On Monday, Clay Aiken — best known for coming in second on Season 2 of “American Idol” — announced that he was running for the House of Representatives in North Carolina’s 6th congressional district as a Democrat. Aiken is hoping to replace Rep. David Price, who represented the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina — also known as the Research Triangle, or just the Triangle — for nearly 35 years. Aiken was one of Price’s constituents, and says he even got Price to speak to his eighth grade social studies class.
It will be Aiken’s second congressional campaign; in 2014, he lost a run for the 2nd congressional district in North Carolina in what was considered to be a safe Republican seat. The 6th district, by contrast, is much bluer, but with at least seven other Democratic candidates vying for the nomination, it is far from assured that Aiken will win the seat.
As the 43-year-old explained to Variety, Aiken — who came out as gay in 2008 — was not really expecting to run again, until an anti-gay speech by his state’s Lieutenant Governor, Mark Robinson, changed his mind. Aiken also talked passionately about his desire to bring civility to governance; how his “Idol” experiences could help him on his campaign; how his experience on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2012 affected his outlook on Donald Trump’s presidency; and whether he will repeat his pledge to refrain from singing on the campaign trail.
After your campaign for Congress in 2014, did you think you would run again?
Well, the answer that is really no. I certainly wasn’t looking for a place to run again, and I wasn’t looking for a race to run in. But I was open to it if there was another race or seat or need, so to speak. I always told myself, I’d be willing to if I felt like there was something that I could provide that was necessary. But it’s been eight years, and I had totally moved on and not planned to run for Congress.
So why did you decide to run this year?
My congressman [David Price], who has been my congressman for my whole life pretty much, retired in October. My very first year that I got interested in politics ever was ’92, that was in eighth grade. I was such a big 13-year-old lover of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, that I just kind of got really thrilled with the whole political system. I asked my social studies teacher that year if I could call some politician and have them come speak to our class. And so I called David Price’s office in 1992. I have no idea who I talked to or what I said to them, but I talked them into having him come speak to a class full of eighth graders. He’s been sort of the one mainstay in the political world ever since the day that I got interested in politics.
When he retired in October, I had several people approach me and asked me if I’d be interested in [running for his seat]. I told them, you know, I’m keeping an eye on it, but I’m not really necessarily thinking about running right now.
In November as I was considering it, the lieutenant governor here in North Carolina [Mark Robinson], who is — what’s the word I want to use that won’t have me cussing in Variety — he’s empathetically challenged. He gave a speech in which he said, “What is the purpose of homosexuality? What purpose do homosexuals serve?” I watched that sort of with just dumb struck awe that someone could be so ignorant. After watching it, I said, you know, “I got your purpose, bitch. I will show you.”
That clearly motivated you.
It just really made me think about the reputation that North Carolina has gotten over the past several years. I’ve been a North Carolinian my whole life. My whole family’s been here since the 1700s, literally. In my entire life, I’ve never known a time when this state has had a reputation that wasn’t progressive and welcoming and friendly. Then in the last six years, you know, North Carolina started being represented by people like Mark Meadows. And now we’ve got [Representative] Madison Cawthorn, who’s got his face all over TV. People know North Carolina for that reason. I’ve got friends who are in New York or California and I’ll call ’em and say why don’t you come visit for the weekend. I can’t tell you, Adam, how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t know if I’d be comfortable in North Carolina.” And that pisses me the hell off. Because this area is not like that, and the fact that people outside of this state have this opinion or this perception of North Carolina based on people like Mark Robinson and Madison Cawthorn. I’m sick of that. I was not willing to let that be the reputation we have.
So that was really a big part of what pushed me into saying, you know what, I do have an opportunity now to represent the state in a way that I think can provide some sort of counterbalance to what Madison Cawthorn and Mark Robinson have done.
So according to Ballotpedia, there are at least seven other Democratic candidates who have declared that they’re running for your district in the primary. How do you plan on differentiating yourself?
A big part of that is just this area right here, the triangle, is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing areas in the country. We’re losing a congress member who has had 35 years of seniority, and when you’ve had 35 years of seniority, you’re able to bring attention to your district because you’ve got that kind of power. We’ve seen that the people who are in Congress now who have the most pull for their areas are either those who have seniority or those who have a microphone and who can amplify their message in a certain way and bring attention to their areas. This area needs someone, after losing David Price, who’s going to be able to bring that sort of attention.
