Baton Rouge, La., native Gary Chambers Jr. describes himself as a “deeply Southern boy,” who gets joy out of saying hello to strangers — something he says is lacking in other parts of the country. After going viral on social media last month for smoking marijuana in the first ad for his campaign to become the next U.S. senator from Louisiana, Chambers is planning to introduce himself and his policy platform across the state.
“I've never been shy to share my perspective,” Chambers, a Democrat, told Yahoo News. “And I think that as I've gotten older and had a deeper understanding of how the world works, I just can't sit back and be quiet when I see things that need to be addressed.”
For the last decade, Chambers, 36, has been a prominent community activist in disadvantaged communities in and around Baton Rouge. He has been influential in bringing police reform to the city, getting an emergency room built in North Baton Rouge after the city shut down two hospitals, and keeping a zoo open in his community. His style is brash, direct and matter-of-fact. In the summer of 2020, a clip of Chambers at a school board meeting went viral on social media after he called out a board member for shopping online while community members were debating whether a local school named after Robert E. Lee should be renamed.
Chambers says he understands that his style doesn’t appeal to everyone, but he believes it gets results, and he hopes it translates from local activism to the U.S. Senate race. He is facing an uphill battle against two other Democratic candidates, an independent and the Republican incumbent, Sen. John Kennedy, who is favored to win reelection in the conservative state.
In November, Louisiana will host a “jungle primary,” meaning all of the candidates on the ballot will compete, and if no single candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters will advance to a runoff election.
Fundraising, in particular, poses a significant challenge for Chambers: At the end of 2021, his campaign reported no cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. Kennedy reported having more than $10 million cash on hand.
Chambers couldn’t be more different from Kennedy, a white, 70-year-old former law professor, who has gone on Fox News to condemn school curricula that he incorrectly refers to as “critical race theory.” He strongly opposes President Biden’s agenda and has rejected Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. He’s an enthusiastic proponent of fossil fuel development, calling Biden and former Secretary of State John Kerry “Trotsky-like Workers” who “see climate change as a religion.” Recently, he sidestepped questions about former President Donald Trump’s pledge to pardon defendants in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. Kennedy did not respond to multiple requests by Yahoo News for comment.
Chambers, on the other hand, has pushed progressive proposals including legalizing marijuana, ensuring that low-income communities have access to fresh produce and reforming the criminal justice system. He’s also a proponent of Biden’s Build Back Better plan to expand access to health care and child care and to invest in clean energy.
Political experts say that, despite his inroads on social media, there is little evidence that Louisiana voters will embrace a candidate like Chambers.
“There seemed to be a calculated wager, proffered by the Chambers campaign, that … the aging incumbent has lost touch with a younger and more liberal constituent pool,” Carl Thomas, a D.C.-based political strategist who has advised candidates of different political backgrounds for more than two decades, told Yahoo News in an email.
The other two Democrats in the race may also stand a better chance than Chambers. Luke Mixon, a moderate and first-time candidate, is a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. His agenda is focused on improving infrastructure, reducing inflation and “improving democracy,” something he says Kennedy has failed to do.
“I didn’t serve our nation as a fighter pilot in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to sit silently by while my senator attacks our democracy back home,” Mixon told Yahoo News, slamming Kennedy’s vote to overturn Arizona’s Electoral College votes for Joe Biden. “Democracy is not a partisan issue. People on both sides of the aisle are repulsed, and we’re going to hold him accountable the good old-fashioned American way, at the ballot box.”
Syrita Steib, the founder and executive director of Operation Restore, a New Orleans-based women’s reentry program, has also entered the race. According to her company’s website, she spent 120 months in prison and turned her life around upon getting out.
“I’m running for the Senate to represent Louisiana and America, not just a party,” Steib said. "I think that’s where our current senator fails. He wants to represent his party, not people.”
These Democratic candidates also questioned Chambers’s use of marijuana in his campaign ad.
