Clay Aiken is the perennial runner-up. Breaking out in 2003 on the second season of American Idol, where he took second place to Ruben Studdard, he later went on to take second place on Celebrity Apprentice to Arsenio Hall. Now Esquire Network will premiere an exclusive, all-access look at one of the most unique political campaigns of the 2014 mid-term elections – the improbable Congressional run of Clay Aiken. Produced by Academy Award-winner Simon Chinn and Emmy Award-winner Jonathan Chinn, the four-hour original documentary series The Runner-Up is set to premiere on Esquire Network on Tuesday, April 7 at 10/9c.
The series gives exclusive access inside Aiken’s campaign to represent North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District – from his candidacy decision through the shocking primary election (which ended in the death of Aiken’s Democratic opponent), and his defeat this past November to incumbent Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers.
We caught up with Aiken to chat about his campaign as a gay Democrat and political outsider, working through strategy sessions with his team, prepping for debates and meeting with voters via town halls, bus tours and door-to-door canvassing.
How did this show fall into your lap?
After I announced in February, we had three production companies contact my campaign advisors and asked if they could come and film it. We just said no to everybody. I was not interested in anybody interpreting what we were doing in any biased way.
Then Jonathan Chinn reached out as our fourth person, and we had every intention of saying no, but somehow I noticed his resume and realized what they had done was all very reputable stuff.
So what made you change your mind?
After looking at what he had done I was still not really interested in doing it, but he wanted to come out and talk to us. I said, ‘Listen, if you want to come to Raleigh and talk to us that’s fine,’ and he came and he sat down with me at dinner one night and just really convinced me that what we were doing was something that would be important for people to see.
What do you think is the importance?
[It’s] a glimpse into a campaign that was a little more grassroots than a lot of the stuff that had been documented in the past. We were running a campaign with me, who admittedly was not familiar with politics. I recognize we ran a very interesting race not only because of who I am and where I come from, but because it was a gay candidate in a very Republican district.
Being gay and running in a Republican district, did you have any hesitation when campaigning in small towns?
No. I am bothered sometimes by the characterization and broad strokes that people paint the South or pant rural areas when it comes to acceptance and LGBTQ issues. There are certainly places in the South, and all over the country, that people don’t have the views of equality that I think they should, but I’ve never encountered someone being disrespectful to someone’s face about it.
Some people may call it hypocrisy, but to me people were always very respectful. Whether I was running for Congress or not, people are nice. Now, does that mean they might not vote for you? Does that mean they might not talk nicely about you behind your back? Does that mean they may go and talk to their families in the privacy of their own home about how they don’t think you being gay is right? Ehh, maybe. But no one’s been anything but respectful and I’ve had some pretty heated conversations with people about same-sex marriage.
And you were campaigning in North Carolina when the Court of Appeals struck down the state’s marriage amendment.
I got into some very intense arguments, but people were still very respectful. They know I’m gay. They know what my position is and they wanted to make sure that I knew they didn’t want to agree with me, but they didn’t do it in a hateful way. Sometimes I get disappointed because people assume that when you’re in the South, that you’re just in the hotbed of hatred, but people are typically nice— they might not want to vote your way, but they tend to be, at least to your face, more respectful about it than I think a lot of people realize.
Aside from the campaign trail, did any of your opponents try and capitalize on homophobia when running against a gay candidate?
During the primaries there were some veiled attacks about me being gay. My opponent was saying that she had North Carolina values and there was a little bit of underground whispering within the African American community about me being gay. Ironically, that happened on the Democrat side during the primaries, people who should have been a little more supportive about that type of thing.
When I announced, Renee Ellmers’ spokesperson said something about how I represented San Francisco Values more than Stanford values. That got a lot of rebuke, even from the Republican Party. From what I understand she ended up firing that spokesperson. It’s very difficult to be overt with homophobia and not look like a bully nowadays, which speaks highly of how far LGBT acceptance has come.
In terms of LGBT acceptance, particularly in the political arena, how do you view closeted politicians?
I have nothing but respect for anyone’s right to determine when it is right for them to come out. It’s not my place to tell someone who’s gay and closeted to be out. It’s a personal journey for every single person. Every person that is gay took our own time to determine when it was right for use to come out. Anyone who says otherwise is being selfish.
What about in the instance of closeted politicians who are running on the platform of Anti-Gay legislation?
If you are voting against the LGBT rights of individuals to persecute, ostracize or alienate people who are gay and you are gay, then I have no respect for you. Now I imagine you’re asking this question because there’s someone that is speculated to be gay, and is voting against the rights of those who are LGBT. If that person is gay and is voting against the rights of individuals who are gay, then I have no respect whatsoever for them. If someone has proof that that person is gay I hope to God they come forward with it soon.
You would support outing a candidate in that situation?
If somebody who is gay is voting against gay rights, then screw them! You can’t be that much of a hypocrite. If someone has a smoking gun, against a congressman, in Illinois, who has shown that they’re gay and a hypocrite, I would support exposing that person.
I don’t support outing people — I don’t— but if you’re going to be voting against the rights of individuals, at the same time you are screwing your boyfriend, or your photographer, I don’t have any respect for you at all.
After it was all said and done, how did the campaign live up to your expectations of running for office?
It’s hard. I’m not an easily surprised person. I never go into anything with too many expectations. The one thing I took away that might be the most disappointing is the amount of emphasis that’s placed on money. To some people in politics, especially in campaigning, that is the only thing that matters. To some people, talking to constituents doesn’t matter. Getting out and being in the community doesn’t matter. That is a big part of the problem we have in this country right now.
Did you get out into the community a lot during your campaign?
I enjoyed going to parts of the state where people don’t typically see someone giving a shit about them: hanging out with people in diners in Bear Creek or doing Meals On Wheels in Spring Lake. Those things were not only more important to me, not only more powerful to me, but they’re also the type of things I haven’t gotten to do in the past twelve years, because the entertainment world did not give me the opportunity. I grew up in North Carolina. Everything I am [is] because of that state — I really hadn’t gotten to spend time in that part of the state. I appreciated being able to do it during the campaign.
Is this the last time we’ll see Clay Aiken’s name on the ballot?
Do I have plans to never run again? It’s certainly not completely off the table, but it’s certainly not on the table right now. I will tell you point blank I’m not running again in 2016. If it’s down the way, and an opportunity presents itself and I think I have the ability to use the platform that I have — the microphone that I have— to make a difference. V
Written by Jimmy Lesch