Nida Allam giggles and shows me her phone.
She’s on the “Students4Nida” TikTok page, watching a video set to an Alvin and the Chipmunks-esque cover of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.”
The five-second video uses one of TikTok’s most common formats, where the subject lip syncs to a song and overlays text that sort of matches the theme of the lyrics. In this one, a UNC-Chapel Hill freshman named Sam pairs the lyrics “Sitting on a park bench, thinking to myself” with text that reads “Being a true progressive that supports climate and economic justice.” Then, as chipmunk Taylor sings, “Hey, isn’t this easy,” Allam’s name flashes across the screen.
Among the eight candidates running in the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, Allam is the only one with a student-led TikTok account, she tells me proudly.
Like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—whose name has been hashtagged in so many TikToks that, when totaled, videos with #AOC have a cumulative 1.1 billion views—Allam excites young people.
When Representative David Price announced in October that he would retire after more than 30 years in office, Allam emerged as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed replacement with a staunchly progressive platform that includes support for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“I think it’s high time for North Carolina to have a fighter,” Allam told the INDY upon announcing her candidacy in November.
Allam is one of three frontrunners in the congressional race. She’s up against Valerie Foushee, a state senator with over two decades of experience in public office, and Clay Aiken, a former American Idol contestant and activist for children with disabilities with zero experience in elected office.
The newly redrawn 4th district includes all of Durham, Orange, Person, Alamance, and Granville Counties and the northeast corner of Caswell County. As the region is solidly liberal, the primary will most likely decide the general election, though if none of the candidates receive more than 30 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election on July 26.
Allam and I are sitting in her dining room, which doubles as her campaign office. She opens her laptop to kick off a virtual phone bank and I see Sam from TikTok, this time framed in a box on Zoom. Like Sam, most of the phone bank volunteers are UNC students who seem wildly energetic despite it being exam season.
As an icebreaker, Allam asks participants to propose a name for her baby (she had announced her pregnancy that morning), and after they drop a few suggestions in the chat—Khadija, Lex, Leia—she gives them a script and a list of phone numbers and sets them off on their own.
The next day, the phone bankers joined 100 other UNC students, including basketball star Caleb Love, at a town hall on UNC’s campus. As encouraged, most attendees wore green shirts to celebrate Earth Day and endorse a Green New Deal.
Allam isn’t much older than her student supporters—she’s 28. She was born in Canada to Indian and Pakistani immigrant parents and moved to the Triangle at age five when her father got a job at IBM. (She became a naturalized US citizen in February 2008). She grew up in Wake County, attending public schools, and went on to get a degree in sustainable materials and technology from NC State.
In 2015, during Allam’s last year of college, three of her best friends—Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Yusor’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha—were murdered in their apartment in Chapel Hill. Barakat was a student at UNC’s School of Dentistry; Yusor and Razan were Allam’s classmates at NC State.
“The week they passed away, we were all supposed to go get our ears pierced together,” Allam says. “We were still kids.”
While many, including Allam, viewed the triple-homicide as a hate crime—all three victims were Muslim—federal authorities ultimately claimed they could not find sufficient evidence to categorize it as such and wrote the shooting off as a violent reaction to a parking dispute.
“That’s what really pushed me to realize that we need to start stepping up and speaking up, not just for the Muslim community, but for all communities that haven’t had advocates for them in leadership spaces,” Allam says.
She started a club called NC State for Bernie while she was finishing school, and after graduating, landed a job as a political director for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. In 2017, she was elected third vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party—the first Muslim American elected to the party’s executive council—and went on to make history again three years later when she was elected to the Durham County Board of Commissioners, becoming the first Muslim woman elected to public office in North Carolina.
Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero, who has worked alongside Allam for several years and recently endorsed her congressional run, says that Allam is unparalleled in her ability to identify and draw attention to the issues of young people and underrepresented communities. Specifically, she emphasizes Allam’s work in fighting for a living wage, drumming up support for food pantries during the COVID-19 pandemic, and adding an Immigrant & Refugee Affairs Coordinator position to the county office.
“She has a lot of connections into communities that, in a lot of ways, people don’t even know they exist,” says Caballero. “How do you serve communities like that if you don’t even know they’re around?”
In addition to Caballero, Allam has received endorsements from other local leaders, notable elected officials like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, and more than 20 organizations, including the Durham People’s Alliance and Communication Workers of America.
Her platform for the upcoming election builds on the issues she’s championed during her years in office, including comprehensive healthcare coverage, a green energy economy, reproductive rights, and a $23 minimum wage.
