RALEIGH, N.C. — My interview with singer and 2003 American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken began with a tour of North Carolina’s second Congressional district. As I sat on the back of his bedazzled Vespa motor scooter, Aiken seemed to take pride in his city, as well as take corners so sharply I had to squeeze his waist. Though he formally announced his bid for Congress a week ago, Aiken told me more than once that he’s no politician.
“I’m no politician!” he shouted over his shoulder, then swerved to avoid a cloud of mosquitoes. “Woooo! Shields down!”
Some speculate that his run against Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers is a publicity stunt aimed at putting him back in the spotlight for the release of his next album, Aiken for Change, which coincidentally happens to be his campaign slogan. When asked about this, the American Idol star abruptly brought the scooter to a stop in a rundown South Raleigh neighborhood known for its high crime rate and low employment. He removed his helmet and raised a finger, prepared to reply with a well-thought rebuttal, then quickly put his helmet back on.
“Oh darn,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to stop in THIS neighborhood!”
A short ride and several sharp turns later, we arrived at a small coffee shop adorned with Aiken For Change banners and, at the counter, a campaign donation jar labeled Change for Aiken. The Congressional hopeful made it clear on his website that the majority of his campaign funding is dependent on donations from supporters, who can pledge $5, $10, $50, $100 and “Other.”
“I want to make it clear that ‘Other’ just means sums larger than $100,” said Aiken. “I know how the media is, so don’t read anything into it.”
It was clear that the java shop was Aiken’s favorite haunt, and that the one-time Broadway “Spamalot” star was its favorite customer. As if to underscore this, Aiken’s favorite hot drink arrived without him ever placing the order.
“One piping hot skinny Mexican!” said Betty the barista, who was clearly enamored with the Congressional hopeful.
Aiken’s trademark empathy was immediate as he leaned forward and whispered, “I think she kind of likes me. I’m not sure how to break it to her that I’m… you know…” he then smiled and waved in her direction before turning back to me. “… Not reeeally a coffee drinker.”
It’s no secret that the past Celebrity Apprentice star has disagreed with many of the decisions Congresswoman Ellmers has made while in office, including voting multiple times for cuts in military spending and for government shutdowns — votes that Aiken believes have been disasterous for his district’s economy and America in general.
“Plus,” said Aiken, “according to our records, she has never bought a single copy of any of my CDs.” He then leaned forward again, whispering: “You have to wonder about somebody like that, right?”
Though he admits his musical success has afforded him a $2 million custom-built home and other extravagances, such as a fleet of bedazzled Vespa scooters he keeps in a climate controlled showroom, Aiken, 35, insists he’s still grounded.
“Seriously, my mother lives with me and was madder than a hornet when I stayed out past 10 the other night without calling,” Aiken admitted. “If it wasn’t for this interview — and a teeny white lie that it was for Newsweek — I’d be grounded to my room right now.”
While millions of self-professed “Claymates” and other supporters who are part of what is known as “Clay Nation” are promoting Aiken’s campaign through social media, Ellmers’ spokeswoman, Jessica Wood, called the Days of Our Lives cameo-star “…a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Raleigh. He has no business being in this race and doesn’t represent the values of the voters in this district. And don’t even get me started on his shirts.”
When told of Woods’ remarks, Aiken was clearly agitated, causing him to make a fist that he slammed onto the table with enough force to send the coffee jacket sliding down his paper cup.
“Owww! FRACK!” he said, then apologized for losing his temper. “It’s just that I designed those shirts myself.”
Aiken quickly composed himself by changing the subject; a move that demonstrated his growing political savvy. “We have wonderful new campaign buttons!” he blurted, then pulled out a large, saucer-sized button from his waist satchel. In the center is Aiken’s smiling face surrounded by his latest campaign slogan:
Aiken for Congress: Because moving forward doesn’t always mean going straight
“My mom is making hundreds of these with one of those button-making thingies,” said Aiken, whose eyes suddenly widened. “Momma Mia! I told her I’d only be gone an hour. If I’m late again she’ll ground me for a month — and I’ve got the primaries to think about!”
With a hasty handshake, the Congressional hopeful and one-time Beyonce talk show interviewee was sprinting to his Vespa for a quick trip home. “They say the fastest route to any point is a straight line,” Aiken said over the whir of his revving scooter. “We’ll just SEE about that!”
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(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon Books and Barnes & Noble. Or you can stop by Siuslaw News and bug him for one.)