Clay Aiken, Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, met with the editorial board today. His No. 1 focus? Veterans and the struggles they face after they leave the service. Why does he believe he can win in the red district? Because so few Republicans actually like U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers. If you missed today’s coverage of the Aiken-Ellmers debate, read it here. Here are my notes from the meeting. They are NOT verbatim.
CLAY AIKEN: Renee Ellmers is not very well-liked. Her approval ratings have been 17 percent. They’re not good. People are going to vote for her because she’s a Republican, but no one is eager to have her back. Her ability to raise money from individuals is limited. Her ability to raise from PACS seems to be limited. There are super PACS, but there’s a finite number. There becomes an end to it.
Q: Out on the trail, what do people say about her? What are the problems?
AIKEN: There’s a problem with a lot of things. Constituent services. I know it because people tell me. I know it because people in this district have to compare her to who they had before. Bob Etheridge was great at constituent services. Howard Coble was great at it.
She’s not very available and not very accessible. Even people who do talk to her oftentimes get berated. There are videos of her in Randolph County, her people calling them idiots, saying they don’t have any facts. Her constituent services are bad, but her willingness to talk to people also is bad.
I was just with the Randolph County tea party last week, and they don’t agree with me on much ...
Q: You were? Why?
AIKEN: Because of the same question you asked. Constituent services and how people see her. I told them we aren’t going to agree on a lot of stuff. I grew up admiring Terry Sanford, David Price. Both of them came to my eighth-grade class. I liked politics growing up. One of the things I liked about politics or appreciate and have a historical reference for about politics is people being approachable. I know they’re not getting it. I know I’m not going to tell them everything they want to hear, but I know there are things I don’t completely disagree with them on. I don’t disagree with them on the Second Amendment, on gun control, too much. I don’t disagree with them on border control itself, too much. The other immigration issues I disagree with them on, but I just say, Listen, I don’t agree with you. You might change my mind if you talk to me long enough. And I might change your mind if you talk to me long enough. More than likely we aren’t going to change the others mind, but I say I’m here to listen to you. My campaign folks get upset when we go to tea party things not because of going to them but because I end up staying there longer talking to somebody about something more than I will anywhere else.
(About going to a tea party booth at a county fair): They don’t like her. They want someone who’s going to listen to them. I think some of them would like to see her lose, see me win and have Frank Roche run against me the next time. There’s a lot of distaste for Renee Ellmers. We know the Republican Party is split, and we know a lot of them are unhappy with her.
Q: You’ve made the rounds in the district. What’s the common theme?
AIKEN: People hate politics. They’re sick of it. There are a few things that make this race unique from every other congressional race in the country, why that distaste for Congress will work for me here. We have an incumbent people don’t like. Most people who hate Congress like their own congress person. People hate Congress but like David Price. They hate Congress and they also do not like Renee Ellmers. It’s one of the reasons why this is different from other races.
It’s Raleigh. It’s not a federal issue. One of the reasons Kay Hagan is having an easier time than people worried she would is people are sick and tired of what happened on Jones Street. The Democrats are energized and fired up. They’re more willing to vote this year than in years past because they’ve seen what happens when they don’t.
The school board race in 2009. Schools were great here growing up, love them. Nobody paid attention to school board races. Then in 2009 outside voices came in, and you know what happened. I was worried about it. Then in 2011, even an area that elected Ron Margiotta when the rest of the board was Democratic, even they turned him out. People showed up and said I had been complacent, and look what happens. In North Carolina, I don’t just believe but see historically how that’s worked. People are saying my state is the valley of humility between two mountains of conceit. My state has usually been well run, and I sat down in 2010 and didn’t do anything. I sat out more than I should have in 2012 and I’m sick of it. People are tired of Raleigh. People are very disappointed and discouraged. People are kind of like, what the heck? I talk to people who normally vote Democratic but are so tired of voting because it doesn’t matter who they vote for. The thing people ask more than anything, they say I hope you win but when you get up there don’t turn into what everybody else turns into.
Q: Why be a Democrat?
AIKEN: I’m a Democrat. I’m not going to be a Republican just because it’s a Republican district. I believe government has a role and a responsibility to make sure that people have equal opportunity, that people aren’t left behind. I see a role for government. Can it get too big or unwieldy? Sure. I don’t know whether I agree with not being able to get anything done if I’m a freshman congressman in the minority. If you’re there, you’re supposed to represent home, and you have to have a microphone in order to do it. If you’re just one of 435, if you’re a freshman in the minority, you might not be able to get much done. If I’m able to be successful in this race, I have a microphone most don’t get. Even if I’m a freshman in the minority, that platform doesn’t go away. CSPAN didn’t run the Renee Ellmers and Bob Etheridge debate in 2010. They did it this time because people are interested in paying attention. It’s not that I’m famous, but my platform has allowed me to be able to talk about things that are important to me and get people to pay attention. I can still take that platform with me, speak up about things important here, that get lost in the cacophony of 434 other people.
Q: What are those issues you would use that platform for?
