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Sunday, July 22, 2018

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Singer Clay Aiken will officially announce his campaign for Congress on Wednesday, injecting a nationally known personality into what has been a quiet Democratic primary to produce a challenger to U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers.

Aiken’s decision has already reshaped the field. Houston Barnes, a young attorney who lives in Durham, plans to announce Wednesday that he is withdrawing from the race and supporting Aiken.

That leaves former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco of Asheboro and licensed professional counselor Toni Morris of Fayetteville as Aiken’s primary opponents.

In a video that will be posted online Wednesday, and in an interview with The News & Observer on Tuesday in Raleigh, Aiken portrays himself as someone who is not a politician. He emphasizes his personal story — growing up in a home torn apart by domestic violence — and says it inspired him to be a voice for the powerless.

Aiken graduated from the University of North Carolina Charlotte in 2003 with a degree in special education.

He began on that path by teaching special education students in Wake County and — after a detour in the entertainment world — working with UNICEF. After months of exploring a congressional bid, he recently decided to put his entertainment career on hold and run.

“I saw this as the best place I could serve because I think Washington, in general, is dysfunctional,” Aiken said. “I think it’s high time we put people in Congress who were not beholden to their party and not beholden to anything but the people who they live around and grew up around, in my case.”

Aiken, 35, said jobs and the economy will be important campaign themes; specifically, emphasizing education as a way to get people back to work, including through adult job retraining programs.

He said he would press Ellmers to explain her voting record that cut funding for military families.

“She didn’t have to run on her record last time,” Aiken said. “I plan on changing that. I want her to have to talk about and defend some of the things she’s done to people in this district.”

Aiken said he planned to raise “the vast majority” of his campaign funds from supporters but said he might have to use some of his own money. He still retains a fanatical fan base — known as Claymates — which in recent weeks has promoted his candidacy through an online petition.

A little more than a decade ago, Aiken, who grew up in Wake County, was quietly working on a college degree in special education and working at a YMCA in North Raleigh, with a singing hobby on the side. That changed dramatically in 2003, when he became a contestant on the TV show “American Idol.”

That led to several best-selling albums, other TV appearances and a role in the Broadway play “Spamalot.” He lives in a $2 million home he had built in a rural corner of the 2nd Congressional District near the Wake, Durham and Chatham county lines.

His entertainment career has made him wealthy, but he has also used the money to establish a $2 million foundation to help children with disabilities.