DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- In a race featuring candidates varied histories, Clay Aiken's background still manages to stick out.
"Every time I see someone in person, meet someone for the first time in person, that they're so surprised how old I am. Because I think so many people see me as this 24-year-old kid who they saw on TV," Aiken said through chuckles, referring to his time on American Idol in 2003.
His comfortability meeting with people evident even prior to this interview, when he exchanged memories of ABC11's anchor teams through the years with one the station's longest-tenured employees in the lobby before being led down to the studio.
Aiken has sold millions of albums and toured internationally in the nearly two decades since, though he's quick to point out that prior to his appearance on the show, he worked in education.
"Education policy is something I'd like to address. Title 1 is something that funds underprivileged, low-income students in low-income schools. And in some places that program has sort of incentivized districts to create low-income schools. Chapel Hill-Carrboro is not an area that would have any low-income schools if kids were distributed appropriately. But a lot of school systems create low-income schools to get that extra money, and I think Title 1 needs to be reauthorized and revamped to not incentivize school districts to create schools that are high poverty," said Aiken.
He further pointed to better funding Title 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which revolves around teacher retention and training.
"Most teachers didn't go in (to teaching) to become rich. They knew what the salary would be when they started. But what they didn't expect is to have to do three people's jobs. So most teachers I talk to are eager to have more support. They don't have a planning period. They don't have the ability to communicate with parents the way they want to. To work one on one with kids. So a national program that encourages people to become teacher assistants, para-professionals in that way. And then help create a pathway for those teacher assistants to go into becoming teachers," said Aiken, who started out as a teacher's assistant.
He's the lone candidate in the race to win a congressional primary, which he narrowly did in 2014 before losing to Renee Elmers in the state's second district.
Eight years later, he's running again, hoping his advocacy and name recognition will help make up for a lack of political experience.
"That's one thing I've been able to do for the past 19 years when it comes to issues with UNICEF or children with special-needs. I want to be able to use that voice, that platform to bring attention here to the district. Because we're losing (retiring Rep. David Price) whose had such an impact, and no first-term member of Congress who goes in is going to have that ability to do that except for me," said Aiken.
Aiken serves as Chairman and Co-Founder of The National Inclusion Project, which partners with community organizations to provide training and resources to enhance opportunities for children with disabilities.
"After (American) Idol, talking about (inclusivity), turned into this big snowball almost that kind of created this organization. Because having this platform from the show made people listen. They paid attention when I was talking about something, they recognized there was an issue people weren't addressing," Aiken said. The organization's initial plan was to operate on a local and statewide level, but it has expanded to programs in three dozen states.
In hopes of continuing Price's legacy, he pointed to the need to address affordable housing, in areas like east Durham and the Bethesda and Oak Grove communities, through the ability of securing resources and funding on a federal level.
"If there were affordable housing specifically set aside, then prices would also come down. But we need to make sure that we're cracking down on some of the more predatory corporations that are buying up a lot of stock. We've seen some companies decided to pull out of the market because of pressure, but there are still others in the area that are selling, buying up the houses in the market, holding onto them, and then manipulating the prices. And I think there should be some federal programs that are designed to crack down on that type of predatory behavior too," Aiken said.
Like many other Democrats in the state, Aiken supported a push for renewable energy sources, pointing to work Rep. Deborah Ross is undertaking on off-shore wind energy, hoping incentives to both consumers and companies could be useful in this regard.
"It's not about the company, it's about protecting the environment, reducing our dependence on foreign oil. So absolutely we need to extend those rebates," said Aiken, referring to rebates offered to electric vehicle owners, which includes himself.
Aiken's campaign site notes his support to "create research and development partnerships with like-minded notions to collaborate on future innovation and set standards and norms for new technologies, like artificial intelligence, 5G, green energy storage, and cryptocurrencies." However, cryptocurrency has received pushback from many scientists over its energy usage.
Aiken, who said he did not own cryptocurrency, also admitted he does not fully understand it. He noted his introduction came on a professional level overseas when he was offered cryptocurrency as payment for a performance; when he looked more into its applicability and usage, specifically in developing nations, he believed the US, and specifically this area - with its tech-heavy industries - could play a key role in becoming a leader in the field.
