Gary Chambers Jr. said he is tired of his home state of Louisiana being ranked poorly — when it comes to health, education, infrastructure and the economy, the Baton Rouge native knows his home state can and should perform better.
“When I look at this state and its people, we are so much greater than our state’s ranking,” Chambers said. “And it’s in part because of the leaders that we’ve had who make decisions that are against the people of this state.”
Chambers’ bombastic style as an activist and now a Democratic challenger for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, has him going viral in a bid to change Louisiana’s standing. Chambers, 36, had been known for viral posts on social media, calling out local politicians and fighting for communities of color. Now Chambers is gaining attention for smoking marijuana and burning the Confederate flag in his campaign ads.
“We need to burn the remnants of the Confederacy from every piece of legislation that exists in this country in order for this country to be whole again,” Chambers told NBC News in March. “And we need to build that conversation by talking about the racial inequities that exist.”
If elected, Chambers said he hopes to change this through supporting policies like "Medicare for All," raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour and the Green New Deal, a federal bill that aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs in clean energy and curb climate change.
At the end of the most recent quarter ending in March, Chambers’ campaign has raised $1.2 million, about $724,000 more than the next closest Democrat in the field, Luke Mixon. Republican incumbent Sen. John Kennedy has raised more than $23 million for this campaign, according to the most recent data available from the Federal Election Commission.
Still, Chambers said he is optimistic.
“This is a very winnable race,” Chambers said, citing the re-election of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019. “If the DNC and … state party take this race seriously … we can raise the resources and build the infrastructure to win this election.”
Silas Lee, a pollster and sociologist at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, described Chambers as a candidate that the public can connect with.
“He’s not afraid to be a countercultural candidate,” Lee said. “People can relate to what he’s saying.”
Lee, however, added that Chambers’ main obstacle this election season will be building voter motivation.
“The challenge for Gary Chambers is to see whether or not he can build motivation among voters and gain their trust,” he said.
‘Burn the Confederacy’
In Chambers’ first ad, “37 Seconds” released in January, he dons a blue suit and smokes a blunt in an open field, while highlighting the high rate of arrests and prosecution related to marijuana. In the ad, which has been viewed more than 6 million times, Chambers notes that Black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana, despite their rate of usage being about the same as that of other racial groups.
Though Black people made up 60 percent of the population in Louisiana, they accounted for 86 percent of all arrests and summonses issued for weed in 2020, according to an analysis by NOLA.com.
Louisiana Progress, a progressive group promoting the decriminalization of marijuana and other policy issues, applauded Chambers for his ad but noted a drawback.
“We certainly appreciate somebody who is getting out front, making a lot of noise about this issue, and not just doing it in a provocative way, but also explaining the many different criminal injustices,” said Peter Robins-Brown, the executive director of Louisiana Progress. But one drawback of the reaction to the video, Robins-Brown said, was that many viewers “got caught up on what he was doing and they didn’t listen to what he was saying.”
Nonetheless, Chambers is calling for robust cannabis reform, including the decriminalization of marijuana statewide, expunging the records of individuals incarcerated for the drug and investing in Black cannabis growers. Chambers cites the case of Kevin Allen, a Black man in Louisiana, who has been serving a life sentence for selling $20 of marijuana to a childhood friend.
“It’s unjust, and we can do something about it,” Chambers said. “We have tools and mechanisms at our disposal to free this man and any other person who’s been incarcerated that way.”
So far, marijuana has only been decriminalized in 27 states and Washington, D.C., and is still illegal at the federal level. Chambers said legalizing marijuana at a state and federal level would reduce these inequities.
“We should not be OK going on about our day … while people are having a luxury in one part of the country, while other folks are having a penalty for that same luxury,” Chambers said.
‘Call it out’
In another viral ad called “Scars and Bars,” released in February, Chambers burns the Confederate flag.
“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,” Chambers said in the ad. “And the remnants of the Confederacy remain.”
While the sight of Chambers burning the flag caught viewers' attention, his message was a rundown of different ways the Confederacy enforced laws to limit or revoke the rights of Black people and communities, from voting access to enabling high rates of poverty. Combating racial injustice remains core to his campaign.
In the years prior to launching his campaign, Chambers made headlines for employing controversial tactics. Two years ago, a social media post of the candidate went viral after he called out a board member for allegedly shopping on her laptop during a meeting about the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s name from a school building.
“Some things can only be fixed if you call it out,” Chambers said. “Too often we like to pretend things aren’t as bad as they are, and if you just say it then people can say, ‘OK, let’s do something about this.’ And that’s what we do.”
Connie Bernard, the board member Chambers singled out, has denied these claims. The school has since changed its name. Chambers said tactics like this are necessary to put pressure on people in power.
“Controversy is often a conduit to change,” Chambers said. “I don’t seek to be controversial, but I don’t run from controversial issues.”
‘Invest in community year-round’
Carlos A. Pollard, a redistricting fellow at the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, which advocates for voters of color in Louisiana, said the public is eager for a politician that will center the community’s needs.
“The community wants someone who will acknowledge community concerns and what it means to support folks, to invest in community year-round,” Pollard said.
Robins-Brown added that the public wants someone who is authentic.
“There’s a general appreciation … for people who are running for office or in office who can speak kind of an unvarnished truth,” Robins-Brown said. “He believes what he’s saying. So it’s not just a grand piece of showmanship.”
This is the third time Chambers has run for public office. He mounted unsuccessful bids for a seat in the Louisiana Senate in 2019 and the state’s House of Representatives last year.
Javin Fulson, of the Greater Baton Rouge Young Republicans, noted Chambers’ previous losses as an indicator of his ability to secure a larger base.
“The fact that I saw him lose in a very heavily Democratic race — it kind of showed me that his policies and his agenda was so radical for even the voters that he was trying to appeal to,” Fulson said.
Fulson said he views Chambers’ ads as distracting.
“It pushes away the potential of being able to work with the other side,” Fulson said, adding that a challenge facing the candidate is that “he has a lot of priorities … that he wants to push, but actually showing the voters how it’s going to get done and not giving them only empty promises, as we have seen in the past.”
For Chambers, winning this election is bigger than a win for him. He sees it as a victory against the obstacles that have kept Black people behind in the state for so long.
“There will be some redemption in that moment being possible not just for me, but for all of the thousands, if not millions of Black people who lived in this state over the years,” Chambers said. “Who were brilliant and talented enough to have served in the United States Senate, but racism and bigotry would have prevented them from being able to have this opportunity that I have today.
“I think about what it would mean in that moment for all those people, more than what it would me for myself.”