Gary Chambers lit up the internet on Tuesday with a campaign ad focused on one issue : the injustice of non-violent marijuana arrests. Sitting in a leather chair in a field near New Orleans' City Park, the Louisiana Senate candidate puffed on a massive blunt while a voiceover rattled off statistics on the disproportionate number of Black and brown people incarcerated for low-level, non-violent drug crimes. The ad made a splash, and despite facing long odds in his race to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. John Kennedy , Chambers is clearly running on far more than smoke.
Chambers grew up in North Baton Rouge — on the Black side of town, as he says it — watching his middle class community slowly bleed resources. An ordained minister, Chambers says he has a "God given ability to speak truth to power," so he decided to do something about it. In June 2020, at a school board meeting to change the name of the former Robert E. Lee high school, Chambers flexed that ability, calling out the school board member who lobbied to keep the Civil War general and slave owner's name on the school for online shopping during the meeting, before launching into a fiery speech about the legacy of racism that went viral online.
Chambers now runs a 501c3 organization called BiggerThanMe that focuses on furthering progressive causes. In 2021, he made his first run for public office, entering the special election to fill Rep. Cedric Richmond's seat in Louisiana's Second Congressional District after Richmond left for a position in the Biden administration. With little funding or prior political background, Chambers got over 20,000 votes in the primary, narrowly missing the general election runoff.
Now, he's taking on an even bigger challenge, attempting to unseat Kennedy, an entrenched Republican with close to $10 million cash on hand and the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Despite that, Chambers insists that the race is winnable. If he succeeds, he'll be the first Black man elected to statewide office in Louisiana since P.B.S Pinchback in 1873 , who won a Senate seat but was never seated due to a contested election claim by white opponents.
Rolling Stone caught up with Chambers on the phone on Wednesday to discuss his viral ad and how he plans to turn around a state that ranks dead last or near the bottom in major benchmarks like education and crime.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The "37 seconds" marijuana legalization ad was a big swing. How did you come to make the decision to go for it?
We knew it was a bold position to take and we played out what are the costs of this and what's the potential from this, but we didn't know it would do this [well]. But you know, it's on brand for me because it's authentically who I am. I've long felt that you're never going to destigmatize cannabis if all of the people that I know that smoke pot act like they don't smoke pot so people don't criticize them. I don't think it's a bad thing that people smoke cannabis. I think the majority of people in America no longer think that. And so the only way that you can destigmatize it is to just do it.
We're not afraid of being "controversial." But we do want to talk about what's important in issues that matter. We didn't want this to be gimmicky or anything like that, and that's why we took the tone that we took in the video. … We need an equitable system, and we wanted to be talking about "How do we create equity?" And I think that this ad certainly helps us do that.
Were you worried about any pushback or legal fallout, getting a door knock from the New Orleans Police or something like that afterwards?
I gotta ask this question or I'm going to get yelled at online: Who rolled the blunt?
Would you want to see marijauana legalization become one of the Democratic Party's landmark social issues that politicians feel the need to come out strongly on?
I think this is good policy no matter whether you're a Democrat or Republican, but I do believe that Democrats kind of have an obligation to be on the right side of this issue because that's where the majority of the American people are. We say we're the big tent party. We need to conduct ourselves as a big tent party. We shouldn't be feeling that this is something that's controversial because it's really not. Nineteen states have now legalized. We are going to eventually be a country that allows cannabis everywhere. The question is, are we going to have the courage to make that decision now? Or are we going to drag our feet and our resources over the next years when we could be saving people with the tax dollars that can turn into real change for people in their communities?
Let's go back to what seems like the beginning of your political career at the June 2020 school board meeting in Baton Rouge, where your speech really took off . What led up to that moment?
Well, I'm the father of a 12-year-old daughter in public school in Baton Rouge. Myself as well as some of my close friends have sons and daughters on a track where they would end up at what's now Liberty High School [formerly Robert E. Lee high school]. Back in 2016, when they built this new $64 million facility, we attempted to get them to change the name of the school, and they didn't do it. We never let up on that. In 2020, when all of the George Floyd things took place, we brought the issue before the community again, and we had a school board member who was willing to bring it [to the school board]. What you all saw was years of work to get the name of the school changed play out in that school board meeting.
I have been a part of advocating for a host of issues in Baton Rouge. I'm from North Baton Rouge, born and raised. It's the majority Black side of town. I grew up middle class Black, and as I got older I started watching my community be divested in. Grocery stores were closing, shopping centers were closing, and things that we had in my community were no longer there.
So I started asking questions about it. I helped lead an effort to get an emergency room open in North Baton Rouge in 2017. I also helped push the charge to keep the zoo in North Baton Rouge when they were attempting to move it to the other side of town, to build it into a larger attraction that would be away from the Black side of town. We fought and won that battle . All of those things built up to that tiny moment [at the school board meeting]. Connie [the school board member who prompted Chambers' viral speech] was more so just a tipping point where the rest of the country got to find out what we were already doing down here in Louisiana.
Did you have much of that speech that went viral written down before?
How does this new campaign for Senate differ from the special election campaign you ran last year? What lessons did you learn from that?
Louisiana is a state with a Democrat as the governor right now. This is not a seat that is un-winnable. People have tried to paint that picture, but if we could get a Democrat elected governor, surely we can elect one as a U.S senator. But the resources have to be there. So we're attempting to use every tool at our disposal to let people know that Louisiana can do exactly what Georgia did, because the numbers are there.
You've talked a lot about your desire to make some changes to the systemic inequity that Louisiana has been burdened with for decades. What would be some of your first priorities in office to try and make those changes?
The other thing we've gotta look at is the economy, and how do we grow the economy to work for working class people? How do we lift wages in this country? You know, people are making $7.25 an hour. I would challenge any U.S. senator to try to live on $7.25 an hour. We need to raise the minimum wage. I think beyond $15 an hour is probably where we need to be looking.
Health care, the environment. I'm not a one-issue person. But specifically, I'm a Black man in America. As Black people we can't be one-issue people. We have a host of issues facing our community. I live in the second-Blackest state in America. There's not been a single Black person elected to statewide office in this state since 1873. So we're not responsible for how the leaders of the state have chosen to build an inequitable process, but we can be responsible for righting this by making sure that no matter what the color of your skin is, that have the resources to be competitive so that those ideas and those understandings from those communities can be a part of the mainstream conversation in politics. Because for too long people have just been failing the people of Louisiana. We can do better.
So what's next for the campaign? What are you looking towards as you navigate the next few months before November?
Have you heard anything from the Democratic Party on a national level yet? chair of the DNC Jaime Harrison , so I think we definitely caught the attention of the national party. We have not had any conversations with them, but I think this should certainly open it up that we are the front-running Democratic candidate in this race. Senator Kennedy released an email yesterday to his base trying to fire them up, so we need support at this point because we're the candidate that Kennedy views as his opponent and we're going to go as far as we can to win. But it's going to take support.
That fundraising email directly mentioned you, you're saying?
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