“I just keep reminding myself, ‘Who am I doing this for?’” Allam says. “This isn’t just about me getting a title. This is about all the people’s faces that I’m going to bring with me.”
* * *
Valerie Foushee’s hands are at “10 and 2” on the steering wheel, eyes fixed on the road.
“We’re gonna make sure we don’t make any sudden movements,” she says, preparing to switch lanes.
It’s the third time she’s said this while we’ve been in the car. She drives the same way she speaks: assertively, and with measure.
We’re heading to the home of an officer who works at local non-profit El Centro Hispano (and who asked not to be named, so we’re calling her Rosa). Rosa has offered to give Foushee a tour of neighborhoods in southeast Durham, particularly those with new housing developments, to help deepen Foushee’s understanding of the area’s constituency.
As far as the 4th district goes, Foushee is most knowledgeable of Orange County. She grew up in Chapel Hill during the 1960s as the oldest of six children and the child of teen parents and attended segregated schools until sixth grade. She graduated from Chapel Hill High School as class president and studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, ultimately leaving college after two years; attending school while working multiple jobs was “too much at the time,” she says. Years later, at age 50, Foushee returned to the university to complete degrees in political science and Afro and African-American studies.
Between her stints at UNC, Foushee worked for the Chapel Hill Police Department and volunteered at her children’s elementary school; for a period of time, she would work 12-hour overnight shifts as a desk officer in the jail, get off at 7 a.m., and head straight to the school to help out in classrooms. There, she witnessed first-hand the achievement gap between majority and minority students, motivating her to run for school board. She later became the first African American woman elected to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, then joined the North Carolina General Assembly, serving in the House and, most recently, the Senate.
Two of Foushee’s colleagues, state senators Natalie Murdock and Mike Woodard, spoke to me at length about Foushee’s achievements in office. Murdock, who returned my call despite being sick because “I’d do anything for Senator Foushee,” highlighted Foushee’s role as a champion of education and her work in passing legislation that banned child marriage, increased access to healthcare, and outlawed race-based discrimination against natural hair.
“I’ll brag on her because she won’t do it herself,” Murdock says.
Woodard emphasized Foushee’s environmental record—she’s worked on bills related to water quality, sustainable energy, and cleaning up coal ash—and complimented her connection to her constituents.
“Her knowledge of her district is among the best of any colleague I’ve worked with,” Woodard says. “She just knows her community so well.”
In addition to Murdock and Woodard, Foushee has been endorsed by a number of other state senators plus US Representative G.K. Butterfield, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
When Foushee and I arrive at Rosa’s house, we hop into a sedan and set off on an hour-long crawl around a dozen surrounding neighborhoods. As we circle through cul-de-sacs and parking lots, Foushee asks Rosa the same two questions again and again: who lives here? And what are their most pressing needs?
The majority of people down this road have children, so they care a lot about education, Rosa says, cruising through one development.
“Where are the activities?” Foushee asks, noting that the neighborhood doesn’t have a park. “Where can the children go for passive recreation?”
There are plans to build a playground, Rosa says, but the plot of land is right next to a thicket of high voltage power towers, so parents are worried about radiation. Foushee takes a mental note.
When we pass a house with a “Valerie Foushee for Congress” sign in the front yard, Foushee shrieks with delight.
Back at Foushee’s campaign office near downtown Durham, we sit down for a more formal interview and I ask her one question: “Tell me about your upbringing,” which she answers—and then, unprompted, goes on to answer nearly every other question on my list. She lays out her qualifications, discusses how her upbringing shaped her values, and walks me through her priorities if elected to Congress—reforming the criminal justice system, enhancing equity in education, implementing affordable healthcare, combating environmental racism—in a concise 20 minutes.
Foushee has clearly done this many times before. But when I ask the one question that she didn’t preemptively address, her disposition starts to shift.
* * *
After we order sweet tea, I ask Clay Aiken if he chose to meet me at The Blue Note Grill because of the symbolism of the restaurant’s name: he’s a Democratic candidate (“blue”) and a famous singer (“note”) who I’m going to “grill.”
Unfortunately, he’s not that clever, he says: he’d just spoken to the Friends of Durham PAC in the adjoining event room, so lunching here made sense. He’d also been at Blue Note the previous night to sing at an open mic—the only time he’s performed publicly in the past decade, aside from starring in a 2019 stage production of Grease (“obviously, I played Sandy”).
