Gary Chambers Lights Up. Can He Catch Fire?
Will Chambers’ unorthodox approach lead him to victory or cause heartburn for Louisiana’s Black political class?
For 37 seconds, a big Black man from Baton Rouge, Louisiana casually smoked a blunt in front of millions of white people while chastising them for judging him – and people who look like him – for doing it.
That’s how Democrat Gary Chambers introduced himself to the 2022 US Senate race and to millions of voters across Louisiana.
“I hope this ad works to not only destigmatize the use of marijuana,” Chambers said upon releasing the ad on social media back on January 18. “But also forces a new conversation that creates the pathway to legalize this beneficial drug, and forgive those who were arrested due to outdated ideology.”
He’s not wrong. Marijuana is inarguably a less dangerous toxicant than more socially acceptable – and legally allowed – substances like alcohol. And as the ad’s title suggests, every 37 seconds, according to the ACLU, someone in America is arrested for possession of marijuana. What those people look like is pretty well-established as well. Black folks are getting arrested for smoking the same thing white kids in the suburbs casually do all the time. Pointing that out isn’t ideological or even partisan in 2022 – it’s facts.
But it’s also inarguably a risky strategy. On one hand, Chambers – a loud, brash Black man who carries a massive frame – is simply leaning into long-held stereotypes about Black people in America. And for some in the Black political class, that’s completely breaking the rules.
Many aspiring Black politicos are often encouraged – either implicitly or explicitly – to dial the Blackness down if they ever want to have “crossover” appeal, i.e. white votes. While there’s no actual rule written down anywhere, Black politicos have traditionally known what that entails: pronounce your words, wear a suit, cut your hair, make only pop culture references white people will know, be polite, NEVER get angry in public (safest bet is to never get too passionate at all), and most importantly, be perfect. It’s a fine line to walk and in one misstep – one video of a candidate lovingly referring to his friends as his n****s or an unfortunate capture of a candid moment of playful twerking – you can go from being the next Barack Obama to being viewed more like Smokey from Friday in an instance in the eyes of white people.
That’s what Black politicians are led to believe. And if we’re being honest, that’s because it is the proven model for Black politicians to be successful beyond majority Black constituencies. If you look at the US Congress, there’s a pretty clear difference stylistically between the brotha who represents Boulder, Joe Neguse, and the brotha who represents the South Side of Chicago, Bobby Rush. Or the sista who represents Orlando – Val Demings – and the sista who represents Tacoma, Washington, Marilyn Strickland. One feels less reserved and more authentic, the other feels more scripted and contrived. But for years, that’s what Black folks thought they had to do to have a chance at winning white voters and therefore winning statewide. That was the blueprint.
Chambers’ ad, in one fell swoop, challenges all of those “rules.” From the perspective of many Black folks, white people think Black people smoke weed and lounge around all day – Chambers is literally sitting in the middle of a field, smoking a blunt at what could easily be 10 am on a weekday. He’s unshaven, he’s not smiling, and he’s unbothered. If “IDGAF what you think” was a campaign video, that would be the Chambers Senate ad.
And while there’s a certain serendipity to Chambers’ Senate campaign for many Black voters, truthfully, the majority of Black voters are split on Chambers’ decision to lean into those tropes.
“It’s tough because on one hand, he’s right,” said Tera Lewis, a Black voter living in Lafayette. “But there’s also the whole second-hand embarrassment factor. He’s not just representing himself, he’s representing us. And that has to mean something too, right?“
It’s a feeling Black people have always felt, as far back as the vicarious humiliation one might feel when another Black kid in class would act out and make a fool of themselves. Whether fair or not, Black folks often feel the burden of representing the entire diaspora when interacting with white people. That feeling is only magnified when it comes to Black public figures and Black politicians, in particular. There’s always been a collective sense in Black political circles that it only takes one crooked brotha or one scandalous sista to tear down all the progress Black folks have made in terms of how seriously white voters see Black candidates. For Black politicians, the view is that it took a long time to build up an Obama – but it could take one embarrassing election to completely obliterate that image in the eyes of white people.
The point: Chambers’ entire campaign seems premised on looking those “rules” in the face and spitting on them. He at times almost seems contrarian in his campaign, turning left when others might turn right – or driving off-road completely. To the professional political class, he is almost certainly viewed as a limited candidate with limited appeal and glaring vulnerabilities. But here’s the thing: Gary Chambers has always carried that baggage and yet, in each of his past elections, his message only seems to resonate deeper.
In 2019, when Chambers challenged incumbent State Senator Regina Barrow in state senate district 15, he earned a modest 25% of the vote in a two-person race, failing to force the race into a runoff. Counterintuitively, Chambers re-emerged in 2021 with his sights set even higher, entering the open Congressional race in the 2nd district following Cedric Richmond’s departure to take a job in the Biden White House. In a district largely made up of a community he was not nearly as well known in – New Orleans – Chambers received over 20% of the vote. This was with a larger population and in a district where he was less well known than almost any of his opponents, who in many cases had been elected by these very voters in past elections. Chambers had none of those built in advantages and yet, his message resonated even more than it had 2 years earlier with a smaller constituency that knew him better.
There are two ways of looking at that dynamic: one, he knows his appeal wears thin and he does better with voters who know him less.
Everywhere Chambers has gone, he’s defied odds and beat expectations. It’s not a coincidence, then, that Chambers would declare his candidacy while simultaneously throwing out the rule book. From his perspective, it’s worked for him so far.
Does this mean Gary Chambers is going to win in 2022? No, of course not. There’s a lot of time between now and Election Day in November – time for DC Democrats to prop someone else up, time for Kennedy to shuck and jive his way to a formidable war chest, time for opposition researchers to dig and leak, time for a mistake, time for an unexpected twist in the race. Nothing is determinative or predictive at this state.
But it does mean one would be wise to keep an eye on Gary Chambers. He might just roll up a surprise showing this November.