Allison Glock, in Esquire:
… For him, it is a question of solemnity. “I recognize there is a little bit of preposterousness to me running for office,” Aiken says as we drive away from the fundraiser and past the lantern-lit Kinkadeian houses of Southern Pines, one of the more conservative hamlets in an already absurdly gerrymandered district. “People like me. But I need them to take me seriously.” (A struggle his campaign team dubbed WTF mountain.) “It’s still a laugh line: ‘Clay Aiken running for Congress? Ha ha ha!’ But when I’m done here, the people of North Carolina will know I’m serious. That this is real.”
Aiken has been the butt of the joke since grade school, where other kids tormented him “like it was their job.” He was poor, raised by a single mom, wore glasses and cheap, clunky tennis shoes, had freckles, walked with his toes pointed east and west, was redheaded and clumsy and effeminate. He was a nesting doll of vulnerabilities, a bully’s fever dream, but especially in the South, where the signifiers of masculinity do not stretch to include musical theater or kindness to Down-syndrome kids…
Part of his unease came from his being in the closet, as much to himself as anyone else. But the more salient truth is that Clayton Holmes Aiken was never constructed for modern celebrity. He was a natural introvert with a soft spot for kids who struggled, and if you’d asked him in middle school what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have said a teacher or possibly Senator Terry Sanford.
“There was no man I admired more than Terry Sanford,” Aiken recalls, his enunciation crisp and deliberate, as if to mirror his respect for the North Carolina politician who built the community-college system and founded the first U. S. state-run arts school. As governor, Sanford was also the first southern politician to fight conspicuously against segregation in the sixties. In eighth grade, Aiken interviewed him for a school paper. “I didn’t know what my deal was yet, but I knew I was different. And here was this man who was looking out for people who were different.”
That same year, Aiken invited Raleigh Congressman David Price to visit his class. After Price spoke, Aiken went home and designed CLAYTON FOR CONGRESS! posters on his mother’s computer.
“This isn’t a new dream for me,” he says coolly, lifting his brows for emphasis.
It was, however, a dream deferred until a former nurse and Saturday Night Live caricature, Republican Renee Ellmers, was elected in the district where he lives, sailing into Congress on a raft of outside money, shrieking the one-note Tea Party platform of Death to Obamacare, inspired it seems not by a genuine impulse to protect the greater good but by the profit margins of her husband’s surgical practice. In the four years since, the Michigan native has revealed herself to be a particularly flawed mouthpiece, calling President Obama Louis XIV; getting into a snit on Anderson Cooper, in which she accused him of being anti-Christian; and explaining at the start of her new election cycle that if men want to court the female vote, they need to “bring [the conversation] down to a woman’s level.”
“My decision to run was a slow burn,” Aiken explains, citing the fight over raising teachers’ pay and the newly restrictive voter-ID laws as red flags. “In many ways, I don’t recognize my hometown anymore. But when Renee said she ‘needed’ her paycheck during the government shutdown? Boy, that fired me up!” (While more savvy members of Congress donated their earnings when almost a million federal employees were involuntarily furloughed in 2013, Ellmers took a different route.)…
Aiken admits if Ellmers weren’t in office, he probably wouldn’t be running. He says there are Republicans he admires, like John McCain and most members of his own family. His younger brother is a former Marine; his cousin owns a local shooting range. Aiken knows his “ain’t a swing district by any stretch,” and his odds, on the outside, appear needle thin.
But he also knows his people. His family has lived in North Carolina for eight generations, as has Aiken for most of his life. And he sees what the political professionals don’t, which is that Ellmers is vulnerable. The Second is a disparate district, encompassing the young tech workers of Cary, the military communities of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, huge swaths of sleepy country farms, and the odd retirement village filled with rich Republicans from the North. “Look around,” he says, nodding toward the view outside. “These are all small towns. Everybody talks to each other,” he says flatly. “And no matter where you go, you’ll never meet anyone who is excited about Renee Ellmers.” He takes a beat, considers. “Hell, I’m not 100 percent sure she is.”…