Aiken was born in Raleigh in 1978. For the first five years of his life, he spent most of his time at his grandparents’ house in Bahama, where he and his mother camped out to hide from his abusive alcoholic father. When his mother remarried, they moved back to Raleigh.
His family has lived in North Carolina for at least 10 generations, and most of his relatives are Republicans. But during the 1992 presidential election, Aiken grew interested in the values Democrats hold and invited Rep. David Price to speak to his eighth-grade class. He was immediately sold.
“I gravitated towards the group that spoke up for the underdog,” Aiken says. “Democrats were the empathetic party who were fighting for the needs of others.”
While pursuing a degree in special education at UNC-Charlotte, Aiken worked as a caregiver for an autistic boy named Mike. During his last year of college, Aiken competed on American Idol, finishing in second place; after that, he returned to Charlotte to complete his degree and co-found the National Inclusion Project—a nonprofit committed to creating programs that allow disabled children to participate in activities with their non-disabled peers—with Mike’s mother, Diane Bubel.
Bubel says Aiken’s dedication to the disabled community exemplifies how he would be a strong representative in office.
“As small, tired minority community members, we needed a champion,” Bubel says. “That’s who he’s been for us. And that’s the kind of representative he’s going to be for District 4.”
In the years following Idol, Aiken also made music and traveled as a UNICEF ambassador. He largely retired from the music industry in 2014, when he decided to run for the US House in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, losing the election to Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers. (After losing her seat in the 2016 primary, Ellmers is running for Congress again this year, in the 13th Congressional District).
Aiken has received substantial criticism online from people who claim that unlike Allam and Foushee, who live in Durham and Orange Counties, Aiken doesn’t live in the 4th district. In a written statement, Aiken’s campaign clarified that though the redrawn congressional map placed the district line 900 yards from his house, Aiken has lived in the 4th district for the majority of his life and plans to relocate before the new map takes effect.
After briefing me on his background, Aiken takes a bite of baked beans and jumps into his priorities for the 4th district: transportation, affordable housing, and education are the big three.
Despite his lack of experience in office, he seems informed on both the region’s pressing needs and political history, constantly referencing former elections and bits of legislation. He speaks at length about addressing the unintended consequences of Title 1, a program that was “wonderful on paper” but has “incentivized certain school districts to create high poverty schools.”
When I ask Aiken about LGBTQ rights, mentioning that this seems to be a central part of his platform—if elected, he would be the first gay man from the South to join Congress—he shakes his head.
“I haven’t focused on it simply because I don’t want people to think that that’s why I’m running,” Aiken tells me. “And gosh, it’s a little sad that you did.”
It’s an important issue, he adds, but he’s tired of being seen as a single-issue candidate. At county party meetings, when others have announced that they would be the first this or the first that, he says he comes close to labeling himself as “the first person over six feet who lives on my street to be elected to Congress.”
What sets him apart is not his identity as a gay man, he says; rather, it’s his desire and ability to combat increasing political polarization by collaborating with representatives across the aisle. Aiken describes his opponents as more focused on “activism than action.”
“We need action and attention and intention to actually get some shit done,” he says.
Aiken loves expletives—over the course of our two-hour meal, he curses dozens of times, always dropping his voice to a low whisper but mouthing the words dramatically. The words he won’t say are “Madison Cawthorn” and “Mark Robinson,” whom he calls “he who shall not be named” and “you know who.” He likes to punctuate statements by saying, “and you can quote me on that”—for instance, he drops the phrase after stating that Allam is not a terrorist and “anyone who says she is can kiss both cheeks of my ass.”
Most of all, for a celebrity, Aiken is exceedingly normal; when our server asks for a picture with him, for a moment I forget why she would want one. One of my earliest memories is watching Aiken climb out of a helicopter to throw the first pitch at a Bulls game in 2003, and it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy.
But his ability to pass as an average Joe doesn’t negate the fact that, if it weren’t for name recognition, his lack of experience would’ve likely quashed his ability to raise money and secure votes.
Instead of running in this election, I ask, did he consider using his notoriety to throw support behind a different, more qualified candidate?
He cackles, tells me I’ve been on Twitter too much, then says, “No,” reminding me that he’s the only candidate who’s won a Democratic congressional primary before.
And, he says, his fame is actually what will help him accomplish things with the opposing party.
“Are Republicans interested in talking to me about policies? Not first, of course; they want to talk about American Idol. They want to take a picture for their daughter or their mother,” Aiken says. “But it’s a way to get people to sit down and talk to you.”
