Aiken outlines Congressional aspirations
Congressional candidate Clay Aiken stopped by Sanford on Tuesday, meeting with Mayor Chet Mann and Democratic Party volunteers and having lunch at the Fairview Dairy Bar.
Aiken has two siblings, Jeff and Amy Parker, who graduated from Lee Senior High School in the late '80s and early '90s, although Aiken himself grew up in Raleigh. He had a short career in special education, both as an assistant to an autistic child and a substitute teacher for special education classes, before finding fame through the reality television show "American Idol."
In an interview Tuesday, Aiken laid out several goals he said he'd like to pursue if elected to represent this area in the U.S. House of Representatives. He's the Democratic challenger to incumbent Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) for the state's Second Congressional District, a heavily Republican area that stretches from High Point and Cary down toward the outskirts of Fayetteville.
Aiken said education is the issue nearest and dearest to his heart, and he'd like to see changes at both the state and federal levels.
Aiken said he is opposed to efforts to standardize education through testing and performance-based pay tied to test results, and that he would like to see a federal version of the Teaching Fellows program that North Carolina recently discontinued.
Wading into the debate on Common Core, he said he likes having the idea of similar curricula across the nation, so children who move to a new state don't face too much disruption. But he said he wouldn't support requiring states uncomfortable with Common Core — like North Carolina — to stick with it.
"I don't think it's the federal government's role to force states to decide what they teach," Aiken said.
That's in line with his stance on the role of individual teachers, whom he said should have more freedom over their lesson plans.
"The best teachers I had growing up were allowed to be creative in the classroom," Aiken said. "But now we require them to teach to a test."
He said he differs with the Obama administration in that, but he won't change his mind for political expediency. Blindly following the official party line, Aiken said, is what has created the current Washington culture, "where you only succeed by making the other side look bad."
He added: "Why does everyone in the country understand that except the 535 people in Congress?"
Although Aiken never mentioned Ellmers by name, he said anyone who supported sequestration should be ashamed — and Ellmers is known for being a vocal supporter — and that he, on the other hand, would support efforts to reverse the cuts.
Aiken also said a good representative should be on the ground in North Carolina as often as possible, instead of staying in Washington and meeting with donors and lobbyists.
"The only people who should be telling you how to vote are the people you represent," Aiken said.
Both Aiken and Ellmers can find common ground, though, by opposing plans to cut the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg. Ellmers has tried several political maneuvers to stop the military's request to scuttle the unit and affect its 1,400 employees who live in the area. And Aiken said if elected, he would also fight for the unit, which is in charge of Fort Bragg's only C-130 planes.
Another topic Aiken said he wants to take on is the student loan system. Most loans come, he said, with an interest rate that's higher than the rate for a mortgage or a loan to buy a car. Such high rates, Aiken said, harm the economy by discouraging risk-taking and innovation because someone who's 22 and already tens of thousands of dollars in debt isn't likely going to try to become an entrepreneur.
Aiken had several other politically progressive ideas for boosting the economy, suggesting more investment in education and safety net programs.
He said he is ashamed that North Carolina did away with the Teaching Fellows program that paid the college tuition of anyone who worked as a teacher after graduating. He said he'd support a federal version of the program, though, which would take the further step of requiring people to teach in the same school district they attended. That would help places like Lee County, he said, stop some of the exodus of smart young people to more urban areas where they attend college and then stay for a career.
He also said he would support efforts to help low-income families, including raising the minimum wage or reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which supports low-income working families. Aiken said he favors expanding the program and extending benefits to people without children. He said it incentivizes work over unemployment by only aiding people who have an income.