The second-term governor and his allies aren’t letting Pearson take the vacant seat without a fight. They’re concerned that a victory would give Pearson a powerful platform in the state Legislature to espouse far-right views and, perhaps, serve as a launchpad for higher office.
They’re treating Pearson much as they would a Democratic rival ahead of next week’s vote, with flyers financed by Kemp’s political machine branding him “Pacific Coast Pearson” — a jet-setting Hollywood wannabe who once endorsed liberal U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Many GOP activists in the conservative-leaning district are rallying behind former Columbia County Commissioner Gary Richardson, a soft-spoken owner of car wash franchises across east Georgia who focuses on his personal connection to residents.
But it’s Pearson who could be the favorite in the five-candidate race that also features another Republican, a Democrat and a Libertarian. If none score an outright victory, the race heads to a March 12 runoff between the top two vote-getters.
Pearson has picked up endorsements from ultraconservative figures, including Kari Lake, the former failed Arizona candidate for governor, and U.S. Rep. Byron Daniels of Florida. And he’s tapped his social media network to outraise his opponents, collecting about $70,000.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
This week, Pearson is hosting fundraisers with Riley Gaines, a former college swimmer who gained fame for her opposition to the NCAA’s transgender policies. A two-ticket VIP package, complete with photos with Gaines and Pearson, goes for $3,300.
Pearson leans hard into his Trump allegiance. He said punishing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for bringing racketeering charges against Trump is “first on my list.” A victory, he adds, would mean the nation’s youngest Black legislator is a “MAGA Republican.”
“I am proudly pro-Trump and will always be,” Pearson said after a campaign stop. “At the end of the day, people are tired of go-along-to-get-along Republicans. They want a conservative fighter, and that’s definitely our message.”
Richardson is running a more conventional campaign. He wrote himself a $30,000 check to help buy yard signs and pay for radio ads blitzing local country music stations. He peppers remarks with promises to fight “Atlanta’s takeover attempts” and vouches for Trump.
On the campaign trail, Richardson emphasizes the six years he served on the local planning board and eight on the Columbia County Commission — and not the threat from Pearson. But when pressed, he said voters are “worried” that Pearson will use the office as a mere steppingstone.
“I know a young person always wants to move up the ladder. It’s a concern,” said Richardson, 67. He said Pearson has had little involvement in local politics since he graduated from high school.
“I’m not knocking that. He went out to school in Alabama. But I haven’t seen C.J. at local events for the last four or five years,” Richardson said. “And I’ve been here my whole life working for the district.”
‘Dumb things’ in high school
The seat came open last month when Kemp picked longtime GOP state Rep. Barry Fleming for a superior court judgeship. Special elections like this one are hard to predict, and so far early voting turnout is so abysmal that even Richardson lamented the lack of interest.
“We’re all working hard, all five candidates, and it’s a bit discouraging,” he said. “Everyone is putting in the effort, and the response is just very weak.”
What’s clearer is that Pearson is no average rookie candidate. He drew about 40 people to a church on Wednesday to rail against what he called “disgusting” books featuring LGBTQ themes at the local public library. (Spotted in the crowd was Richardson, quietly watching his rival.)
“I’m committed to keeping this filth out of the reach of young people,” said Pearson, his voice mimicking the cadence of a preacher. “We won’t allow that in our state. We won’t allow the left to California our Georgia.”
Among those in the pews was Giovani Garcia, a landscaping worker who wants to elect a pro-Trump candidate. He said backing Pearson is his way to do that.
“I’m looking for real change in government,” he said. “I know Pearson’s young, but I think he’s ready.”
In a sense, Pearson has prepared for this campaign since he was a preteen. He started posting bracing attacks against then-President Barack Obama in 2015 and caught the eye of GOP operatives eager to court a young Black spokesman. Over the years, he’s built up his social media status, and his videos have racked up millions of views.
Pearson headed “Teens for Ted” for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid in 2015 before briefly abandoning the GOP. He later endorsed Trump and chaired his campaign’s youth initiative. In 2020, he backed efforts to overturn Trump’s narrow defeat in Georgia.
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Pearson tried his hand at statewide politics when he managed the gubernatorial campaign of Jones, the Democrat-turned-Republican whose 2022 challenge imploded. Jones quit that race to run for a U.S. House seat and was routed in a GOP runoff.
After flirting with a run for Tuscaloosa mayor, Pearson dropped out of the University of Alabama, sick of what he called “force-fed indoctrination.” He posted on social media that he was headed to Los Angeles to join the conservative PragerU outlet.
Pearson changed course after learning about Fleming’s appointment and entered the race with a pledge to “usher in the next generation of America First leadership.” Soon, he was on the receiving end of the type of bare-knuckled tactics he’s used against political enemies.
His foray in California sparked a residency challenge filed by Kemp allies who questioned whether he complied with state law that requires legislators to live in their districts for a year before they’re elected. A judge rejected the complaint on Friday, ruling that Pearson could remain on the ballot.
And his outsized social media persona has come back to haunt him. Just this week, Pearson was forced to apologize on local radio about a Snapchat post he made in high school mocking a classmate in lewd terms.
He’s also still facing questions about his decision to endorse Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, in 2015 when he was 13 years old. Back then, Pearson briefly announced he was no longer conservative, in part because he tired of the intense attention he was getting.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how politics evolves as more Gen Z candidates begin to run. At the end of the day, I said dumb things when I was in high school, just like every person across the state of Georgia,” Pearson said.
“If we were ineligible to run for office because of dumb things we did in high school,” he added, “then the Georgia General Assembly would be very, very empty.”
As for Kemp’s intervention in the race, Pearson’s campaign frames it as a “rogue” operation by trigger-happy aides to the governor.
“I can’t imagine Gov. Kemp signing off on fake attacks against a Gen Z Republican who is growing our party with both African Americans and young people,” said Pearson spokesman Dan McLagan, a former communications aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
‘Not much else to say’
The broadsides were no accident. The governor is among senior Republicans who worry that a victorious Pearson will use his platform to throw far-right grenades and spread baseless lies about election fraud that Kemp has warned will turn off middle-of-the-road voters in November.
Another far-right legislator who has done just that — state Sen. Colton Moore — has been suspended from the GOP caucus for harassing colleagues who refused to back his attention-seeking efforts. Pearson brings an even louder megaphone.
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
And few under the Gold Dome have forgotten that Pearson teamed with former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who recently pleaded guilty to election interference charges in Georgia, to file a baseless federal lawsuit against Kemp that sought to overturn Trump’s defeat.
“C.J. Pearson is — and always has been — a grifter who has no principles beyond his own benefit,” said Kemp adviser Cody Hall, who ticked off a list of grievances.
“He lives in Los Angeles, he endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, and he was Vernon Jones’ campaign manager for governor in 2022,” Hall said. “There’s not much else to say.”
Even some Pearson allies question whether he’s fit for the job. When Pearson was 11, his grandparents enlisted veteran GOP strategist Leo Smith to mentor him amid growing concerns that outsiders were taking advantage of him.
All these years later, Smith said Pearson has “evolved into a responsible adult.” But he said Pearson’s online identity still relies upon “performing for likes and profit.”
“It’s fair to question whether Pearson would shift away from his digital persona for the modest yearly income of about $23,000 — which comes with the constraints of a state legislator’s lifestyle,” Smith said.
Pearson shrugged off those concerns.
“I’m going to be a team player. I told House leaders I’m probably going to be the most conservative member of your caucus, but they’ll always have a friend and a partner in me,” he said. “This isn’t about social media for me.”