When asked about concerns over cryptocurrency price swings - Bitcoin has lost more than 50% of its value in six months, and a stablecoin, Terra, lost nearly all of its value, Aiken again acknowledged not knowing enough on the subject, though believed further regulations are necessary in the sector.
"I'm always worried about lack of regulations that anyone to become a billionaire overnight almost at times. And not be able to pay into the system as they should. We know some people have become crypto-billionaires, moved off-shore, moved away, to avoid the tax regulations here. Absolutely we've got the regulation tightened and under control. But the first thing we've got to do is understand it. And I'll be the first person to say I don't completely understand it, and I don't think most people in this district or even country quite understand it, and that scares me. Because we've seen that happen with technology as well," said Aiken.
In a somewhat unusual move, less than a week until Election Day, Aiken and fellow candidate Dr. Ashley Ward held a joint press conference in Durham to discuss concerns over campaign finances, specifically outside money being spent in what's largely considered a safe, Democratic seat.
"I'd like to move to a public finance system for congressional candidates, because there are a lot of congressional candidates who don't have the resources of these Super PAC's, who don't have the donor lists, who don't have the blessings that I have to have name recognition to get into the race. And some of those are some of the best candidates that we have available," said Aiken.
While he referenced a chart that noted contributions given to both Republicans and Democrats, he made more pointed comments during an interview with ABC11, specifically about fellow candidate, State Senator Valerie Foushee, who has received combined millions from two super PAC's.
"It is almost embarrassing that Democrats don't know how to practice what we preach," said Aiken, who noted while he had respected Foushee for a long time, believed spending in the race was at a "disgusting level."
If elected, Aiken would make history as the first openly LGBTQ Congressperson from the South. While saying he would be "incredibly proud" to so, adding he hoped fellow openly LGTBQ candidate Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who is running in NC-11, would also join him, much like in 2014, he emphasized he is not a one-issue candidate.
"To me I feel like as Democrats, we've got to focus on issues that affect 85-100% of people. We have to continue to focus on civil rights, equal rights for everyone, that the right to vote is protected for everyone. We've got to make sure that Roe v. Wade, if it's overturned, that we've fought back against it, and provided access to women to have safe abortions. But I do find that sometimes we double-down on identity politics perhaps more than I think we should. And I think that benefits Republicans more than anything else. Because those are the issues they want us talking about," said Aiken.
When questioned on his lack of political experience, Aiken said he did not seek lower-level office, which two of his main challengers, Foushee and former Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, have both held.
"Efficacy is relative. It has a lot more to do with being able to bring attention to issues. Passing bills is a part of the job. Voting is a big part of the job. But another big part of the job is bringing attention to the issues of your area, to making sure that people in Congress and around the country know what's necessary in Durham, in Burlington, in Orange County," Aiken said.
He believes his extensive worldwide travel has also provided insight into humanitarian issues, as he explained his support for the Biden Administration's decision to increase the refugee cap.
"We do need to be more empathetic, and welcome in people who are living in conditions that are dangerous for them. Welcome in more when we can, because they add to the economy. They're typically the hardest-working, most productive members of society. But we do make sure that we keep the country safe, and we do have to make sure we're doing the appropriate vetting process before letting people in," Aiken said.
Aiken stressed the importance of bipartisanship and finding common ground when possible.
"We're struggling to understand that you don't have to set your hair on fire to affect change. And sometimes reaching across the aisle is not about compromising but it's about finding places where you agree," Aiken said.
Through early voting, the state's second district has drawn the second-most votes in the state, with Aiken finding "there's a lot more energy than even I expected" in what's considered a safe seat. Still, he wanted to encourage voters to closely study the candidates.
"Primaries in these dark-blue races are more important because they allow us to define who we are as a party. As a Democrat, I'll say this - we see what Republicans do when they get a safe, red seat. They give us somebody like Madison (Cawthorn) in Western North Carolina or Marjorie (Taylor Greene) in Georgia. And they define their party that way. And that's who they become. We have a chance to define our party too."
Note: Clay Aiken has previously provided live coverage of the Raleigh Christmas Parade for ABC 11. This reporter did not cover the event, and had not interviewed Clay prior to this election.