JA Moore doesn’t remember much about his conversation with Clementa Pinckney in the spring of 2015, save for the state senator and pastor’s final admonition: “You need to see your sister.” Moore’s half-sister Myra Thompson was a member of Pinckney’s church in Charleston, South Carolina. Moore hadn’t been great about returning her calls. “I did what I often did,” Moore recalls. “I didn’t listen.” The next time he saw Myra was at a funeral home a month later, after she, Pinckney and seven others were murdered by a white nationalist inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Just six months later, Moore’s brother James died after he walked into traffic. An Iraq War veteran who battled drug addiction, James had been living with Moore and putting his life back together. The brothers had gone out drinking that night to celebrate James’ progress. For a while, Moore blamed himself for his siblings’ deaths, until the feeling hardened into resolve: “You have to listen when you feel called to do something.”
That instinct led the 34-year-old owner of a catering company to run for office for the first time in 2018 and to endorse Pete Buttigieg for president ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina primary — sticking his neck out as the only Black state legislator to do so.
Buttigieg, 38, has struggled to attract Black votes in South Carolina and across the country, a critical constituency to securing the nomination. It starts with trust: South Carolina’s African Americans, Moore says, “expect to feel like they know you.” Former Vice President Joe Biden is well-known as President Barack Obama’s No. 2, while Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run made him a familiar face.
But Moore admits that Buttigieg’s being the first gay major presidential candidate also poses a challenge. “Pete’s sexuality, for voters and for me, it’s the same thing as Obama’s being Black for folks when he ran,” Moore says. “A part of who he is, but that’s not all that he is.” Once that’s out of the way, Moore says, he wins people over by talking about Buttigieg’s integrity and humility — and how, when Moore first introduced him to pastors and other Black leaders in Charleston, Buttigieg refused to post pictures or publicize the meetings. He was there to listen.
Moore compares Buttigieg to President Jimmy Carter — a man of integrity, intellect and faith who fit a post-Watergate moment.
And it’s Moore’s listening that has fueled his own political rise. The Hampton, South Carolina, native grew up steeped in civil rights as the son of a “hell-raiser” father who, together with Moore’s mother, ran the Hampton County Committee for the Betterment of Poor People.
Seeing joy in kids’ eyes while serving them free school lunches led Moore to become a chef in Charleston, where he became active in local politics and community organizations. He woke up one morning in 2018, he says, and felt called to run for office, a signal from God. Moore called state Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson, who told him there was a winnable state House seat in his backyard, but he had to decide fast: The filing deadline was the next day. Moore’s wife, Victoria, gave her blessing, and he started campaigning everywhere he could across a district that includes heavily Democratic parts of North Charleston as well as rural outlying areas. He set up his campaign headquarters in a barbershop, the better to catch Black men — who traditionally don’t turn out in high numbers — where they are. He defeated Rep. Samuel Rivers, the chamber’s only Black Republican, by 446 votes.
In the legislature, Moore became a leading voice in favor of gun control, considering his personal ties to the Mother Emmanuel shooting. Bakari Sellers, a former legislator who’s active in state politics, says Moore’s millennial perspective has been valuable in the Capitol — and he has the potential to run for statewide office, guided by the experience of representing a swing district. “JA is one of those rare talents in legislators who has a policy sense and the charisma to match,” Sellers says.
As for the Buttigieg endorsement, Sellers says it benefits both men, even if Buttigieg doesn’t win this year: “JA made the calculation that Pete Buttigieg is going to be around for a long time, and why not be close to one of your peers who’s going to help you change the world?”
Rivers, who’s running against Moore again this year and says he’ll win with Donald Trump atop the ticket, spies a more self-serving narrative: “He saw it as an opportunity to give him a leg up and get in front of the cameras, knowing that, hey, Buttigieg is looking for Black supporters.”
But Moore insists this is about believing in the candidate. He first backed Sen. Kamala Harris, wanting a Black female presidential role model for his baby daughter, but when she dropped out, he recalled the relationship he’d built with Buttigieg.
Chatting in the back of a small house in North Charleston while employees fill catering orders, Moore compares Buttigieg to President Jimmy Carter — a man of integrity, intellect and faith who fit a post-Watergate moment. (Moore is quick to add that Buttigieg, unlike Carter, wouldn’t be a micromanager and would win a second term.)
Hours later, Moore introduces Buttigieg to a crowd of about 100 at a nearby community center. People have been asking him, Moore tells the crowd, why he endorsed Buttigieg. The answer? “He earned it.”
Buttigieg bounds out, thanks Moore and launches into a stump speech heavy on themes of racial justice and how he’s here to earn the votes of the African Americans who tend to make up more than 60 percent of the state’s presidential primary vote. The mostly White crowd cheers along.
“It’s not lonely,” Moore says. “Because I can talk about [Buttigieg’s record] with sincerity.” He does it at the debates, wearing a fresh pair of Jordan sneakers each time to go with his TV-ready suit as he gives reporters his pro-Pete take. Aside from media hits, he takes time at the Walmart and the barbershop trying to convince his neighbors that a young mayor with a hard-to-pronounce name deserves their trust. Says Moore, “I’m doing my part.”