Aiken, of 'American Idol' fame, to run for Congress in North Carolina, cites work as educator

The Associated Press

FILE - In this March 28, 2009 file photo, singer Clay Aiken attends the 20th Annual Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards in New York. Aiken said Wednesday Feb. 5, 2014 he'll seek the Democratic nomination for the seat currently held by Rep. Renee Ellmers. The 35-year-old Aiken is expected to face former state commerce secretary Keith Crisco of Asheboro and licensed professional counselor Toni Morris of Fayetteville in the Democratic primary. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file)

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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Former "American Idol" and "Celebrity Apprentice" runner-up Clay Aiken joined another high-profile contest Wednesday — this one to get elected to Congress in his native North Carolina.

Aiken announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for the 2nd Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers. The entertainer is talking about his non-singing career as a special education teacher, UNICEF representative and presidential commission member on education while explaining his reason for getting in the race.

In each situation, "I saw a group of people, a population that was not being served," Aiken told The Associated Press in an interview.

In a video unveiling his bid, Aiken referred to his "golden ticket" — finishing as the runner-up to Ruben Studdard in TV's 2003 "Idol" competition, which has led to several albums and a role in a Broadway musical. But he said he empathizes with those struggling in the 2nd District where he lives, referring to his upbringing by a mother who fled domestic violence.

"For most Americans, there are no golden tickets — at least not like the kind you see on TV," he says to the camera. "More families are struggling today than at any time in our history, and here in North Carolina, we've suffered more than our share of pain."

Aiken, 35, is expected to face former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco of Asheboro and licensed professional counselor Toni Morris of Fayetteville in the Democratic primary in May. Another Democratic hopeful — Houston Barnes of Durham — gave up his bid Wednesday and threw his weight to Aiken. Official candidate filing begins next week.

Aiken said that he considers Washington dysfunctional and that he would focus on jobs, the economy and education. He said the federal health care law needs to be changed but shouldn't be repealed. He supports abortion rights and considers his political philosophy in the broad middle between political extremes — he said he was once a registered independent voter.

"I'm not a politician. I don't ever want to be one," he says in the video. "But I do want to help bring back — at least to my corner of North Carolina — the idea that someone can go to Washington to represent all the people, whether they voted for you or not."

Winning in the 2nd District will be a challenge. Political experts consider the district, which covers all or parts of nine counties west and southwest of his native Raleigh, Republican-leaning. Mitt Romney won 58 percent of the vote in the district in 2012, according to a North Carolina Chamber analysis.

Ellmers, a two-term congresswoman, faces her own primary challenge from radio talk show host Frank Roche of Cary, and she has been criticized by tea party forces who helped her get elected as not conservative enough. Aiken said he examined the district's makeup for more than a year and has assembled a veteran Democratic political team.

Aiken announced in 2008 that he is gay. He has a 5-year-old son conceived through in-vitro fertilization with a female friend. He said in the AP interview that he doesn't believe his sexual orientation will play a role in whether or not people vote for him: "There are dozens of issues that are important to the people living in the district, and that is not one of them."

John Davis, a longtime political researcher in North Carolina, said Aiken stands a decent chance to win the primary, but the district boundaries drawn by Republicans will make it difficult for any Democrat to win in November. Davis said Aiken's sexual orientation will matter to some voters.

"It's not going to be an issue that people are going to talk openly about," Davis said.