AIKEN: I came into this race with things that were important to me. Jobs, the economy are important. We have to invest in things that will get people back to work. I came in with a passion for education. The student interest rate and student debt are embarrassing. I don’t agree with testing and paying teachers based on test scores. I also recognize that veteran issues were important. I have a brother who is a Marine, and I’ve learned in the past nine months how much worse it is than I knew it was. If you live in Fayetteville, you see it more than if you live in Randolph County. The veteran issues for me have been the most glaringly lacking as far as resources go. That transition between active duty and the VA., I’ve likened it to jumping from one bank of a river to another bank of the river. If you’re in the military, you’ve been (told everything to do) for four years. (When you get out) you can’t go to the DOD and ask for advice or back to the commanding officer you listened to for four years. The homeless problem I see as a result of that gap, people who can’t bridge that gap, they end up homeless, drug abuse, they can’t get a job because, with the skills from the military, they should translate into civilian jobs, but there’s a language barrier. The civilians can’t speak military. There’s a lot that needs to be done with the transition, where VA services come in earlier. I’d like to see DOD end a little later. Exploring the possibility of vets going back to where it’s safe, comfortable, they understand the language. They do whatever they can to get out. That’s another reason we have mental health issues. If they ask whether you have nightmares, flashbacks, and they say yes, they’re going to keep you, and all you want is to get out, so you say no. Then they fall into the river.
Let’s have some sort of overlap there. Veterans issues are probably the thing I find to be the most pressing and specific to this district. Burr is the only person on a VA committee, and he’s in the Senate. No one in North Carolina is on the House veteran committee. That’s pretty bad. I’d want to have a seat on that.
Q: What was the process for your deciding to run?
AIKEN: It was about a year. I had some friends who live in the area, from the area, who pay attention to the political process. I didn’t even know I was in this district in 2012, with all of the changes. I didn’t know until I got the ballot on Election Day. I was, where’s David Price’s name? After it was over, and she had won, I was frustrated with the whole gerrymandered thing. I talked about it more than I should have, because they said, have you ever considered running? I joked about it in high school. I never really considered it something I wanted to do after that. I said not really, it’s probably not something I’m going to do right now. They kept saying you should do it, you should do it, you should do it. The DCCC encouraged me to run. They didn’t think it had much viability unless they had someone to bring to it. Not that Renee Ellmers has a lot of support. I still didn’t do it right away. It took me about nine months. They piled me with stats, about how Elaine Marshall had won the district, Roy Cooper won this district in this configuration. That helped a little bit. I was still hesitant. I let them send me information. I don’t take on anything without deliberate thought. It was a slow burn. Alot of talking to people. Getting a sense from people as to how they felt. The mood has not changed much. People still hate Congress. Still hate nothing gets done. It was not until the shutdown happened that I said OK, I’m gonna do this. It had gotten to the point where I was like, you know what? This may be a good use of my energy, a responsible use of that whole platform. When the shutdown happened? Are you kidding me? Her paycheck comment put me over the edge. We already knew you weren’t paying attention. For her to say something like that and unapologetically do it? I’ve seen it’s winnable. There’s a lot of factors that play into it. It’s not just that they are dissatisfied with Washington, not just disastified with Renee Ellmers. It’s not just that I see things that need to be done that are not being done. There was a strategic understanding of the fact that this is not as red a district as people believe it is. It’s a red district but it’s an independent district, too. There are people who vote for Mitt Romney and Elaine Marshall on the same ballot. There are people who vote for Roy Cooper and vote for Howard Coble. There’s an independent bent to the district where people don’t always vote for just their party. They happened to have over the past several cycles, because they liked the person on the other side better. But I happen to think I’m sort of likable, and hopefully that will work.
Q: What’s going on with your entertainment career?
AIKEN: I’m certainly not going to be touring while I’m running for office. It’s been on hold whole time I’ve been running. It had to be a decision I made. I have friends in the entertainment world who came on board and said I’ll help you out. And I’ve had some who said I’ll help you, but I can’t get involved. As soon as you put D or R behind your name, people are going to hate you. I realize there may not be a chance to go back to what I did before. I’ve already gotten people who don’t like me now simply because I’m a Democrat. I recognized that as part of the yearlong deliberation process. Am I OK with it? I may not be able to go back to my singing profession. It’s improbable I’ll be able to do it in the same way.
Q: You mentioned jobs. What would you do?
AIKEN: That hasn’t already been done? Things that have been attempted on a smaller scale could be done on a larger scale. Infrastructure is an issue. Southwest of Siler City, there’s a megasite that’s almost ready to bring in auto manufacturing, and one reason it’s almost ready is it does have infrastructure to support something like that. There’s another site in the Liberty area that’s got land but not infrastructure to make it available. The issue is, No. 1, how to put people back to work right away. If we invest in infrastructure, you make an environment conducive to creating jobs. Cutting payroll taxes in half to incentivize businesses to hire more folks. Then education for me is a big part of it.
Education to make sure people are able to get trained to do new types of jobs. If you’re 50 years old and worked in textiles your entire life, you don’t want to learn something else, or pay to learn to do something else, especially if the interest rate, thanks to Rep. Ellmers, is going to be 10.5 percent.
