Why you should care
Because you can say you knew him when.
Listen to Coreco “CJ” Pearson Jr. speak and you hear the classic stump speech of a true conservative.
In front of you is a 12-year-old hankering to make his first legislative mark on the world. His issue: challenging age barriers that keep his peers out of politics. He’s jockeying to lower Georgia’s minimum age restrictions on holding public office to age 18 in the House and 21 in the Senate. An African-American preteen from Augusta, Georgia, is hardly the face of the GOP. But he’s got more yea-sayers than you’d guess: Since November, CJ — who campaigned for new Sen. David Perdue last fall — has worked his connections to recruit a slew of supporters. Seven co-sponsors have already signed on, including state Reps. Ben Harbin, Barry Fleming and Buzz Brockway. If 18-year-olds can get drafted, “why not give them a chance?” Brockway quipped.
Only 14 states — including Louisiana, California and New York — allow teenagers to serve in public office. But the whole shebang is, apparently, now a national movement. That’s thanks in part to the success of 18-year-old Saira Blair, a West Virginia college freshman who became America’s youngest state legislator this fall. Many young advocates are on the rise, said Kyle Kondik, editor of a political blog out of the University of Virginia. For jaded voters, teens might have legitimate appeal. “There aren’t much fresher faces than 18-year-olds.”
CJ wears his ambition openly: “I wanted to run, in all honesty,” he said, speaking with an unmistakable Georgia twang, leaning over the mahogany table in his parents’ dining room. But in the face of electoral limitations, he’s settled for being a precocious politico. At age 8 he started writing blog posts in favor of a local conservative candidate. During the midterms, he campaigned for four winning Republicans, knocking on doors, putting up signs, even giving speeches.
Oh, and naturally, he’s the middle school student body president.
His middle school peers weren’t convinced the “playful and hilarious” superfan of Ariana Grande would make a good president. “He definitely proved them wrong,” said Rhagan McKie, a close friend and fellow seventh-grader. He won handily, and takes the job seriously — occasionally even donning suits in the halls.
At CJ’s house in an Augusta suburb, overlooking a lake, his parents were surprised to see a reporter show up on their doorstep. CJ had, apparently, forgotten to tell them. But his parents — two Democrats, at that — seemed used to CJ running his own show. “My husband goes, ‘Well, I think he’s just doing this for now,’” Robin Pearson said. As for her? “I told him, ‘You’re a child. You’ve got to run slow.’” Like many moms, CJ’s plays chauffeur plenty. Only instead of shuttling him between swim practice and quiz team, it’s 8 a.m. breakfast meetings. He devotes at least 40 hours a week to political business — as soon as he gets home from school, it’s straight to the telephones to agitate legislators.
Democratic backgrounds aside, it’s arguably the Pearsons’ family history that led CJ to the right. The son of a retired sergeant major, CJ remembers his political awakening taking place in 2008. He was in the second grade. John McCain’s story of military service and his prisoner-of-war days captivated him. Obviously, he took the opposite stance from what some would expect a young black boy to adopt. “I didn’t look at it as a race thing,” he said. “For me, it was more about who really cared about your country.” He stands his ground on the “not a race thing” mantra, including over Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri: “I was on Officer Wilson’s side.”
What else is on his platform? Plenty, including college debt and public school lunch programs (don’t feed ’em — just teach ’em how to eat better, he says). Though he doesn’t oppose gay marriage, he finds corporate tax rates “crippling” and “inexcusable.” And don’t even get him started on the $18 trillion in federal debt, which, he reminds his audience, increases by 100 grand in the time it took to read this sentence.
Of course, CJ’s dreams, for now, are a long shot. His bill would require a constitutional amendment, meaning it would get put through the wringer in both chambers and on the general ballot. Minimum age requirements are whimsical nonpriorities for most voters. And plenty doubt that young people can pull off public office. If people thought Obama was green, well … . Put more mildly, an inexperienced candidate has “the potential to be harmful” to government, said Matthew Harrigan, a lecturer of political science at Santa Clara University.
He cites George W. Bush’s “41: A Portrait of My Father” in the same breath as “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter.”
Despite the suits, despite the address book on his bedroom desk full of a legislators’ cellphone numbers, you can’t entirely forget that the kid’s a kid, though. It’s hard to hear CJ’s voice over his dad’s whirring lawn mower outside. And though he just finished reading George W. Bush’s 41: A Portrait of My Father, he cites it in the same breath as The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.
When grilling CJ, there’s one key question any reporter has to drop. No, it’s not “When are you running for office?” It’s “Where are you heading to college?” His plan: the University of Georgia. Not for football, nor fraternities. “To run for office,” he said, “you have to show your dedication to your state. It’s kind of a perfectly orchestrated way to do it.”
Photography by Jon-Michael Sullivan for OZY.