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Clay Aiken Suspends His Singing Career To Enter Politics

Clay Aiken
Jessica Jones

A North Carolinian who gained fame through the TV show American Idol has decided to run for Congress. Clay Aiken officially declared his candidacy in the Second Congressional District Wednesday. The announcement has put a formerly sleepy race in the national spotlight.

Many people are familiar with Clay Aiken because of his impressive rise on the second season of American Idol. Although he emerged as the runner-up, Aiken later released a debut album that went straight to the top of the Billboard 200.

But while his music may have made him a household name, few people have heard Aiken talk politics- until now. In his campaign announcement video, Aiken criticizes the 2nd District’s incumbent, Republican Representative Renee Ellmers, for supporting cuts to military funding, among other issues.

"And when her party leaders told her to vote for the government shutdown, she did- 21 times," says Aiken. "Even though she said herself it would be a disaster for the economy. And then she complained that she needed her paycheck."

During the government shutdown last fall, Ellmers told a Raleigh TV station that she wouldn’t decline her $174,000 paycheck because she needed it, although other lawmakers were declining theirs. Two days later, Ellmers changed her mind. Aiken says the military cuts and the shutdown Ellmers voted for hurt the Second District:

"One of the things that pushed me over the edge was obviously the shutdown last year. And seeing the ineptitude in Congress. And seeing that people would stand in the way of progress, stand in the way of productivity, even, based on ideological concerns."

Aiken’s not the only Democrat who wants to oust Ellmers from her seat in the House of Representatives. Former state commerce secretary Keith Crisco of Asheboro has had an active campaign for months now. A licensed professional counselor from Fayetteville, Toni Morris, is also running:

"It’s going to be a race that gets a lot of national attention."

Professor Thomas Eamon is a political science professor at East Carolina University who’s an expert on North Carolina politics. He says despite the star power Aiken has injected into this race, it will be an uphill battle for whomever ends up winning the Democratic primary.

"The party registration between Democrats and Republicans is reasonably close in that district, but if you look at the political reality and who’s likely to win, that would be I would say among the top 100 districts in the country- 100 out of 435- in terms of favorability to a Republican candidate," says Eamon.

Ellmers herself is facing a Republican challenger -- Frank Roche, a radio talk show host from Cary. Meanwhile, Clay Aiken’s decision to run after what the singer calls a year of consideration has already affected the race. One Democratic hopeful- Houston Barnes of Durham has dropped out:

"It became clear that he was definitely going to enter this race, and I felt that it was in the best interest of the people of North Carolina to avoid what was going to be a contentious primary."

Barnes says he supports Aiken’s campaign completely. But Keith Crisco, a former commerce secretary and one of the other candidates staying in the race, said he was aware that Aiken was running.

I noticed that, I noticed he was, says Crisco.

And Crisco says he plans to keep going:

"Well I welcome him to the dialogue and to the campaign, we’re running our race and we intend to continue based on jobs and based on the economy, and we always welcome people interested in the Second District."

But the incumbent, Republican Renee Ellmers, has not been so welcoming of Clay Aiken. She’s already mocked his singing career. Her spokeswoman has taken a swipe at Aiken’s sexual orientation- he told his fans he was gay back in 2008. Ellmers wasn’t available for interviews Wednesday. Aiken says he thinks it’s a shame the Ellmers campaign is already throwing barbs before the candidate filing period officially begins on Monday.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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