Following rumors he was planning a run, gay singer and “American Idol” runner up Clay Aiken on Wednesday officially announced his decision to run for Congress.
Aiken, a 35-year-old Raleigh native, declared in a video announcement his intent to run for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district, which is currently occupied by Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).
In the video, Aiken invokes his childhood, saying his mother had to flee from his abusive father and work long hours to support him growing up.
“School was the only chance I had to pull myself up, to achieve a dream I long held, to teach, to reach children like me and those who faced even more adversities than I did,” Aiken says. “More families are struggling today than at any time in our history, and here in North Carolina, we’ve suffered more than our fair share of pain.”
The Washington Blade first reported last month the singer was considering a run.
Aiken, who came out as gay in People magazine in 2008, isn’t the only Democrat in the race. Also pursuing the nomination is Keith Crisco, a former commerce secretary of North Carolina, and Toni Morris, a licensed professional counselor living in Fayetteville. The primary is May 6.
In a statement, Crisco said he welcomes Aiken to this race and looks forward to a discussion over who’ll be the best Democratic nominee in the race.
“I have been in this race since early January and have been overwhelmed and appreciative of the amount of support I have received from throughout the district,” Crisco said. “I believe it should be Congress’ highest priority to work together to create new jobs and grow the economy.”
The Ellmers campaign didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the Aiken candidacy. But in the Raleigh-based News & Observer, Jessica Wood, an Ellmers campaign spokesperson, is quoted as dismissing Aiken, saying his “political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford.”
As Matt Comer at Qnotes observes, invoking “San Francisco” in political dialogue is often seen as code for attacking someone for being gay. Qnotes reports that Dan Gurley, who’s gay and former head of the North Carolina Republican Party, contacted Wood to say she should be ashamed and reprimanded.
Josh Schwerin, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, focused on Ellmers when asked for a response to the Aiken candidacy.
“Congresswoman Ellmers’ out-of-touch record of voting to shut down the government while complaining about her taxpayer funded salary has left voters looking for an alternative,” Schwerin said.
In his video, Aiken criticizes Ellmers, saying she voted 21 times with Republicans in actions that led to the shutdown of the federal government and 10 times for spending cuts that hurt the military and military families.
“This is what’s wrong with Washington,” Aiken says. “That a congresswoman would go [to Washington] and vote against the best interests of North Carolina military families and those who depend on the military for their jobs. To do it when you know it’s wrong is even worse.”
Aiken, who became famous as a singer and Broadway performer, came in second place to Ruben Studdard in the 2003 season of American Idol. Using that appearance to advance his career, Aiken has sold more than six million copies of his albums.
But, as Aiken notes in his video, he’s engaged in work other than his music career and was a special-education teacher. Tapped as a national ambassador for the United States Fund for UNICEF in 2004, Aiken has also travelled to Afghanistan, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico, Kenya and Somalia as part of aid missions.
“The years I spent as a special education teacher for students with autism was my first window into the difference that a person can make in someone’s life,” Aiken says. “Then it was the years I spent with UNICEF traveling to places of heartbreak, like the war zones of Afghanistan and Somalia where families had been torn apart and hope was sometimes hard to find.”
No stranger to LGBT activism, Aiken came out against Amendment One, a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage in North Carolina, when the measure came before voters in the state in 2012. Aiken also spoke at a congressional briefing of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network on behalf of anti-bullying bills known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
Despite Aiken’s entry into the race, political observers continue to express doubts over whether he can pull off a win given the conservative nature of the district, which includes the Raleigh suburbs, and President Obama’s lagging poll numbers.
Among them is David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, who said Aiken has “no chance” of pulling off a win in the district.
“He will make the race much more interesting, but there is still virtually no chance a Democrat — even a celebrity — can beat a GOP incumbent in such a solidly Republican, gerrymandered seat as long as President Obama’s approval ratings are what they are,” Wasserman said. “We continue to rate the race Solid Republican.”