enough, the MAGA people romanticized the America of the last two years of Clinton. It'd be funny if it weren't so sad. It's an ironic outcome.
Steve Ahlquist: Speaking from a left perspective, Clinton was the better, smarter Reagan.
Don Carlson: Fair enough. I like to think he did what he could, but maybe he didn't go far enough in terms of achieving social justice and more fair policies. But my point is that we know what we need to do to fix these problems. We're just not doing it. This is a failure of leadership. What we need is leaders who dare to make the decisions that will get us to the solutions. One of the things that people say about this seat I'm running for is that it's a safe seat, and it feels a little cowardly to run for a safe seat when you put it that way. But I've always interpreted the word safety to be a place from which to take risks.
If I'm safe I'm obliged to take risks. For me, being in this Congressional seat means I'm probably not going to have a hard reelection, so let me take the tough vote. Let me be the one who reaches out to the other side. Let me be the one who brokers a compromise or gets involved in discussions. Let me take the heat because I won't need to worry about losing six votes in Bristol once I win this election anyway. Right now, I'm really worried about losing six votes in Bristol, but a year from now, I'm hopeful that I won't be in that situation. I feel like I can play a more constructive role and can do this job the way I want to do it, which is to make the tough calls and tough decisions because it's a relatively safe seat.
I want to come back to the tax question. I am in favor of wealth tax. The concentration of wealth in too few hands in America and that's one of the biggest problems we face. It slows down economic growth. I love the old English saying, "Wealth is like manure. It's only good if it's spread." When you pile it up in one big pile, it's toxic. When you spread it out in the fields, everything blooms.
When our country had a more equal distribution of wealth in the 1950s and 60s and partly into the 70s, we grew fast. Why? Because when you spread wealth around, people spend the money, and that stimulates consumption and production, and we grow fast, without inflation.
That economic growth was the product of a more fair tax system than we have right now. We didn't have the spiraling economic inequality. We had a period of robber barons early in the 20th century. I don't know what economic growth was during that time, but that was a period of very concentrated wealth. Then we had a period where it flattened out after World War II. And now we're in a period where wealth is getting concentrated again. There are a couple of good books on my shelf about this. When the wealth gets too concentrated, growth slows down and production is skewed. We make way too many luxury yachts and not enough affordable cars.
Steve Ahlquist: I would say one luxury yacht is too many.
Don Carlson: Fair enough. We make way too many fur coats and not enough winter coats. We build mansions and we don't build affordable housing. That's because wealth is concentrated in too few hands. There are a couple of houses going up here in Jamestown that I thought were hotels - that's obscene. We don't need that level of concentrated wealth in this country, and that's only the tip of the iceberg.
When I say wealth tax, I mean on the fortunes above $20 or $50 million, somewhere in that range, way more than most people can imagine. Senator Elizabeth Warren and her team, who are very capable economists, have done the math on this and it generates a lot of revenue for the federal government. The question is, what do you do with that revenue? To make the economic system more fair we should try to redistribute that wealth in some way.
Steve Ahlquist: We talked a little bit about foreign policy. Should we be supporting Ukraine against Putin?
Don Carlson: Absolutely. They're fighting for our freedom as well as theirs and we should support them. I was asked this morning about cluster weapons and cluster munitions. My understanding is that those are banned by international treaties. So I don't think we should be providing those particular weapons. But in general, I support giving advanced weaponry to Ukraine because they're on the front lines. I'm a hundred percent with President Biden on that. We should be in it to win it with Ukraine, and we should be in it for the long run.
Steve Ahlquist: Let may ask about Israel and Palestine. What's the direction of a possible solution there? We know that Israel's government, like in America with Trump, has been veering heavily rightward lately.
Don Carlson: First of all, I like that analogy between Netanyahu and Trump. I think that's an interesting analogy.
I'm a strong supporter of the state of Israel. Full stop. I am a hundred percent aligned with President Biden and his administration on the level at which they support Israel and the terms by which they support Israel, which generally means no new political conditions on aid. That means resistance to the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions). I resolutely oppose those kinds of things, and I've been very clear about that throughout the campaign. Israel is our best ally in that region.
My very close friend, my best friend, really, in the world, Jim Hines, is a congressman from Connecticut. Jim is now the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He's in the gang of eight, as they call it, that gets briefed on all of the covert missions and things like that, deep in the intelligence world. He tells me all the time how dependent we are on Israel's intelligence services for keeping us safe. They are a great military ally for us in that part of the world. They provide us with a tremendous amount of technology that they invent there and they help our technology sector stay vital. I don't know if you know this, but there's a lot of cross-pollination between the technology companies here and the technology companies in Israel. There are a lot of linkages there, a lot of cross-pollination, a lot of cross-funding, and a lot of technology sharing. Israel provides so many benefits to us, and it's a democracy.
