Big Easy Magazine Interviews Congressional Candidate Gary Chambers

Photo courtesy of Facebook

When Representative Cedric Richmond left Louisiana’s congressional delegation to take up a role as Special Advisor to President Joe Biden, he left one of the state’s most liberal, reliably Democratic seats in up for grabs. Several candidates have entered the race, which is already in early voting and will be decided via special election on March 20th. We’re reaching out to each of the Democratic candidates in order to help you choose where to cast your vote.

Gary Chambers is a Baton Rouge-based social justice advocate and community organizer known for his unapologetic approach to what many consider to be tough political and community challenges. He has pushed for changes in policing, healthcare access in North Baton Rouge, and for minority-owned business contracts with the city-parish government. We spoke with him on issues facing Louisiana voters, as well as where he stands on major Democratic issues now beginning to work their way through Congress.

Editor’s note: some of Mr. Chamber’s responses have been edited for brevity/readability purposes. 

How are you doing today Mr. Chambers?

I’m pushing brother. This is a very time-consuming process, that’s what I’m gonna say. It is very time-consuming.

Why are you running for 2nd Congressional?

Well, I wasn’t even considering this race; the people called me to the fight. When Rep. Richmond took the role with President Biden, some folks from around the country as well as in the state said they thought I should consider it. Initially I was like, “Here’s the [New Orleans Advocate|Times-Picayune] story of all the people who are looking at the race,” because I wasn’t sold that this was something that I needed to do. But, after talking to some folks and seeing the passion that people had about wanting to see a different type of leader serve, I said I’d consider it.

We launched an exploratory committee at the end of November – really, the week of Thanksgiving – and we raised $100,000 in December from around the country, which said, “Hey, people are serious. They want to see us do this.” So we went and shot a video, and did an announcement January 4th, and we raised another $200,000 in January – $50,000 on the first day we announced. That told me that people all over this country, including in New Orleans – because we have a lot of donors in New Orleans – wanted to see us in this race. So we’re in it.

We’ve got over 10,000 contributions at this point – more than any other candidate in this race – which I see as “People Power.” People want to see a bold, progressive voice in this seat. So I’m in the race.

As you know, Louisiana has been pretty heavily gerrymandered… How do you feel about the redistricting process going forward? Do you expect the 2nd Congressional District will look the same way as it does now in two years? 

I hope it doesn’t. I hope that we get a second seat. I think that Black folks specifically – which the majority of us are Democrats – make up 34% of this state. We’re underrepresented in D.C. We’re the second-Blackest state in the country, but we only have one Black member in Congress. That makes absolutely no sense. In my opinion, we should have a second seat. We have a Democrat as governor at this time where we had a Republican the last time; it is my hope that he will veto a map that does not give us equity. I think that power may give us a little more leverage that we did not have 10 years ago.

I’ve been to every parish in this district. Specifically, when we shot our announcement video, we wanted to go into every single parish – not just put the picture up or say their names like other candidates did. We wanted to go to those communities. We were driving, we’re in St. Charles Parish, but I was like, “oh, but this isn’t in the district.” So we had to drive on other little roads and find a way into the district. St. John the Baptist Parish, when you drive into LaPlace, you’re in St. John the Baptist Parish, you think, “Okay, we’re in the parish, we can do it here,” but no. Because the part closest to the interstate is not in the district, but on the other side, Airline Highway is in the district. Same thing when we went to Kenner. When we were in the Metairie area, Metairie and Kenner. When you drive through and you’re in the district, and then you drive further down Airline, there’s some White voters that live in this area so they cut that out and gave it to Scalise.

It’s an atrocity, but it shows how intentional they are. It’s surgical precision racism in my opinion. If you really feel that your values and your priorities are that good, then you shouldn’t have to disenfranchise other people in order for your values to prevail. I don’t have to screw Republicans over in order to push the policies that I feel are just; I just have to talk about good policies and people support that. I think because they know their policies are trash, they go about the means of controlling who the members of Congress are rather than allowing people to choose their representatives.

