NEW ORLEANS — Gary Chambers Jr. walked onto the back patio of his Airbnb carrying a bag of marijuana, stuffed the contents into a blunt, licked it closed, lit it and took a few puffs. The night air filled with a pungent smoke as he prepared to make his debut at the annual Mardi Gras ball celebrating the King and Queen of Zulu that attracts thousands of potential voters, and some of the city’s most powerful political figures.
Chambers passed the marijuana to one of his top campaign aides as they discussed strategy for one of the most important nights of his Senate campaign. His tailor had just a few days to make his first tuxedo. He was steaming his shirt while it hung from a door jamb. It was showtime.
The event had been canceled last year because of the pandemic, Chambers says, “So I expect it to be lively tonight.”
The Bible-quoting, cannabis-loving, Confederate flag-burning political upstart wants to make history as the first Black U.S. senator from the Bayou State. Chambers, 36, knows it’s a long shot. In addition to two other Democrats, he’s facing Republican incumbent Sen. John Neely Kennedy, who won the 2016 general election with 60.7 percent of the vote, and has amassed $11 million in campaign funds.
But tonight Chambers is focused on a smaller task: Winning over the city’s Black elite at the annual Zulu Coronation Ball.
“I think we’ve warmed on each other,” Chambers says laughing, when asked about his relationship with the state’s Black establishment. Chambers, an ordained minister, has been a local activist and for years used his online magazine, the Rouge Collection, to criticize public officials over their handling of criminal justice and police violence.
“I think the establishment respects the work that we put in and that’s what has earned me a seat at the table,” he says.
It’s his third run for office. In his first, a 2019 state House campaign, he lost to the incumbent by almost 50 points. Chambers was also not the establishment pick when he launched an unsuccessful bid to replace Rep. Cedric Richmond, who left the House to join the Biden administration in 2021, but he came within about 1,500 votes of making the runoff.
“They didn’t want me to run,” Chambers says of the local Democratic Party, but he surprised many with his strong third-place showing.
This time, he’s picked up the endorsement of outgoing state Rep. Ted James, former head of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, and hired a longtime state political insider, James Gilmore, as his campaign manager. Gilmore was an aide for Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and special assistant to former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. “He helps me understand how they talk and do their business,” Chambers says.
So far, two online ads have defined the Chambers campaign and taken him from relative unknown to viral Internet sensation.
In the first, Chambers sits in an open Louisiana field, smoking marijuana while his voice-over recites statistics about racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests. (Medical marijuana is legal in Louisiana.) Chambers, who held a February fundraiser in a Maryland marijuana dispensary, says he sees economic opportunity for Black entrepreneurs if marijuana was legalized.
That video, which debuted Jan. 18, has been viewed nearly 7 million times on Twitter and put him on the radar of Cortez Bryant, a New Orleans native and the hip-hop impresario of Young Money Entertainment, who guided the career of rap superstar Lil Wayne and signed acts such as Drake and Nicki Minaj.
“It was like ‘BOOM!” says Cortez. “I saw that ad and thought it was genius, innovative, creative, authentic.” As a marketer, Bryant was excited to see someone injecting the stodgy world of politics with a swagger that he believes can connect with young people. He’s not officially involved with Chambers’s campaign, Bryant says, but “whatever he needs, I want to help.”
He’s already contributed $2,900 to Chambers’ campaign and is planning to throw a fundraiser in March.
Kennedy, meanwhile, called Chambers a “woke activist” and “Nancy Pelosi’s socialist dream candidate” who likes to smoke “the Devil’s lettuce.”
In his next ad, the camera zooms in on Chambers as he recites the Declaration of Independence. They said we hold these truths to be self-evident… He tells the story of P.B.S. Pinchback, the Black Louisiana governor elected to the U.S. Senate in 1872, but who was denied his seat after opponents claimed election fraud. Then Chambers douses a Confederate flag with gasoline and lights it on fire. As the ad closes, a reflection of the flag burns in his sunglasses.
The 24 hours after the video’s release was his biggest fundraising haul of the campaign. It was a “six-figure day,” Chambers says.
But he also received emails from irate viewers. In one, the writer says, “Come to my house and burn it and it will be the last thing you ever burn.”
Chambers says he’s not scared. “That 9[mm handgun] that was on the table — I don’t know where they moved it to to hide it from you — it ain’t never far,” Chambers says. “The only way we’re gonna change this country is to tell the truth about it. And if it makes you upset that I burned a Confederate flag, you’re part of the problem.”
The commercials cost less than $500 each to make and were written by Chambers’s communications consultant Erick Sanchez, who said he wanted to produce something that would make a splash and give the fledgling campaign some buzz.
It has worked, at least for veteran Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who called the Confederate flag ad “the most striking primary ad I’ve perhaps ever seen in my life ... Without that ad, we wouldn’t be talking about him.”
Rushing to the Zulu Ball, an impatient Chambers playfully admonishes his driver for not being aggressive enough in avoiding traffic. Mardi Gras has turned the city into a labyrinth of barricades and snarled traffic and he’s growing impatient as the typical 15 minute drive drags on for an hour. The ball has been around for decades and is considered one of the biggest parties of the year, bringing in Black residents from across the state. This year, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell was on hand to toast the new Zulu king and queen, but that was six hours ago. Chambers is the guest of another insider, Winston Burns, a close associate of former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial.