Caterpillar and Central Carolina Community College have a partnership. If you’ll train these students for us, they’re all but guaranteed a job. People Lee High School go across the street and get trained. It’s a year longer than high school, but they’re ready to go into jobs with starting salaries of $50,000. That’s a good job. So not just infrastructure, but making the tax structure simpler but also training people for those new jobs. Unfortunately, since we continue to allow tax breaks for companies to ship their jobs overseas, a lot of the textile jobs that we’ve seen in Randolph County and western Chatham County very well may not come back, probably won’t many of them. So we’vet got to make sure those folks out there are trained to do new stuff so we can get a megasite or a company to come in. We can’t do that unless these folks are getting the right kind of education or training.
Q: Eric Cantor. He was supposed to be as shoe-in. Have you talked to his campaign about anything he learned? Was it because he was disliked?
AIKEN: Have I talked to them? No. Was he disliked? Certainly. He had the same pollster Renee Ellmers does, so numbers may be wrong there, too. He just wasn’t home. He wasn’t around. He wasn’t home enough to recognize he was in trouble. That’s part of my message. I’m not an idiot. I know this isn’t a Democratic district. I got it. I recognize people don’t like Congress. People are tired of it. People are tired of, I don’t want to say arrogance, but an unattractive overconfidence.
Q: Have you campaigned with the president? Would you?
AIKEN: I don’t think he’s coming down. I’M not worried about his asking me. I have to do this on my own. I got here on a lot of coattails. I know that. It’s a Republican district. I recognize the race I’m running, but even if that weren’t the case, I was able to use "American Idol" to get here in the first place. One problem is people don’t see me as capable of doing things on my own. I’ve got to do it by myself. The reason I don’t sing is I don’t want people to see me only in that box. If I sing, I go back in the box. People have to see me stand on my own two feet, that I understand the issues, that I’m talking about them and talking to them. I don’t want them to vote for me because I’m famous but because I’m passionate and qualified, and they see it.
Q: What did you think of what happened with the Supreme Court and gay marriage?
AIKEN: I think they figured they needed to keep hands off it for now. They left it as a state issue. Am I disappointed? No. John Roberts is thinking about his legacy, right? A lot of people don’t like the court making decisions. I have respect for that. They have no dissenting views from appellate courts right now. If they all rule the same way, they don’t need to get involved, do they? They’ve decided they’re going to let this play out. I think that’s responsible.
Q: Did the DCCC recruit you? Funding you?
AIKEN: They were certainly being aggressive, so maybe so. The Democrats have a lot of trouble this year. We’re on their emerging list. They’ve got trouble elsewhere. It’s not a good year for Democrats. They’re spending their money this year on making sure people don’t get kicked out, that they don’t lose their seats. They’re having to spend their resources there. We’re making a lot of progress without that. I can’t use the word recruit, but the reason they were eager for me to run is the possibility to pick up a seat where they didn’t have to do as much heavy lifting as elsewhere. Getting me to run meant potentially picking up a seat that they didn’t have to do as much with someone with this platform.
Q: You say you’re a moderate Democrat, but your PAC support is pretty traditional liberal groups. The teachers. Unions.
AIKEN: I think there are workers in this state who are not being treated well. When workers are paid well, talking about the minimum wage, when workers do well, everyone does well, I support that. I don’t think that’s a liberal cause. The reason it’s not a conservative cause, or considered one, is it doesn’t always directly help the bottom line of corporations. My opponent tends to like big corporations more than workers. I don’t think it’s a liberal or a conservative cause. There are certainly union members who are not Democrats, and there are absolutely teachers who are not Democrats, but they don’t want to be treated the way Raleigh is treating them. They know I’m upset with how they’re being treated. I don’t think that’s a liberal or conservative cause. It’s a PAC that has a mission and protects teachers, protects education, and I’m strongly for that.
Q: Final thoughts?
AIKEN: I’m frustrated with nothing getting done. I’m frustrated that people like I grew up admiring like Terry Sanford are not still around. There are moments when I find myself speaking more highly of Jesse Helms than I ever thought I would in my life. Even though I didn’t agree with him much, he told the truth. He was honest.
I miss folks who I didn’t agree with but did what they’d say they’d do. I wasn’t always happy with what Jesse Helms did, but Helms did what he said he’d do, and I respect that. I’m looking today at Jesse Helms and recognizing that he wouldn’t be as full of crap as most of the folks are full of, and I miss politicians like that. I see a whole lot of them leaving. I’ve been starstruck twice in my life by Diane Sawyer and Tom Harkin. People who are moderate, like Harkin and Chuck Grassley, they work together well. Walter Jones, Howard Coble, I don’t agree with them all the time, but I respect the fact that Walter Jones will work across the aisle. Those folks are leaving. I’m fed up. Olympia Snowe left. I miss that. That’s what politics was for me. There’s very little to admire in politicians these days, very few Jim Hunts left. I’m not saying I’m Jim Hunt or Terry Sanford, but that culture is what I miss.
I’d like to send a message, and from here unlike the rest of the country, this one will ripple more, the win will send a bigger message, and it’s going to say we don’t care if you’re gerrymandered into your district, you still have to do your job. Somebody will beat you.