Earlier today, singer and former American Idol star Clay Aiken tossed his hat into the ring for North Carolina’s Sixth Congressional District. Aiken, a Raleigh native and UNC-Charlotte graduate, had previously run against Renee Ellmers in a far more conservative district and looks to be in a better position to win the Democratic nomination here. While Aiken almost certainly benefits from superior name recognition to his now-opponents, he brings a different skill-set to a race that appears stronger by the week. The Sixth District is getting the primary its voters deserve.
Clay Aiken is a local superstar–even years after his national celebrity dimmed a bit. As he acknowledges in his announcement video, his life now looks more like the average North Carolina suburbanite than a pop prince like Justin Bieber (though perhaps Aiken protests too much). Like so many Millennials in the district, Aiken’s upbringing and sensibility reflect the New North Carolina that state heroes like Jim Hunt and Bill Friday built over the decades after 1960. Unlike generations of North Carolinians who grew up with tobacco fields and the timeless rhythms of rural life, Aiken is a product of the booming suburbs and the sense of hope that our state once projected before right-wing Republicans conquered state government.
That’s a pretty sympathetic rendering of Aiken’s candidacy. And I will cop to that: Though I have not yet decided whom I will vote for in my home district’s primary, I have always liked Clay Aiken and what he represents about LGBTQ visibility in a state that is still homophobic. In fact, it is not implausible to state that Aiken is the most prominent gay North Carolinian in history. But even despite Aiken’s entry into the race, Sixth-District voters have a wealth of strong candidates from whom to choose next May. They range from Progressive Outsider Nida Allam to establishment liberals Wiley Nickel and Val Foushee. Any of them would immediately become an antidote to the Trumpists who dominate so much of our mangled congressional gerrymanders.
In the last decade, good congresspeople have been hard to come by in North Carolina. David Price, Alma Adams, and G.K. Butterfield held down the progressive flank of the state despite intense hostility. Deborah Ross and Kathy Manning added to the left side of the ledger, and the late, quirky, and courageous Walter Jones was a refreshing counterpoint to the right-wing drones on whom legislative mapmakers conferred seats. Whether it’s Aiken, Foushee, Allam, Nickel, or someone who has yet to enter the race, the progressive central Piedmont will have a congressperson to carry the progressive torch in the conservative rainstorm. Let’s hope that light is never extinguished.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.