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Clay Aiken says anti-LGBTQ comments fueled congressional entry

Posted January 10, 2022 11:28 a.m. EST
Updated January 11, 2022 12:05 p.m. EST

Former “American Idol” star Clay Aiken on Monday announced a congressional bid for a seat in the Triangle, citing increased homophobia and racism from top North Carolina Republican lawmakers as a primary driver behind his decision to enter the race.

Aiken, a 43-year-old Democrat looking to become the first openly gay congressional member to represent either of the Carolinas, is running in one of three safe Democratic seats, though the boundaries may shift if a court orders a redrawn U.S. House map ahead of the May primary.

It’s his second attempt at a congressional seat after a failed 2014 run. He joins a field that includes at least six primary opponents looking to fill the seat of retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District, which includes Orange and Durham counties and a portion of Wake County.

Aiken singled out two GOP leaders in his campaign announcement video, calling Republican U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn a “white nationalist” and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson a “hateful homophobe.”

With a rainbow flag draped behind projected images of Cawthorn and Robinson, Aiken said, “Just think how excited these guys are going to be when we elect the South’s first gay congressman. … If the loudest and most hateful voices think they’re going to speak for us, just tell them I’m warming up the old vocal chords.”

Cawthorn’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The western North Carolina congressman last year told his supporters to be prepared for “bloodshed” if “our election systems continue to be rigged,” repeating a false assertion that President Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election unfairly.

Robinson has on numerous occasions made homophobic comments. He wrote on Facebook after the 2016 shooting at a gay Orlando, Florida, nightclub, “Homosexuality is STILL an abominable sin and I WILL NOT join in ‘celebrating gay pride’ nor will I fly their sacrilegious flag on my page.” He wrote in 2017 that “you CAN NOT love God and support the homosexual agenda.”

After more recent anti-LGBTQ comments surfaced and high-ranking Democrats called on him to resign last year, Robinson noted he could separate his personal beliefs from his job. Asked at an October news conference if he has any personal beef with the LGBTQ community, he replied, “Absolutely not.”

“As the Lt. Governor has said many times, we do not live in a theocracy,” John Waugh, a spokesman for Robinson, said in a statement Monday. “We live in a constitutional republic where everyone has the right to express themselves however they want. This includes the LGBTQ+ community, and the Lt. Governor will always fight to protect the rights of all people.”

Aiken, a Raleigh native, said in his video that Democrats need to more effectively speak out on issues of equality.

“As Democrats, we have got to get better at speaking up and using our voices,” he said, citing climate change, racial and economic inequality, gun violence, voting rights, abortion access and access to free health care as his top policy priorities.

Before appearing on “American Idol” in 2003, Aiken taught special education. Despite his loss to Ruben Studdard, he became a household name, releasing multiple albums and using his increased recognition to raise awareness to multiple social and political issues.

He also has experience running a successful congressional primary race, where he secured the Democratic nomination for a 2014 U.S. House seat by one1 percentage point. He then lost the general election to former Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers by nearly 18 points.

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said Aiken ran a “credible campaign” and beat expectations in 2014. But he believes the candidate is not in as strong of a position now because of the crowded field, lack of political experience and dissipating name recognition.

“He’s gonna know fairly quickly how much support he’s got,” McLennan said.

Aiken faces a crowded field, including several elected officials. His opponents include state Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, state Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Orange, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, Durham virologist Richard Watkins, Duke University senior policy associate Ashley Ward and North Carolina Central University professor Stephen Valentine. Nathan Click, a former U.S. Air Force officer from Morrisville, is also running on the Democratic side.

Republican candidates include U.S. Army veteran Gerry Austin, health care worker Courtney Geels and Mahesh Ganorkar, a North Carolina resident who doesn't live in the district he's seeking to represent and is making immigration central to his campaign.

Nickel welcomed Aiken’s entry into the race, noting it will give voters “a meaningful choice at the ballot box.”

The candidate who wins the Democratic primary is all but assured to defeat whichever Republican wins their race under the current map.

“The voters want candidates with real experience crafting legislation and solving problems,” Nickel said in a statement. “We’re going to continue talking about my record of service in the North Carolina Senate and the serious policy issues that matter to the voters.”

Allam’s campaign said that the county commissioner will continue talking with voters and “making the case for a progressive with a track record.”

Ward said in a statement that voters should elect someone with more public policy and environmental experience. “I am the only announced candidate with federal policy experience, and I believe I can and will bring positive change to North Carolina and the nation if elected.”

Foushee said she believes Aiken is a person "of good faith and character" and said she'll focus on reaching out to voters to discuss issues they most care about.

No other Democratic primary opponent immediately responded when reached for comment. Of the seven candidates, Aiken has the widest social media following.

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