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 were talking about it as a team Friday afternoon. We were kind of brainstorming back and forth about how we want to be on the issues and how do we want to come swinging a week later. The idea came up in the conversation, Erick [Sanchez, communications advisor] wrote a script for it, Erwin [Marionneaux, who directed the ad] got a vision for what the video could look like, and we shot it the next day in New Orleans.
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?
Nah, I wasn’t worried about the police. I have a 501c4, BiggerThanMe, and we’ve been working to help pass progressive policies. One of the policies that we helped pass was further decriminalization in New Orleans last August. New Orleans is probably the most decriminalized place in the state of Louisiana that you can smoke cannabis. That’s why we chose to do it there. There was, of course, natural human hesitation about what backlash could exist from this. But I made the decision that I wasn’t going to allow my personal fear to push me in a different direction than what I believe.
I gotta ask this question or I’m going to get yelled at online: Who rolled the blunt?
So I am very close friends with a grower from California, and he was in town, so he rolled a blunt for us.
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?
Well, I won’t say that I think it should be the Democratic Party. I think anybody in politics should be pro cannabis. I think it’s good for business. I think it’s good for the economy. I think we recognize that the billions of dollars that come in in tax revenue to the governments of these states help us build better roads and better school systems. The resources that people use for their leisurely activity can be a benefit to state governments.
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?
No. I don’t write speeches. Everything you typically see me say is off the cuff. You know, now that I’m campaigning, I’ve got a bunch of comms people around me, and those folks try to tell me what to say and give me talking points, but I’m not necessarily a speechwriter type of person. My background – I’m an ordained minister — I kinda, you know, have had this God-given ability to speak truth to power. And it hasn’t failed me, and I keep using it. And I believe that doors keep opening as a result of the gift that God gave me.
How does this new campaign for Senate differ from the special election campaign you ran last year? What lessons did you learn from that?
You know, we are very proud of the race we ran for Congress. We missed the runoff by about 1,500 votes, and we joke among each other that if we’d had another hundred thousand dollars or another week, we would have made it. Structurally in campaigns, people tend to spend about 70 percent of their budget on TV, radio, and direct mail, right? We spent about $30,000 on TV, $10,000 on radio and didn’t send out a single piece of direct mail — and we came within 1,500 votes of making the runoff, which meant we built one of the strongest grassroots campaigns Louisiana’s ever seen. What we’re going to do different this time is we have a very aggressive plan to help us fundraise, and put ourselves in a position to have the resources that you need to be successful.
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?
Well, I think one of the things that has to happen is we’ve got to have a U.S. senator that doesn’t vote against resources for the state of Louisiana. Senator Foghorn Leghorn [Republican incumbent John Kennedy] voted against the infrastructure bill. If I were the U.S. senator, I would have supported it because that’s billions of dollars in tax resources that are coming into the state of Louisiana to help us deal with our crumbling roads and bridges, to help us put power lines underground after hurricanes. People were without power for months in South Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Ida. In West Louisiana, Hurricane Laura — they’re still trying to recover from a hurricane that happened in 2020. When we get hit by these storms, we need leaders who prioritize the people and not their party’s political ideology.
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?
The number one thing is to continue to push for fundraising and getting people to see that there’s ways that this race is winnable. Having these national conversations helps us with that. But also we’re going to get out around the country and around the state. There’s 64 parishes in Louisiana and we intend to touch every single one of them. We built a very people-focused, people-powered grassroots movement in the last race, and we’re going to do the same thing this time. But we’re [also] going to go outside [the state] to help us get the resources to come inside and help us win the election. And it is my belief that if we can raise the money, we can touch the people. And if we can touch the people, we can win the election. And that is my focus. Raise money, touch people, win the election.
Have you heard anything from the Democratic Party on a national level yet?
I was luckily followed yesterday by the 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?
Oh yeah, brother. He put my picture in it and everything. I said, OK, Senator Foghorn Leghorn knows we out here, let’s go.