When progressive candidate Gary Chambers decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana, the chair of the Democratic party told him that “she didn’t think a Black man could win.” Now, Chambers isn’t just squaring off against the Democrat-turned-GOP incumbent John Kennedy. He has also had to contend with his own party during every step of his campaign, including, most importantly, in the November 8 Louisiana primary election. (In Louisiana, general elections take place on December 10.)
To the surprise — and likely dismay — of the Democratic establishment machine, Chambers has been making waves, running a strong grassroots campaign focused on voting rights, marijuana legalization, and other key issues for voters in the state.
As Chambers told The Lever in an interview earlier this week, “I’m the only Democrat running that can say that they have a base of support... We’re the lead polling Democrat, we raise more money faster than any other Democrat in the race.”
Below is a lightly-edited, abridged Q&A from Sirota’s discussion with Chambers; listen to this week’s Lever Time podcast episode to hear the entire conversation.
David Sirota: How did you find yourself getting into politics and now running for a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana?
Gary Chambers: I was a small business owner with two of my friends. We started a company called the Rouge Collection media platform here in Baton Rouge. There were things happening around the country, Trayvon Martin happened in Florida, Mike Brown in Missouri. These things impacted me as a young Black man. And so I had a media platform. When Trayvon was killed, I wrote a column. When Mike Brown was killed, I held my first town hall. Maybe 20 people showed up.
And then there was a brother named Lamar Johnson here in Baton Rouge who was pulled over by the police in Baker. He has a traffic stop. He goes to Parish prison, and they say he hung himself. And this is like three weeks before Sandra Bland [in Kentucky]. His family reaches out, I write a column about it; 40,000 people read that column. A few months later, our district attorney here in Baton Rouge was attempting to open a misdemeanor jail, to round up people with simple traffic violations and bench warrants and put them in jail for the weekend to pay a debt. And I just thought if you can’t handle the people in Parish prison, you can’t have the people in the temporary jail. And I wrote columns about that, showed up at my first city council meeting [and] killed the misdemeanor jail.
As a result, I just got addicted, started showing up at city council meetings, school board meetings, airport board meetings, parks and recreation, anywhere where people were taking our tax dollars and doing nothing to help people with it. I showed up and then I met my politicians and I found out that most of them weren’t that good. And I thought I could run and do a better job.
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Sirota: Knowing that you still have a primary to face, tell us the state of that primary contest. How do you differentiate yourself from your other Democratic primary opponents?
Chambers: I differentiate myself by actually having run for office and served our community in meaningful ways and I have a base of support. I’m the only Democrat running that can say that they have a base of support. That’s shown up to vote for them before. We’re the lead polling Democrat, we raise more money faster than any other Democrat in the race. John Kennedy, who’s our senator, is polling at 51 percent. He’s not overwhelmingly popular the way that people may think he is. And so what we need to do is keep him under 50 in order to create a runoff scenario.
We’re the campaign that has the capacity to mobilize the base of the party and Louisiana is 34 percent Black. The Democratic Party here in the state is 70 percent Black. 30 percent of white voters in the state consistently vote for Democrats. So we believe we are the campaign most energized, most likely to be able to defeat John Kennedy by motivating the base of the party.
Sirota: You have made some headlines nationally with some of your ads. One ad shows you smoking weed, another ad shows you burning a confederate flag in which you say, “They said we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. But here in Louisiana, and all over the south, Jim Crow never really left and the remnants of the Confederacy remain.” What do you mean by the remnants of the Confederacy remain in Louisiana?
Chambers: Louisiana is the second blackest state in America. We have six congressional districts, and we should have two majority-minority districts, but we only have one. I ran in that congressional district in 2021, and it’s extremely gerrymandered. All of the other districts are like blocks, and this one’s kind of like a snake that goes from North Baton Rouge all the way to New Orleans East. It picks up a huge chunk of Black voters in order to disenfranchise us from being able to get federal representation.
