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‘American Idol’ star Clay Aiken will run for an NC seat in Congress

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Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken speaks onstage during the 2019 Politicon at Music City Center on Oct. 26, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.

Clay Aiken, the “American Idol” star and a Raleigh native, wants to represent North Carolina in Congress.

Aiken, a Democrat who previously ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014, announced Monday that he’s planning to run this year in the Durham-centric House district that’s now open.

The 6th Congressional District also includes Chapel Hill and other Orange County communities, plus Apex, Morrisville, most of Cary and a sliver of Raleigh. But its shape is subject to change in ongoing court challenges to the maps.

“The people in the Triangle gave me the platform that I have, and I wanna use it to give back to them,” Aiken told The News & Observer in a written statement. “I want to be a loud voice for the Triangle when I get to Congress, I will tell you that. And we need a big voice.”

Whoever wins the Democratic primary this May is almost guaranteed to win the general election.

Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, currently represents Orange, Durham and parts of Wake counties. He announced his retirement in October after serving in his position since 1997, with an additional four terms between 1987 and 1995.

Aiken said it was actually Price who helped him, in 8th grade, become interested in politics. Aiken said when his class at Leesville Road Middle School studied the 1992 election, he asked his teacher if he could invite a politician to speak to their class, and contacted Price, who agreed.

For those who only know Aiken as a musician from his stint on “American Idol,” they may be surprised to learn that he closely follows North Carolina politics. Aiken listed a series of Price’s accomplishments, from bringing the Environmental Protection Agency onto one campus in the Triangle to fighting for federal dollars to expand U.S. Highway 64 from two to four lanes.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around what we’re losing with Congressman Price’s retirement,” Aiken said. “He’s delivered so much for the Triangle.”

Price’s retirement cleared the way for many candidates looking to seek higher office, and Aiken’s entry into the race further complicates an already crowded Democratic primary. Other Democrats planning to run include state Sens. Valerie Foushee and Wiley Nickel and Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam.

‘American Idol’ contestant

Joining the field of candidates, Aiken instantly becomes the most well-known person running.

The “Measure of a Man” singer debuted on “American Idol” in 2003 and came in second place against Ruben Studdard. That didn’t stop his second album from going multi-platinum. He has released six albums since.

Aiken said he has, blown up and framed in his house, a blurry photo of him singing before 20,000 people at PNC Arena. It brings him chills every time he sees his small frame on the giant stage surrounded by so many people.

“It’s not very often that a freshman can join Congress and have a strong voice on day one,” Aiken said. “The folks here in the Triangle let me represent them nearly 20 years ago when I was just a kid on a singing competition. I owe my friends and neighbors here everything.”

Aiken has gone on to be a best-selling author, appeared in “Spamalot” on Broadway and has competed on, acted in and hosted many television shows.

2014 run for Congress

Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic political consultant and aide to former Gov. Jim Hunt, said Aiken has the same “happy warrior” persona that Hunt did. That could go a long way in a crowded Democratic primary, Pearce said, since it can be tough for candidates to differentiate themselves — especially in a highly progressive district like the 6th.

“You’re not going to find a lot of policy differences,” he said. “It’s more about the person and their character.”

In 2014, Aiken ran a long-shot campaign in a heavily conservative district that covered several mostly rural counties south and west of the Triangle.

Pearce said nobody really thought Aiken would win the Democratic primary that year. His opponent was Keith Crisco, a wealthy and well-known businessman who had been in Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s cabinet, as N.C. commerce secretary. But Aiken squeaked out the win by a few hundred votes, going on to face incumbent Republican Renee Ellmers.

Many in that conservative district were probably suspicious of Aiken for being known as a singer, Pearce said. And the Ellmers campaign was criticized as engaging in thinly veiled homophobia in accusing Aiken, who is gay, of having “San Francisco” values. But Aiken hit the pavement and walked around the small towns of the district to meet people in person.

He still lost, but limited Ellmers to less than 60 percent of the vote. Many of the counties in the district had voted by much higher margins, just two years earlier, in favor of a constitutional amendment to keep same-sex marriage illegal. In Ellmers’ home of Harnett County, for example, just 25 percent of voters supported gay marriage in 2012 — but 36 percent voted for Aiken in 2014.

“He was smart, tougher than you might think, had really good political instincts,” Pearce said.

Aiken said he wants to go to Washington to address climate change, systemic racism, income inequality and gun violence, and work for voting rights, abortion rights and universal health care access.

“This is some basic stuff I’m talking about here,” Aiken said. “Basic things that should be done — stuff that must be done — a lot of stuff that could have been done already if politicians would get off of Twitter and get off their asses and actually do what we sent them there to do.”

Aiken said he also wants people, when they hear North Carolina, to think of another politician in North Carolina besides U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who Aiken called “a bozo.”

The South’s first openly gay congressman?

Race could be a large emphasis in the primary, which may not favor a white man like Aiken. In a state that’s nearly 25 percent Black, North Carolina only has two Black members of Congress. And only one, Charlotte Democrat Alma Adams, is running for reelection in 2022. Black candidates in the 6th include Foushee; Richard Watkins, a virologist; and Nathan Click, a U.S. Air Force veteran and founder of a commercial financing company . Allam is Asian-American.

But Aiken is from another politically under-represented community, said Andrew Reynolds, a longtime UNC political scientist who now teaches as Princeton University and focuses on LGBT representation in politics. He’s been informally advising Aiken and encouraging him to run, eyeing the barriers he could break for the gay community.

“There has never been an out lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans congressperson elected, from the South, in U.S. history,” Reynolds said.

What’s more, Reynolds said, his research shows the congressional district in the South that’s most likely to break that barrier and elect an LGBT representative is North Carolina’s 6th.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham had numerous firsts in the gay rights movement, he said, including some of the first gay mayors. And the area is currently home to a large percentage of the N.C. General Assembly’s LGBT members. So while Aiken isn’t a shoo-in , Reynolds said, he has a real shot.

“I think he’s not the frontrunner,” he said. “But he’s in the top three. And if he gets into the top two, then who knows what happens.”

Uncertain maps

It’s possible the district will change shape between now and November — due to a lawsuit accusing Republicans of drawing unconstitutional gerrymanders to unfairly favor their party.

State judges plan to release a ruling on whether the maps were gerrymandered no later than Tuesday. Regardless of their decision, the case is expected to continue on appeal.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina State Board of Elections asked the state Supreme Court to set the filing period for candidates between Feb. 24 and March 4.

Filing was already underway in December for a March primary when the Supreme Court ordered the elections board to stop and allow time for the courts decide the legality of the new maps. In its ruling, the court ordered the primary to be moved to May.