“I think he’s a sharp young man,” Burns, a former music business promoter, said of Chambers. “And I just wanted to expose him to a large crowd.”
Chambers is hoping to impress them all.
He first came to national prominence in 2020 as the country was grappling with the murder of George Floyd. A video of Chambers speaking during a Baton Rouge school board hearing over changing the name of Lee High School, named in honor of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, went viral after he chastised a board member seen online shopping during the hearing. Chambers interrupted his planned remarks to call the board member “arrogant,” “horrible,” and an “example of racism in this community.”
The video has been seen hundreds of thousands of times and landed Chambers an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Two years later, he is attending the Zulu Ball for the first time. When he finally arrives at the convention center, Chambers opens the SUV door and cranks up the DJ Mustard/Roddy Ricch tune “Ballin.’” A self-described introvert, Chambers appears to be hyping himself up.
It’s the first coronation ball since the coronavirus shut down Mardi Gras last year and the room is packed with 18,000 people in black tuxedos and sparkling floor-length gowns. A dress code is being strictly enforced, and men who show up in any color tuxedo jacket other than black are turned away.
He is finally among “the people,” Chambers says as he makes his way inside. Soon a woman in a silver sequined jacket grabs him for the first selfie of the night.
About a half dozen large screens hang from the ceiling, broadcasting performances from R&B stars such as Tamia, Dru Hill and Keith Sweat. In the lobby, attendees wait in line for portraits in a high-backed ivory cushioned chair placed in front of a red curtain backdrop.
Chambers begins circulating, making a special trip to the VIP section before heading to the dance floor. The ball is “one of those places where you need to be seen,” he says. “It matters.”
And he wants to be seen by as many of them as possible. He’s being followed by a cameraman collecting content for his YouTube channel, which appears to help.
A giddy woman decked out in a black sequin dress and holding a bottle of Patron gets a photo. So do two young men who greet him as “Mr. Chambers.” The unmistakable synthesizer riff of Boosie Badazz’s Southern rap classic “Wipe Me Down” thumps the room, and now Chambers is nodding and grooving and shouting, “He’s a 2-2-5 boy!” — the area code of his and Boosie’s shared hometown of Baton Rouge.
It’s 1:30 a.m. by the time Chambers decides to make his final lap around the room.
Chambers bumps into New Orleans bounce rap legend Big Freedia, dressed in a blue velvet bodysuit. Freedia was on the Chambers bandwagon early, recording a campaign video and song for Chambers’s ill-fated campaign to replace Cedric Richmond in March 2021. They pose for a quick picture before parting. “We need him!” she shouts in her distinct Louisiana accent while pointing at Chambers. “He gonna tell it like it is.”
Once he makes it to the lobby, he’s grabbed for one final photo. Malik Bartholomew, who runs a local tour company, says he is excited about Chambers’s candidacy and is tired of well-rehearsed politicians who don’t challenge the status quo. “It’s good to have people who we don’t consider the norm,” says Bartholomew.
With that, Chambers declares the evening a success.
But most voters haven’t started thinking about Election Day yet. Chambers knows this, too. He is also badly trailing Kennedy in fundraising, $600,000 to Kennedy’s millions. The Black voters Chambers is depending on make up just 31 percent of the state’s registered voters.
Chambers is employing a common strategy for long-shot candidates to build name recognition and get the attention of donors, said Robert Hogan, chairman of the Louisiana State University political science department. (Louisiana has a “jungle primary,” in which all candidates are on the same ballot in November and the top two vote-getters have a December runoff if neither earns more than 50 percent of the primary vote.)
“I have to say, his antics and attention-grabbing stuff is outside the norm,” Hogan said.
But reelection campaigns are usually about the incumbent, and Louisiana appears satisfied with Kennedy, Hogan says. “I think [Kennedy’s] probably doing a very good job of representing his electoral constituency in Washington,” says Hogan.
And the folksy Kennedy has been known to go viral, too, like when he asked Anne Traum, a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, nine times if illegal actions should be forgiven “in the name of social justice.” The video was seen more than 1.5 million times on YouTube.
Chambers says he tried to recruit several Democrats to challenge Kennedy but they all refused so he decided to jump into the race himself. “He has been elected almost as long as I’ve been alive in some capacity in this state,” Chambers says of Kennedy.
The Senate seat is winnable for Democrats, Chambers says, citing current Louisiana Democratic governor John Bel Edwards. But he knows that a Black Democrat hasn’t won statewide since Reconstruction.
Perhaps he can do enough to energize the local party, Chambers says, and set Democrats up for long-term success.
“If I lose an election, but Louisiana ends up in the next year electing a Democrat, a Black Democratic governor in 2023 and then follow that up by sending somebody else to the U.S. Senate later, that’s a win,” says Chambers. “This thing isn’t about me. This is about making sure that the opportunity exists for somebody to get there.”