Same thing is happening in our state legislature. We have a supermajority Republican legislature in the House and almost the same in the Senate, even though Black folks and Democrats make up a huge portion of this state. We’re underrepresented on our Supreme Court here. And what does that mean? That means when every policy decision is made in this state about resources that are allocated to solve problems, Black people are disadvantaged in that conversation. And taxation without representation is about as un-American as you can be, right? And that’s what we have. And it’s not just a problem here in Louisiana. That’s a problem in Mississippi.
Mississippi is the blackest state in America. They are 37, 38 percent Black. They have one congressman, Bennie Thompson — they should have more than one. And in both of our states, there’s not been a Black person elected statewide. In Louisiana there has not been a Black person elected statewide since 1873. The first Black governor in U.S. history was P.B.S. Pinchback and he ascended to the governorship here in Louisiana as the president of the State Senate. The lieutenant governor dies, he becomes the governor for 30 days. And then there’s 100 years before Douglas Wilder becomes the governor of Virginia. There’s only been four Black governors. Two of them have been elected, two of them have risen by ascension. The other statewide offices, 11 Black U.S. senators. I think when we talk about the representation that minorities have had in this country, it’s underwhelmingly delivered for the people.
Sirota: President Biden last week began, hopefully, the process of legalizing marijuana or at least decriminalizing marijuana. As somebody who has been campaigning on criminal justice reform, campaigning on legalizing marijuana, what do you make of what the President did?
Chambers: I think the President made a positive step in the right direction. Of course, I would love to see him do more. But I’m keenly aware of who we’re dealing with. With President Biden, I think that he is honoring the things that he said as a candidate and that that is what we as voters desire, right? That someone does the things that they say they’re going to do, when they’re actually in office.
I am seeking to get to the U.S. Senate to go help make sure that it gets done all the way. We need to deschedule cannabis. We need to make sure that we get safe banking in America. People that are in the cannabis business all over this country can’t just put their money in the bank easily. It’s a really dangerous process that we have for a lot of people that are in business, and it’s an inequitable process for people who are still being incarcerated for it. You look at states like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina — where they are on cannabis is archaic. Louisiana is medicinally legal, and we just decriminalized. And I think that we’re going to get to the point of recreational cannabis here soon, because 70 percent of voters in Louisiana believe that recreational cannabis should be legal.
The real deal is how long is the federal government going to allow people to be incarcerated for this. And if we say that we’re serious about wanting this to be something that’s resolved, the fastest way for us to do it is to deschedule it at the federal level, and then put the pressure on states to do what they need to do to release all those that are incarcerated. Kevin Allen is a man who’s in Angola penitentiary right now serving a life sentence for less than a gram of cannabis. He’s been there since 2013. We spend $19,000 a year in Louisiana to incarcerate and $11,000 a year to educate. I think that we’re getting it wrong, and cannabis can help be a gateway to make sure that we can invest in our children.
Sirota: James Carville, the Clinton Democratic strategist from Louisiana, said this about your campaign: “Does Gary have any chance? No, and I think Gary Chambers is an idiot. He’s one of these kinds of activists, you know, left-wing activists from Baton Rouge.”
You’ve argued that the establishment is hostile to you and to other Black candidates running statewide, because Black candidates haven’t been elected statewide in Louisiana. What’s your response to what Carville said and give us a little bit of context for the larger argument you’ve been making about the Louisiana Democratic Party?
Chambers: One, I’ve got to start by saying that James Carville supported Terry McAuliffe in Virginia. They lost, and he supported the guy who came in second in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. I think if you look at the record of the types of candidates he’s supporting, they’re losing.
Number two, if we were wise as a party, we would get around the policies that galvanize the base of our party rather than trying to get this slim margin of moderates or independents that swing Republican, right? Donald Trump, whether we like him or not, taught a valuable lesson in politics: Go to your base and go all in. And if you do that you have the best odds at converting people, because energy is transferable.
The leadership of the party has been problematic for us from the very beginning. The chair of the party told me that she didn’t think a Black man could win. I did everything in our power to build a grassroots strong campaign that built a national platform. We were successful in that her candidate is polling under in single digits and has been so all year long, no matter how much he’s done. And he’s a great guy, but just not able to beat John Kennedy.