Even those protests that happened a few weeks ago, with people out in the streets and God bless them for being out in the streets to try to keep their government on a better path. I'm a hundred percent with them, but I'm also very appreciative of the fact that nobody got pepper sprayed or arrested or shot with rubber bullets or anything like that. It was a peaceful protest. And the government didn't overreact.
Steve Ahlquist: They react differently if it's Palestinians protesting.
Don Carlson: Good point. I've got to think about that one because that's a really good point. But Israel is a democracy. At least they get to choose their leadership. They're not our little brother, they're a sovereign country and they're entitled to choose their leadership. We screwed up pretty big time choosing our leader six years ago. Sometimes countries will do that. Democracies sometimes go off the rails for a while, that's part of the price we pay, because as Churchill said, "Democracy is the absolute worst form of government except all the rest." So we have to put up with some of democracy's shortcomings.
Sometimes populist demagogues sway the people and get elected. We have an electoral college to prevent that, which utterly failed.
Steve Ahlquist: That has to do with redistricting, I think.
Don Carlson: That's true, I guess. But the function of the electoral college has been eclipsed. There's no sense that these are wise leaders that are going to prevent a tyrant from gaining power, which is the original concept expressed by James Madison in The Federalist Papers. The point is that we made a mistake in electing a leader six years ago who was a disaster for our country and the world, and Israel is entitled to make their mistakes as well. I believe they've made a mistake in terms of perpetuating the Netanyahu leadership. But at the same time, that's their choice. If the United Kingdom makes a mistake, we don't sever our alliance with them. We don't kick them out of NATO or cut NATO funding or anything like that. If France makes a mistake or if they had protestors in the street that they treated badly, we don’t pull our NATO funding from France.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me ask about military budgets. Are they too high? During Trump's administration, when he asked for a certain amount of money, the Democrats increased it.
Don Carlson: And Trump bragged about how he gave the generals more than they asked for.
Steve Ahlquist: So I'm wondering, is the military budget too high?
Don Carlson: It is. We've got to reign it in because that's money that could be spent elsewhere. I teach economics. One of the first things I teach my students is the idea of opportunity cost. Money spent over there can't be spent over here, right? Every dime that we spend on a new weapon system or a new defense program is the dime that we can't spend to educate a child, provide proper nutrition for a child, or provide affordable housing. We have to be acutely aware of those trade-offs. I think we could significantly curtail the defense budget if we were less interventionist overseas. I know I just said we should provide weapons to Ukraine, and I think we should continue doing that, but at the same time, I think there's plenty of room to economize on our defense budget.
Steve Ahlquist: What are your thoughts on guns and an assault weapons ban?
Don Carlson: We did an assault weapons ban for 10 years and it worked. It didn't get rid of violence, but it lessened the amount of violence on our streets. Clinton enacted an assault weapons ban in 1994, and it worked pretty well - not as well as some people had hoped, but pretty well.
Of course, nowadays we couldn't know that because there's a federal government prohibition on studying gun violence, which is stunning. Why would we deliberately blind ourselves to researching the violence caused by guns?
This is personal to me because my daughter was involved in an active shooter incident back in March, just as this campaign was getting underway. I take this one very personally. Ella, my 21-year-old daughter, is a sophomore at Colby. She was at a big all-nighter party called the Dog Head at Colby, which is a tradition there and two guys got into a fight. They weren't Colby students, but they got into a scuffle. One broke a bottle over the other one's head and the kid who got hurt pulled out a nine-millimeter Ruger pistol and started firing into a crowd. Miraculously no one was hurt and no one was killed, so it didn't make the news. I think the rugby team tackled him before he got off a third shot, thank God. But Ella was close enough that she told me she couldn't get the ringing out of her ears. She couldn't get the smell of gunpowder out of her nose. Because of the chaos that ensued, all of the communication systems in the university broke down. So Ella spent the night sheltering in place in a darkened room, lying on the floor out of the range of the windows, whispering to other students in the room, pictures flashing on their phones of the blood-spattered walls, which turned out it was from the head wound. It wasn't from the bullets. They're speculating constantly about what's going on, which of their friends are dead, which are alive. It was a tough night for my little girl.
Steve Ahlquist: She's of the generation that came up through school shooting drills so she's been primed for this for 10 years.
Don Carlson: It’s interesting, you say that, Steve, because I believe that made it worse because the worst imaginable thing that she had been taught about her whole life, here it is, happening in real-time.
Steve Ahlquist: There is a study commission about this at the General Assembly next year that will start looking at the data on these lockdowns and active shooter drills.
On reproductive rights, it doesn’t seem like the time to reinstate the protections of Roe v Wade nationally, but what's the path forward?
