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Christensen: Clay Aiken is not the first celebrity intrigued by NC politics

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/17/09/LSV33.Em.138.jpeg|473
    Courtesy of Clay Aiken -
    Clay Aiken is considering a run for Congress in North Carolina’s 2nd District.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/17/09/1oXCtx.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver and Hall of Fame member Richard Petty ran for Secretary of State in North Carolina but lost, in part due to an incident where he bumped a car from behind on Interstate 85 for going too slow.

I still have a bumper sticker that declares “Run Andy Run,” an effort to convince actor Andy Griffith to enter the U.S. Senate race in 1990 to challenge Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

Despite the effort, Griffith never considered it. Singer Clay Aiken, on the other hand, says he is giving serious consideration to challenging Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers this year.

North Carolina is, of course, a long way from California, which has turned out quite a few celebrity politicians, including Ronald Reagan and Sonny Bono. But the state has produced a few.

Among them are country singers Lula Belle Wiseman and Charlie Albertson.

Wiseman and her husband, Scotty, were “The Sweethearts of Country Music” during the 1930s and ’40s. Their biggest hit was “Have I told You Lately That I Love You?” Scotty Wiseman wrote the song, which more than 10 million copies and was one of the first country songs with crossover pop appeal. They were also among the first country stars to appear in the movies, making seven films, including “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

After they quit performing, they settled in the mountains, and Lula Belle Wiseman, who was born in Boone, was elected to two terms in the state House, serving from 1975-77. Although she was a Democrat, her friend Roy Acuff, a staunch Republican who ran for governor of Tennessee, campaigned for her.

Wiseman is best-known in Raleigh for a speech on the House floor describing her rape at gunpoint. She was arguing for the death penalty for rapists.

Albertson, a country and gospel singer from Beulaville, served in the legislature from 1992-2010, where he became known as “The Singing Senator.”

GOP courts sports figures

The same year that Democrats were wooing Griffith to challenge Helms, professional wrestler Ric Flair, the “Nature Boy” from Charlotte, considered running for governor as a Republican. He decided against it, and the Republican nomination went to former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a 6-foot-7 former Tar Heel basketball player.

The Republicans have more often courted sports figures. Former baseball pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell was elected to Congress in 1968 in the 5th District and served three terms. Former Duke and NBA basketball star Jack Marin ran in 1982 for Congress and lost.

The most famous celebrity to run was NASCAR driver Richard Petty, who was also a Randolph County commissioner and businessman. He ran as the GOP candidate for secretary of state in 1996 but lost to Democrat Elaine Marshall after bumping a motorist from behind on Interstate 85 because the driver was going too slow.

“If I had known I wasn’t going to win, I wouldn’t have run,” Petty said.

Aiken would face challenges

Aiken, the Raleigh native, who rose to fame on “American Idol,” has ties all over the 2nd District, having performed in Dunn, Garner and Benson, and attended Campbell University before he hit the big time.

But he’s no sure bet to win, either. He faces stiff competition in the Democratic primary from former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco, an Asheboro businessman, and Durham attorney Houston Barnes. If Aiken should best those two, he must face Ellmers in a district that leans strongly Republican.

The fact that Aiken is openly gay in a socially conservative district also presents challenges.

The state Republican Party has already begun slamming him, although their main beef seems to be that he is not an A-list celebrity. A statement from the party pointed out that Aiken finished second to Ruben Studdard in the 2003 “American Idol” contest, and in 2012 he was runner-up on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

The Republicans should be careful. Throwing out such barbs, they could alienate Aiken’s key constituency – the Claymates, the largely middle-age women who are part of the middle America the Republicans say they are courting.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com
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