I said a lot there, but I’m pretty serious about the gerrymandering thing. 

Along a similar vein, this problem of disenfranchisement is structural, and racism is nationwide. Some folks have strongly suggested for some time that [Washington D.C.] statehood would be a small step in the right direction toward addressing that in the Senate –

I fully support it. I think that the people of D.C. should have representation and if there’s anything in my power to do anything in Congress to support them, I will.

President Biden has said recently that he has some reluctance toward cancelling $50,000 in student loans through executive action… but he suggested that Congress was free to do whatever they wanted to do. Do you support any sort of legislation for relief of student loans and which side (executive action vs legislative) do you personally support?

I think that people should get the $50,000. We’re talking about people who are trying to recover in an economy where we know that people are overeducated and underemployed in America and they’re saddled with debt. That’s not the American dream, to go to college, graduate with a bunch of debt that I have to pay off before I can ever buy a house. And President Biden campaigned that he would do something to help students – now you get there and you’re gun shy? I think that folks like myself are gonna lean on former Representative Richmond, special advisor to the President, as well as any connectivity we can to the President and say, ‘you’ve got to do this.’ 

Democrats have the clock for two years. That’s it. We’re not guaranteed to win in 2022. We’re not guaranteed to have the House or the Senate in 2022. The only thing we’ve got for the next four years is the White House that we know. With the two years we’ve got, we need to do everything we can to advance the agenda that we promised the people we would push. I think Republicans proved in the last four years they would do that. As a result, they increased in many ways in state Houses across the country, because they delivered on what they told the people they would do. Whether I agree with the things they delivered on doesn’t really matter. When people give you the White House, the Senate, and the House, that’s a mandate.

Every tool that you have at your disposal – in the same fashion that Republicans have – use the tools in the tool belt… Trump showed us in ways that we never could have imagined what he would do with executive power. He used executive powers to ostracize and discriminate against people, and here the President now has the opportunity to help people and now he’s saying he doesn’t know if he should do that? You don’t know if you should use the executive power that you have to help bring people out of debt in this country? To build a stronger economy? It’s really not rocket science.”

Right now there is some debate among Democrats on whether the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is our one shot at raising the minimum wage – it is related to the pandemic, it is related to relief, and we should do it now. More conservative Democrats have said they don’t support that, that the bill should be more moderate. Do you support the more conciliatory approach or should they be really “swinging for the fences” in the next two years?

The American people can’t afford for us to keep playing games with the minimum wage. We should raise the minimum wage. We should go there and do the work of the people while we have the time on the clock. I think moderate Democrats might as well be Republicans. They don’t serve the people of this country well. We can say that’s what it takes to be elected – how do you know if you never try to go further to the left? Republicans went as far right as they could go, and they started winning. Trump is an example of going as far to the bushes as you can go and getting the White House. Here we are on the ricochet of that pretending that we haven’t watched the last four years.

Let’s be clear: 70 million people still voted for Donald Trump, which means that he still has a massive amount of support in this country because he was doing the things that he told the people he was going to do. Whether I agree with those things doesn’t matter. What matters is those people are still there because that’s what they wanted.

The overwhelming amount of Americans support raising the minimum wage. So let’s raise the minimum wage. The overwhelming majority of Americans are beginning to support Medicare for All. Let’s move on Medicare for All. Let’s do the things that make sense to help people while the day is light. 

We live in a state that ranks 50th in the nation in opportunity, in crime, in environmental quality, 45th in healthcare, 47th in education. I don’t have time to wait on Republicans and Democrats to figure out what day and what bill they’re gonna move through Congress to help people. The people of Louisiana need help right now. Every day that we play down there in D.C. there is another life lost in this state, whether it’s from the coronavirus, or gun violence, there’s somebody in this state that’s impacted because the people in D.C. aren’t doing the business that brings people out of poverty. 

That’s the real issue in this country. We have too many people that live in poverty that can’t afford to take care of themselves and we have an unjust system that allows the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer.