We ran a moderate Democrat in the election where Kennedy was elected, right? And that person, 28 percent of Black voters in New Orleans showed up, 26 percent of Black voters in Shreveport showed up, and 32 percent of Black voters in Baton Rouge showed up. Those are the three largest cities in our state. If you can’t turn out the Black vote in those states, a Democrat can’t win. We have a Democrat as our governor, and people believe that he’s elected because he’s moderate. The truth is he’s elected because we had crazy people running against him like John Kennedy and that excited the base of the party and we got behind him. I think that if we gave young people and real Democrats somebody to show up for they’d show up for them.
Sirota: Why do you think Republican incumbent John Kennedy’s numbers appear to be pretty weak in Louisiana, which has been a traditionally Republican state? What do you think are the most compelling arguments to voters about why voters should get rid of him?
Chambers: One, he’s been elected almost as long as I’ve been alive. He’s polling at 51 percent. Usually a U.S. senator is over 60 percent if they’re popular, and he’s not there. Kennedy used to be a pro-choice Democrat, and right now he’s all the way pro-life, and he switched to being a Republican when Obama ran for president.
He voted against infrastructure dollars here in Louisiana. Infrastructure dollars aren’t red, they aren’t blue, they aren’t black, they aren’t white. Everybody uses the roads. And that’s $7 billion of resources. We had just suffered Hurricane Ida, and people in mostly Republican areas of our state, Houma, Louisiana, were without power for a month. What are those infrastructure dollars? Do they help us put those power lines on the ground so that the next time a hurricane comes, [and] we know we’re going to have one, we don’t have to have people without power for a month?
This is a guy who just does not care about the people of this state. That’s my argument to people when I go out. The other thing is he spends a lot of time on TV making an ass of himself. He just made a commercial where he said if you got a problem with the police, call a crackhead. That is not only not a solution, but it’s insulting.
And he talks about being a pro-police guy, but [he] voted to overturn the election of Joe Biden. Where was his pro-police attitude to the cops who were being assaulted by Republicans who were storming the Capitol?
I think he’s a con artist, and I think he’s a fraud, and I think that if we have the opportunity to run against him in a head-to-head matchup, we’re the best-suited to expose that consistently. If we got the resources to put the foolishness that John Kennedy does into the ads that we create and put that on TV, he’s going home.
Sirota: You’re a proud Christian, which is highlighted on your campaign website. How do you see your faith being a strength of your campaign, especially in 2022, as the country seems to be more and more divided, and where religion is so often used in politics, unfortunately, to divide rather than to unite?
Chambers: I try to lead with love. Everything about my faith teaches me that God is love. And that if we want people to become believers of what we believe, the way to get them is to love them in. Some people believe that you spend time judging people. I got my own sins to talk to God about when I get to heaven, I’m not worried about yours or anybody else’s. And so that’s kind of the philosophy I live with. My campaign slogan is a scripture, it’s Isaiah 1:17: “Do good, seek justice, help the widow, the orphan, the oppressed and the poor.” And when I go to churches, and I talk about Medicare for All, I say, “Jesus laid hands on the sick, that was Medicare for All. If it was good for Jesus, it’s got to be good for us.”
And people get it, that at the end of the day, my faith also was a choice that I made at some point in my life. God didn’t force me to be a Christian, I made that choice. And I think that in making that choice, I want to give everybody else the liberty to make whatever choices they want.
And that’s just the way that I lead. And if I love more people, hopefully at the end of my life, more people believe the things that I believe. That’s the goal of discipleship, but the goal of my elected service is to live a life that shows my faith. And I live in the south, you know, people at church every Sunday here in Louisiana. I did five churches yesterday. And all of those churches were full with people who were excited about being able to get out and vote for us. And so I think it’s a strength. And I think that showing the way that I believe and carrying my faith, the way that I do, hopefully gives people some comfort.
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