Don Carlson: Unlike most issues, I'm not a pragmatist on this one because this is a matter of individual liberty, and that's a bedrock principle of our country. The Good Supreme Court, the pre-Bush versus Gore Supreme Court, established a right to privacy for Americans, which was missing in the original Bill of Rights. That led to a lot of good things in our society, gay marriage, the right to use birth control, the right to marry whom you choose across racial boundaries, and all kinds of stuff like that. That was the principle underlying Roe versus Wade. A more politicized court exists now because of Trump's three judges and this politicized court has made a terrible decision, a terrible mistake with Dobbs.
This is one where there's no compromise. Individual liberty is a bedrock principle of our country and women should have the absolute right to control decisions over their bodies. The government should not be involved in that at all. I would fight hard to restore the right of women to make their own decisions about their reproduction. I like the 1990s formulation that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. We should do a lot of things to try to make it a less common thing, but at the same time, we should not impinge upon the people's right to reproductive freedom, and that includes birth control.
Steve Ahlquist: Trans rights are under attack nationwide. We've even seen some of that in Rhode Island.
Don Carlson: This is a nuanced view, but I think the other side is diabolically clever. They invent hot-button issues to divide Democrats. They do it because we're the majority party. If we acted like a majority party, we'd run the country. We'd get rid of electoral college and we would get rid of voter suppression and we would get rid of political gerrymandering and we would change the nature of the Senate so it's not so disproportionate. We'd admit new states to the union like Puerto Rico and DC. That's what we would do if we were a real majority party. We don't because we're divided and Republicans cleverly continue to divide us on issues like this.
The whole campaign around "woke" is intended to divide the majority party so that the minority party can call the shots. And that's why I worry about playing too much into this. We should have a broadly inclusive society that everybody can be a part of, and nobody should be judged for who they are or whom they love. That is a fundamental principle. But at the same time, not getting too wrapped up in this stuff is important because I think it's disempowering for us as the majority party.
Steve Ahlquist: My interest is that when there are people under threat and I have to push back. You don't always get to choose your battles.
Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn't?
Don Carlson: You didn't ask me very much about the current administration here in Rhode Island. I think the decision on Revolution Wind is a disaster. It imperils my priority, which is to make renewable energy the economic engine that drives Rhode Island's economy. I can't emphasize that enough. We need a new big industry, or maybe five new big industries to come into this state. We need that to provide jobs and economic growth and to fill the gap that's still lingering from when the Navy left.
I worry that we are not playing that game smart. I worry that other states, especially New York and Massachusetts, are playing a better game because what they say to the wind energy companies is, "Sure, we'll buy your electricity. How many factories are going to build us? How much money are you going to spend on our ports? How many jobs are you going to create?" That's what we should be doing. We should be working collaboratively with these companies so that we are getting that level of investment right here in Rhode Island because if we don't, it's going next door. I told you about that transmission cable.
Steve Ahlquist: I have a lot of thoughts about McKee's administration, but instead I’ll ask my last question. What is your pitch to the voters? Why should they vote for Don Carlson?
Don Carlson: I say a few things. I tell them about my experience and qualifications. I tell what I believe in. I tell them that I'm an Eagle Scout and I grew up in Rhode Island and I made my way from a tenement house on Seventh Street and work in Newport Creamery as a teenager to a pretty good life and I did that because of my education. I got incredibly lucky because I went to 1st through 12th grade in Warwick at a time when they were investing in public education and because I also got an amazing scholarship that paid for me to go to four years of college and three years of law school for free.
That put my life on a completely different trajectory. Why doesn't every kid get that - to run as far and as fast as she can go? That would be a beautiful thing. I also tell them that this era of hateful MAGA policies that Trump inspired, this era of division, doesn't have to last forever. We can put an end to this era, put it behind us, and come together because there's more that unites us than divides us, as Americans.
I see people's faces relax when we have that conversation. Those are my most beautiful moments out there. They say, "Phew, you mean we can come together as a country, be Americans, and be united under the symbols, values, and principles that we all share?"
People love that idea. Then I talk a lot about the economic engine of our country, and our state in particular, and how this transition to renewable energy is something we should embrace. The renewable energy economy, full of sustainable businesses, is something we should embrace and run towards because it will be an era of good jobs and healthy living for all of us. An era of putting an end to climate change. That's a beautiful thing.
I often talk about what I want to do in Washington and how I can hit the ground running because of the set of skills, values, and experience that I can bring to bear because I understand how the House of Representatives works. My specific expertise in sustainable business will allow me to grab a lot of those dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act and bring them into Rhode Island to build new, long-term, sustainable businesses in Rhode Island.
Steve Ahlquist: Thank you!
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