When it comes to the rollout of the vaccine, Louisiana has been in the middle ranks of that, but it does seem to be that there is a demonstrable inequality, especially in the Black community. Do you feel that is more due to unequal distributions and inequities in healthcare or do you think that is distrust in the Black community?

I think it’s both, but I certainly think there is inequity in the process. We watched this with the pandemic actually hitting Black people. Black people were more likely to catch the virus because of the jobs we worked. It was overwhelmingly impacting us.  But America has always taken care of White folks before taking care of poor folks or Black folks. Wealthier, middle class White people will always get whatever they need first, and then everybody else. 

I don’t think it’s just a matter of people being concerned about taking the vaccine. My parents have had both shots at this point. They are both in their 70s though, so they were in the first group of people that qualified to be able to get it. But they had to drive to the other side of town to get that vaccine. Twelve miles to the facility that they had to go to to get that vaccine. What about people that don’t have access to a car? What about people who struggle with transportation, or are still working? [My parents] went at 6:00 pm to get their shots. Everybody can’t do that. Why aren’t we making this more accessible, giving it at community centers, showing up at churches, opening up football stadiums, basketball arenas, whatever we’ve gotta do? A lot of our schools are empty right now – the parking lot of a school could be turned into a place that vaccinations could take place. How many blighted properties that are empty in Black neighborhoods that we could pop up a vaccination drive-through to help people? There are empty grocery store parking lots in every major Black corridor in America. 

To be clear, you support the science behind vaccinations, you support the vaccine, and you’ll get it yourself when it becomes available to you?

I think that there are certainly reasons to be concerned. I understand the concerns that people have. I’m nervous about it as well. But the alternative is playing Russian roulette with the coronavirus. The truth of the matter is – the way I feel about it – so many White people are taking it, I know they’re not trying to kill me with it. (laughs) If they were giving it to Black people in masks first, I’d be more worried about it. They really believe in it.

Do you mind if we include that response verbatim in the article?

I’m fine with it. The history of America is, this country does for wealthy and White people first. If it was something negative, they tested it out on us first. Charter schools, for example. Give those to Black and Brown people because, “hey this is an experiment, let’s see if it works.” The vaccine? Maybe not so much.

Thank you for talking today Gary, one last question. Democrats had great success this last election with Georgia. That was a huge success story for everything from voter registration to grassroots organizing. Do you see a similar model being applicable to Louisiana going forward or do we need to try something different?

 There are several things to point out there. People always ask, ‘who is Louisiana’s Stacy Abrams?’ Her name is Ashley Shelton with the Power Coalition. She’s been mobilizing hundreds of thousands of votes in this state for years now and people should put some respect on her name. That’s number one. Number two, what Georgia had was millions of dollars to Fair Fight Georgia and the organizations that leader Abrams had. It wasn’t just that Abrams was such a great leader, it’s that she knew how to raise money, that people felt that she was robbed of an election, and they gave millions of dollars to help her mobilize the vote in Georgia and they did so.

We have lost seats. One of my competitors in this race, while they were the head of the state party we lost four State Senate seats. We lost nearly six or seven House seats while she was the chair of the party. We can’t continue to elect the same type of people who care about advancing themselves more than they care about advancing the people. 

If Louisiana wants to do what Georgia did, don’t support the person Stacy’s supporting in Louisiana. We’ve gotta run new people, new voices that the people can get excited by. Rafael Warnock had not run for office and won or anything like that before. John Ossof was not a career politician. They were new voices that stepped up that people got excited behind, the same way that thousands of people have gotten excited behind our campaign. You need that kind of energy. You need to be able to raise money. You need to be able to partner the work of people like Ashley Shelton and the Power Coalition and Norse Henderson and VOTE. You need to get those people the resources that they need and then you have to have new voices as your elected officials that can go and champion the cause around the country to help build a rallying cry for our state.

Jenn Bentley contributed to this article.


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