* * *
After wrapping up the phone bank, Allam and I head over to a meet-and-greet in Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson’s front yard, where Allam mingles with some 25 people as they sip cans of La Croix and snack on finger foods from Costco.
This cohort of supporters is significantly older than the group I saw on Zoom, with most attendees looking to be in their 40s or 50s. As noted in a recent News & Observer article, it’s important that Allam focuses as much on older voters as she does on young ones; if the primary leads to a runoff in July, many college students won’t be in town to cast a ballot.
At the meet-and-greet, everybody seems to be talking about the same thing. In hushed tones, they ask me if I’ve heard about the massive amount of money that the pro-Israel group AIPAC recently donated to Foushee’s campaign.
Many interpret the contribution as an attempt to prevent Allam, who has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, from being elected, and view it as extremely concerning given AIPAC’s endorsement last month of 37 Republicans who believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Johnson says that up until recently, she saw Foushee as a strong second choice. But since the contribution from AIPAC, which she describes as a “right-wing fear mongering organization,” she no longer holds this belief.
“Raising money from the people you are asking to represent is a way of staying accountable to those individuals,” Johnson says. “So raising half of your money from a single source, it doesn’t show that you have the ability to appeal to and represent a broad group of people.”
Attendees also discuss the Islamophobic polls that have been circulating online and conducted through phone calls, one of which asks participants to respond to a statement that describes Allam admiring a woman who “showed support for a terrorist who was convicted of bombing a supermarket.”
Allam tells me that she’s received a number of death threats during her campaign—probably many more than she’s aware of, as there’s an inbox that only her campaign manager can access and her husband makes a point to sift through their snail mail before Allam can see it.
“These polls, they’re just words, but unfortunately, we know from this district having one of the most heinous Islamophobic attacks in recent history, people act on it,” Allam says.
There are rumors that Foushee or her allies are responsible for the polls. In a written statement to the INDY, Foushee’s campaign refuted these allegations.
“They are not polls from our campaign and we have no knowledge of where they are coming from or who is paying for them,” the statement reads. “That said, if we saw an ad on any platform that used that kind of rhetoric or language, we would denounce it and call for it to be taken down.”’
* * *
According to FEC reports, Aiken has raised the least amount of money of the three frontrunners, with $444,389 in pocket as of April 1. Foushee, with deep roots and years of public service in the district, has raised $480,540, the second most. And Allam has raised the most money so far, $657,127.
While Foushee’s large individual donations are the most localized of the three—people associated with Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill are two of her top contributors—more than half of her quarterly funding came in the form of bundled local and non-local individual contributions from AIPAC, which led to a Twitter firestorm from local progressives and caused the Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party to pull its endorsement.
In addition to AIPAC’s bundle of donations, a super PAC called Protect Our Future recently spent more than $800,000 on advertising for Foushee. Protect Our Future is backed primarily by Sam Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire. The PAC has also spent roughly $11 million in support of four other Democratic House candidates, including Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown and Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath in their bids for reelection.
When I ask Foushee why she hasn’t denounced the bundled contributions from AIPAC and outside spending by Protect Our Future, she stiffens in her seat. Foushee is not a woman who likes any sudden movements, and though the question didn’t seem to catch her off guard, it’s also not one she has much experience answering.
She thanks me for giving her an opportunity to share her side of the story, then says she wishes money was not so crucial to running campaigns.
“I’ve never had to raise funds to this extent,” Foushee says, later adding that, “It is a thing that Black women in particular are not very successful in raising capital.”
She doesn’t comment on the support from the crypto billionaire—she just learned about it a few hours ago, she says. Regarding AIPAC, Foushee says the organization supports her because of her position on Israel, which is fairly mainstream: she believes we should be working toward a two-state solution, but also that Israel should have the ability to defend itself.
“Israel has been an ally to this country for more than 70 years with keeping peace in that area, the most volatile area in the world,” Foushee says.
She feels like a scapegoat—a number of other state Democrats have accepted donations from AIPAC, including state Sen. Jeff Jackson and Reps. Deborah Ross and Alma Adams—and she’s also frustrated that the contribution is overshadowing her lifelong commitment to progressivism.
“It’s very painful to be painted as something I’m not,” she says. “I was fighting for a progressive Congress before those folks on Twitter knew how to spell ‘progressive.’”
After this line, Foushee steps out of the room to gather herself. When she comes back, there are tears in her eyes.
“They may be successful in having me defeated in this election,” she says. “But they won’t stop me from serving.”
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