“I felt like he reinforced every stereotype that the country has about Black people,” said Steib. “I feel like these very important issues were lost the second he lit the blunt.”
“No one should serve jail time for small, nonviolent marijuana charges, but we must be careful not to glamorize cannabis consumption,” Mixon said.
Mixon reported $120,000 on hand at the end of 2021, while no data on Steib's finances was available.
“In order for Democrats to be viable, they have to have enough money to get their name out there,” Stephen Handwerk, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the state party for almost 10 years, told the Advocate, Louisiana’s largest daily paper. “It’s the resources question right now.”
Kennedy won his seat in 2016 by 21 points. Chambers lost in a close Democratic primary last year, in the congressional special election to replace Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is now a part of the Biden administration. In that race, state Sen. Troy Carter, who was backed by leaders within the Congressional Black Caucus, beat out state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson in a runoff, 56 percent to 44 percent. Chambers was the third-highest vote getter in the primary, missing out on the runoff by just 1,500 votes.
Though the state is a GOP stronghold, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is a Democrat who positioned himself as a moderate when he won reelection in 2019. He has a military background, having graduated from West Point and spent eight years in the Army. He also received 95 percent of the Black vote and 33 percent of the white vote in an election in which Black voters made up 30 percent of the electorate.
There are just over 4.6 million residents in the state, and nearly 63 percent are white and about 33 percent are Black, according to the latest census data.
Chambers argues that a progressive Democrat like him could win by boosting Black turnout, but other candidates with similar political profiles have struggled to win that way in recent elections. Even heavily Democratic cities such as Buffalo, N.Y., and Seattle have recently rejected left-wing mayoral candidates.
Chambers says, though, that the state’s poor performance on most comparative metrics means voters might be ready to try something new. Louisiana has the third-highest income inequality of any state. U.S. News and World Report ranked it 50th in crime, 49th in natural environment, 48th in education and opportunity, 47th in economy and infrastructure, 46th in health care and 42nd in fiscal stability.
“We are the first in the worst,” Chambers said. “If the words of Trump ring true to some people, what have you got to lose?”
Some Black political experts in the state remain skeptical about Chambers, who is Black.
“Neither one of the candidates is good for Louisiana,” Blair D. Condoll, assistant professor of political science at Dillard University in New Orleans, told Yahoo News, about Chambers and Kennedy. “In my opinion, Chambers insults the African American electorate by presuming that an ad featuring him purporting to openly smoke a ‘blunt’ is acceptable among those chronic voters aged 55 and up.”
However, another Dillard University political science professor, Gary M. Clark, said Chambers may have a chance of winning some office one day, perhaps in a more liberal district.
“Given statewide demographics, party affiliation, and political platform, the Chambers path to victory is narrow,” Clark said. “However, after redistricting and drawing of new state legislative districts, Chambers may be properly positioned for victory in a smaller political subdivision.”
The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal and state races, rates Kennedy’s seat as "solid Republican." Kennedy has positioned himself as a traditional Republican who seeks to uphold conservative values. When he announced he was running for reelection last summer, he promised to fight on behalf of the GOP come “hell or high water.”
“I promise I will be a voice against the socialism that’s now overtaken Washington, D.C.,” Kennedy said in a statement. “I promise that — come hell or high water — your values will be my values, and I will never be silent — never — when the nut jobs tell me to sit down and shut up.”
“The fact that he has refused to denounce Trump falls right in line with other popular conservatives like the Republican Congressman Steve Scalise,” Condoll said.
But Chambers doesn’t want anyone to count Democratic candidates out just yet, pointing to Democratic victories in Georgia’s Senate races earlier this year as a reason.
“This is a winnable race,” he said. “The demographic of Louisiana is similar to Georgia. … Five years ago, nobody would've thought that Raphael Warnock would be the senator from Georgia. I think that that's possible in Louisiana if we do the work.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, via Twitter.com/GaryChambersJr