Baton Rouge, La., activist and U.S. Senate candidate Gary Chambers, Jr., wanted to set the political world ablaze and when he introduced himself to the world, and he showed just how.
His campaign ad, entitled “37 Seconds” marks Chambers’ entry into the senate race, and from the start he is clear – he isn’t coming to blow smoke.
The video starts with Chambers, 36, lighting a blunt and hitting it. "Every 37 seconds someone is arrested for possession of marijuana," Chambers says. "Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people. States waste $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws every year. Most of the people police are arresting aren't dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot, just like me."
Chambers spoke with BET.com and said his mission is to use this ad to light up the conversation about race and justice in Louisiana, and the nation at large.
BET.com: Some people think this was a rather inflammatory way to announce your Senate campaign. But despite the optics, you make a number of important points.
Gary Chambers Jr.: We need real change. Louisiana is the state that ranks 50th in crime, but we're still struggling with cannabis. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized (recreational marijuana), but not just Louisiana, but southern states in general.
I’m going to run for the U.S. Senate, so I should address the issues head on that are important to people. And the War on Drugs needs to end so that we can have police forces that actually help us deal with the issues of violent crime solving those issues, rather than chasing people for pot, which is legal in 19 places now.
BET.com: Beyond just recreational marijuana, you’ve said that your campaign is to bring about conversations and solutions concerning economic justice.
Chambers: Right, we need to be focusing on how do we grow and build the economy for working class people. And talking about the real issue that Louisiana is 49th in the economy, right? We’re 46th in healthcare, 47th in education and infrastructure, we ranked 49th in environmental quality and the economy. And so when you look at that, it paints a picture of a state that has been run by Republicans -- I call them Senator "Foghorn Leghorn" – that have failed us with their leadership because it's not producing results for the people of Louisiana.
BET.com: How do you want to produce those results?
Chambers: One of the reasons we did this ad was let's cut through the noise. And if smoking a blunt makes people talk about these facts that are facing Louisiana, and the fact that this is a winnable race, our demographics here in Louisiana mirror that of Georgia, we have a Democrat elected as our governor, in large part because of the Black vote of this state. That was the majority of the votes for John Bel Edwards. And still 50% of Black New Orleans didn't vote – almost 50% of black Baton Rouge – did not vote for him. And we have the capacity to turn those voters out and others because we're running on ideas and not ideology.
BET.com: This isn’t the first time you had people up in arms over a video.
Chambers: A few years ago, I had a tense moment with a lady named Connie at a school board meeting.
BET.com: You’ve been an activist and advocate for some time in your city. What are the issues that you plan to continue working on?
I'm from North Baton Rouge, a community that is majority Black. When I was a kid, I lived in a middle class Black neighborhood. I still live across the street from my parents in the same neighborhood that I grew up in. There were grocery stores near my neighborhood, there were shopping centers, there was access to more pharmacies in my community. And now over the last 20 years, those things have shuttered but residents of North Baton Rouge are still paying their property taxes, still going to work everyday, still taking care of their family.
But we have not been prioritized by our government at the local state or federal level. And as a result of that, we recognize that you just got to stand up and do something and so that's been a part of my advocacy because if I drive to the other side of town, I want to see those same benefits in my community.
I've been advocating for healthcare access in Baton Rouge, helping get an emergency room open in North Baton Rouge when they close to hospitals, helping keep our zoo in North Baton Rouge when they tried to move it. I was a spokesperson for Alton Sterling's family when he was murdered by the Baton Rouge Police Department. And so I had been advocating and doing this work here in Baton Rouge for years.
BET.com: What makes you hopeful you will win?
Louisiana can do what Georgia did. When you look at the demographics of Georgia and the demographics of Louisiana, there are similarities. In the assembly, we already have a democratic electorate. Pundits are gonna say this is a state that can't be won, and that's BS. It can be won if we have the resources.
The Democratic Party has ignored Louisiana for years. And so what we've proven in one ad is that we can make the country pay attention to a place and a city and a state that nobody else is really talking about with these issues, and that if we get support and help, we can send more support and help to expand the margins of the U.S. Senate so that we don't have a single vote majority there and have two senators playing with democracy in [Kyrsten] Sinema and [Joe] Manchin.
We need to expand the margins in the Deep South and Black voters I think is the pathway to make that happen.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.