Meet C.J. Pearson, the conservative Georgia teen who has the GOP buzzing

In a photo from his Facebook page, C.J. Pearson stands with GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz. [C.J. Pearson | Facebook via TNS]
In a photo from his Facebook page, C.J. Pearson stands with GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz. [C.J. Pearson | Facebook via TNS]
Published Oct. 16, 2015

GROVETOWN, Ga. — The T-shirt-clad teenager is in his grandparents' kitchen when he unleashes his latest broadside attack against Barack Obama, staring intently at a webcam as he questions whether the president is "ignorant" and "incompetent."

C.J. Pearson's post could easily be ignored as the juvenile rant of a gawky 13-year-old in the throes of puberty. But his biting rhetoric and in-your-face videos have earned him a place firmly on the Georgia GOP's radar as a young black spokesman for a party desperate to attract minorities.

Recordings like that one, which attracted more than 2 million views on YouTube in two weeks, helped Pearson garner thousands of social media followers and ample media attention.

He's rocketed to a role on Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign — Pearson heads Teens for Ted — and that platform helps him push legislation that would allow younger Georgians to run for office.

That fame has led to dizzying consequences for Pearson. Operatives and candidates have eagerly tried to tie themselves to his brand. At the same time, his credibility is under fire for bizarre and embarrassing fabrications on social media. His grandparents don't agree with his political views and would rather he focus on school. And skeptics question whether outsiders are taking advantage of a brash teenager.

"He is being exploited for his age and his race," said Benjamin Dixon, a left-leaning African-American radio commentator in Boston. "He's being propped up to say the things that conservatives want to say but cannot."

The rise and fall of a young conservative darling is an all-too-familiar tale in Georgia, a reminder of another precocious GOP star. Jonathan Krohn vaulted to fame in 2009 as a conservative phenom when he was 12. A few years later, he disavowed many of his views and moved to Iraq to work as a journalist.

But some connected Georgia conservatives are working to ensure Pearson's political flame doesn't flicker out. Pearson's grandparents, who have raised him since he was a baby, have enlisted Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP's minority engagement guru, to mentor the teenager. Keeping him grounded is no easy task.

Pearson's inbox is sprinkled with requests from TV producers and radio hosts, the latest being a pitch from The View. Classmates at his middle school call him "Mr. President." And the lure of social media, where a fresh flow of attention is a few flicks of the thumb away, has proved irresistible.

Even when his grandparents punish him when he misbehaves by taking away his devices — his manifest includes a smartphone, two iPads and a laptop — Pearson finds ways to skirt the ban.

His grandmother, Robin Pearson, thought she had taken him off the grid recently when she confiscated his Internet arsenal after a social media gaffe. It didn't work. He did a radio interview during his Internet timeout.

Coreco JaQuan Pearson's mother was a senior in high school when she gave birth to him in 2002, and C.J. has lived with his grandparents since he was a few months old. His grandmother, a former educator, and grandfather, a contractor at the Savannah River Site who retired from the military, live in a well-appointed home in a nice neighborhood outside Augusta.

Pearson traces his political roots to a mock election held in his second-grade class between Obama and John McCain (he voted for McCain, of course). Watching the debates and obsessing over the rhetoric taught him an important lesson.

"I've learned through time that at the end of the day, it's not that hard to learn how politicians work," he said.

His speech is laced with the kind of platitudes fit for the campaign trail. He talks of "reigniting the American Dream" and "taking America back" and helping to lead a youthful conservative movement. It becomes clear that a non-rehearsed C.J. Pearson is much the same as a rehearsed one.

He's been in the national Republican spotlight since he was 12, when he claimed that he was suspended from Facebook for a video criticizing Obama. (Facebook noted that it closed his account because its terms required users to be 13.) That footage still went viral, and soon many conservative outlets — searching for the next big right-wing thing — declared him a star.

Pearson hews to much of the GOP playbook: He wants the White House to more aggressively assault the Islamic State. He is "infuriated" by the national Common Core education guidelines. But he's mostly struck a nerve with conservative audiences for his outspoken views on the "Black Lives Matter" movement that sprang up after police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

"It was meant to destroy and degrade our police," Pearson declared in one video. "I'm sick and tired of bowing down to thugs who all they want to do is cause a disruption and tear down my country."

By the time Georgia Republicans gathered in Athens for the state GOP convention in May, Pearson had a small retinue of operatives around him. It was there that Cruz sat down with him for a glowing five-minute interview that led to his official, unpaid role with the campaign.

As attention swelled, Pearson ran into trouble of his own making. He created a fake Twitter account and used it to call himself a racial slur.

In the aftermath, Pearson and an obscure management firm had a rocky split. (No one from the firm could be reached for comment.)

Smith, Pearson's Republican Party mentor, worries about the motives of some people who try to latch onto the 13-year-old.

"The wolves are out there, and they're out there in great numbers," Smith said. "There are people I met with at coffee shops, and I told them that if they tried to interview him or tried to manage his career, I'd call the state troopers on them."

Not long ago, Pearson posted one of his most attention-grabbing posts yet — a screenshot purporting to be Obama's Twitter handle blocking his account. His post, which read "Well, this sucks," quickly attracted tens of thousands of new followers and ravenous media coverage.

Except it wasn't true. A White House spokesman denied Pearson's claim — "nobody is or has ever been blocked from the POTUS Twitter account" — and Pearson came under fire. It turned out to be a fabrication, although Pearson wouldn't go into details about how it came about.

He chalks it up to a teachable moment for a kid who aggressively sought the social media spotlight, only to learn it could burn him.

"It's hard. Being under the spotlight at 13 is hard. I've made mistakes. Most 13-year-olds make mistakes and they're addressed at home. I make mistakes and they're addressed by the Washington Post," he said. "I've made mistakes that I hope others don't. But you learn from them and you move on."

Both political parties strive to be associated with the young - they are their future, after all. Democrats often capitalize on their ties with Hollywood icons and music industry stars. And Republicans are eager to cultivate their own bench, even if the players are not yet in high school.

Pearson just seemed to "fall into the Republicans' laps out of nowhere," said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist who has monitored the teen's rise.

"It's understandable why the Republicans would want to cultivate that," Swint said. "But it can be pretty risky to pin very much on a 13-year-old that no one had heard of nine months ago."

One reason: "If the young person is motivated mainly by attention and media exposure," Swint said, "they can be open to changing their positions or becoming ever-more outrageous and newsworthy."

©2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)