I also think at the same time, it’s possible to do that without getting into fights with other people constantly. We’re constantly in fights within our own party; we’ve got a circular firing squad, it seems, too often. Things don’t get done because too many people are too busy constantly at each other’s throats. I think a little civility would be nice. A lot of voters want civility. For whatever reason, people in Congress, people in the Senate, people in state houses, don’t seem to be able to provide that. I’ve got enough attention. I don’t need any more. I’d like to do something for the area that put me in the position that I’m in.
So what would you say are the core tenets of your campaign?
Well, I mean, I think number one, civility. I just want people to start acting like grownups instead of children. I’ve got a kid who’s 13 years old, and I can’t watch the news around him because most of the time folks are yelling at each other, or calling each other names.
I think policy is the thing that really has to be focused on, too. I think that the current congress and President Biden have done a relatively decent job of getting some of the basic things done that we need to get started on. The transportation infrastructure bill is obviously a good start. I’d like to see Build Back Better passed. I’m frustrated that it hasn’t been passed, but I’m glad it has passed the House. I hope that it will hope it’ll pass the Senate, but it’s only going to do that if we stopped screaming at people and we’re willing to sit down and work out a deal.
I use this analogy a little bit. When I was growing up, we had four or five channels on TV — if it was a clear night and the rabbit ears worked. But now if you want videos about elephants befriending donkeys or chimpanzees swimming with dolphins, you can find it somewhere. It’s available to you. We’re very accustomed to getting exactly what we want, which is wonderful in the world of entertainment, but we are still 330 million people in one country. There are 435 members of the House. We have to recognize that we’re not alone here and we have to figure out a way to work together and come to some sort of solution. We all have to essentially watch the same channel on Monday night. We’re going to have to figure out how to work together and find something that where we can all be satisfied with.
One of the things that you talked about in your campaign video was, if you were elected, you’d be the first openly gay member of Congress from the South. How do you feel that the concept of being openly gay in the public eye has changed since you were on “Idol” in 2003 and came out publicly in 2008?
God, gosh, talk about things changing quickly. I don’t think there has been, that I can pinpoint right now, a civil rights movement or a human rights movement that has progressed as quickly as the fight for gay rights has between the years of 2003 and 2022. Things have progressed rapidly. [In] 2008, I remember I was on Broadway, and I was scared to death the very first night that I had come out publicly. Everyone in the cast knew. I was out to everyone in my own life. Hell, I was probably out to most people in the world, I just hadn’t said it. (Laughs) But I remember that night being scared to death that I was going to get booed, that people were not going to like me anymore. I didn’t get booed that night. But you know, the number of people who were fans of mine and who followed me and supported me and bought my albums and all that stuff, the drop off after I came out was precipitous, to say the very least. Easily, my fan base was cut in half, right? At the very least. There were there were fans at the time who attempted to try to sue me and the record label because I had misled them into saying that I’m straight. I mean, people were just not happy about it at all.
I remember being in a restaurant here in town maybe maybe five, six years after that, and not too far from where I went to high school. Some high school-age students walked in and two of the guys were — I mean, I didn’t speak to them. So I don’t know if they were gay, but I was pretty sure they were. They were dressed in ways that, you know, they were living their best life. And I just thought to myself, Gosh, they probably go to the high school I went to. It had at that point been less than 20 years since I’ve graduated, and I just remember being so proud of the fact that those kids were most definitely out and were able to be in same high school that I was absolutely not able to be out in.
How have you observed that working in the world of politics?
Society has really progressed a lot, but some for some strange reason, politically, one side has kind of gone backwards. I don’t quite understand why there’s so much hate involved. And, I got to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s really even the people. I think it’s just the politicians. I’m not quite sure why some of the politicians tend to have so much homophobia and especially transphobia right now. Even in rural areas in North Carolina, I don’t find any hatred or contempt for people who are who are LGBT. But politicians for whatever reason, I guess maybe they’re preaching some of these hateful things to a very, very small choir or base.
But I feel like on the whole, American society, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, has become far more welcoming and embracing. There’s obviously still work to do legislatively. Congress has still not passed certain protections for LGBT people that need to be passed, like making sure that LGBT people are considered a protected class in the same way gender and race and religion are. So we have some legislative work to do. But I feel like I am proud of who I am, and I think a lot more — not all — but a lot more LGBT people are able to be proud and out today than were able to be.
You opened your campaign video by referencing your time on “American Idol,” and earlier in our conversation you you talked about feeling like, one of the things that might help differentiate you as a candidate is your ability to speak with a loud voice and draw an audience. So how much do you think your time on “Idol” will be an asset to your campaign?
“Idol” was, in many ways, sort of a boot camp to learn about how to take criticism in front of 40 million people on live TV, and be told you’re awful or told you’re good or told you look weird or whatnot — and learn how to shake criticism off. Obviously, I had a lot of experience with being picked on and bullied before “Idol” and since “Idol.” It wasn’t the only time I got crap for something, but it certainly was an opportunity to learn what’s important and what you need to worry about and take seriously versus what’s superficial and what you don’t need to get your feelings hurt about. I think it gives you an opportunity to put things in perspective a little bit more.
I know since your 2014 campaign, you reunited with Ruben Studdard in 2018 for a holiday show on Broadway, and you performed in “Grease” in Pittsburgh in 2019. What else have you been up to since your 2014 campaign?
I did something in Pittsburgh again last summer and honestly, I’m still slated to do something Pittsburgh this summer — that’s how much I had not expected to run. (Laughs) I’ve continued to perform pretty consistently since, just not in the huge ways that I think people were used to seeing in the mid 2000s, so to speak.
What are you supposed to be performing in Pittsburgh this summer?
Well, I’m not going to say it only because we haven’t figured out exactly what’s going on with it yet. So I don’t really know. That’s TBD. This [campaign] is my priority now and until it’s no longer a priority. I anticipate that we’re going to be successful here in this primary and therefore be quite busy. And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
In 2016, you were a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton for president. But you did end up apologizing for saying during that campaign that you didn’t think Donald Trump was racist based on your experiences with him on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” What was your experience was of watching Trump’s presidency since that election?
Well, I want to correct you a little bit. In 2016, I was a big vocal supporter of Bernie [Sanders] until Hillary secured the [Democratic] nomination. At which point, obviously, when you’re talking Hillary versus Trump, absolutely, I would have supported my dog over Trump. But I liked Bernie in 2016 until Hillary. Now, repeat the rest of your question — you were asking me about what my experience was watching his presidency?
Yes, what was your experience living through the Trump presidency?
It was heartbreaking, I think, probably more so for me than others simply because having known him prior to him running and being elected, I didn’t know this despotic part of him — or at least I didn’t see it. No one who was on it when I was on it was ever close to him. But when he got elected, I think I knew enough about him to recognize really all he wanted was attention and for people to like him and know his name. So I reserved a little bit of hope, honestly, that he would, after winning the election, want so badly for everyone to love him that he would retreat and start trying to make everyone on both sides love him. I wanted it to believe that can be possible. Obviously, he very clearly proved that he was not capable of that anymore. I think a lot of the things he said, whether he believed him or not at the beginning, he convinced himself of them. It’s really hard when you’re talking about someone who’s clearly such a narcissist that without being a psychiatrist myself, I can’t really even speak on that. He has mental and psychiatric disorders [that] I think are obvious to most people who watch him. It’s hard to comment on it. I mean, you can say someone’s batshit crazy? I really think at times I feel sorry for how sickly demented he is. It hurt my heart for the whole country to have to live through that. And for the people who love him and are snowed by the fact that they believe this man cares about them — I can promise you, he doesn’t. I can assure you of that.
So what is your take on Joe Biden’s first year as president?
Joe Biden hasn’t been president for a year yet. We’ve got 10 days until he has had one complete year. In that time, he passed an enormous stimulus package. He then passed through the House and the Senate and an enormous transportation package — not as big as I would have liked it and many people would have liked, but he got a big thing passed. He’s passed, through the House, the Build Back Better act. He has actually done a lot of good work, the problem is he’s still combating COVID. He’s still trying to get us through this pandemic. At the same time, he’s having to deal with inflation that’s really sort of crippling any comeback that we could hope to have. Joe Biden did not come into office with the same types of majorities in the House or the Senate that somebody like [President Lyndon Johnson] did, but even still, he has done he’s done far more than other presidents have done with more of a majority.
Finally, in 2014, you said that you would not sing while you were on the campaign trail. Do you expect to maintain that pledge for this campaign?
Well, I’m not going to make the pledge during this campaign. I don’t really think of many instances where I would want to hear someone sing when they were running for office. But if we find ourselves in a situation where truly that’s what people want to hear, then, you know, I may not say no as adamantly this time as I did last time. I’m certainly not looking for opportunities to do it. You know? Can you think of a time where you would want to hear a politician all the sudden bust into song? In the middle of the State of Union address, is that what you’re talking about? It would be very odd, right? I don’t know where the setting would be organic enough for that to happen. But we’ll see. I don’t see it happening, let me put it that way. I don’t see anybody asking me to.
This interview has been edited and condensed.