On this week’s Lever Time: we speak with a drug policy expert about Joe Biden’s marijuana plan; and we interview U.S. Senate candidate Gary Chambers.
From LeverNews.com — Lever Time is the flagship podcast from the investigative news outlet The Lever. Hosted by award-winning journalist, Oscar-nominated writer, and Bernie Sanders' 2020 speechwriter David Sirota, Lever Time features exclusive reporting from The Lever’s newsroom, high-profile guest interviews, and expert analysis from the sharpest minds in media and politics.
David Sirota 0:09
Hey there, and welcome to lever time the flagship podcast from the lever, an independent investigative news outlet. I'm your host, David Sirota on today's show, we're gonna be talking about marijuana in light of President Biden's recent announcement that he'll be taking steps to decriminalize the drug. We're going to be talking to a cannabis policy expert to break everything down the good, the bad and the ugly. Then for our big interview today, I'll be speaking with Gary chambers, the civil rights activist now turned politician who's running for a US Senate seat in his home state of Louisiana. This week, our paid subscribers will also get a bonus segment, my conversation with Alex Stephen, the climate futurist and author about the practicalities of building sustainable infrastructure, as well as how you can ruggedized your life. If you want to access lever time premium, you can head over to lever news.com To become a supporting subscriber that gives you access to all of our premium content. And you'll be directly supporting the investigative journalism that we do here at the lever. Speaking of which, if you're looking for other ways to support our work, share our reporting with your friends and family leave this podcast a rating and review on your podcast player. The only way that independent media grows is by word of mouth, and we need all the help we can get to combat the inane bullshit that is corporate media. As always, I'm joined by producer Frank, what's up producer Frank?
Producer Frank 1:31
How much David I'm doing all right. Only one of us can say that at the moment. I know that you're feeling a little under the weather. So yes,
David Sirota 1:37
I've been I've been sick for a couple of days. But there's been some good news. I think the marijuana stuff is definitely some good news. It's not perfect news is we're going to be discussing but that was some big news this week, I think, Oh, definitely. I
Producer Frank 1:50
mean, I know Biden drew some criticism from you know, some folks, especially those on the right saying that this is just you know, a pre midterm tactic to garner support, but you know, whether it is or not, this is definitely a good thing. Objectively, it really
David Sirota 2:06
shows that the politics of the whole situation are changing. But again, as you suggest, it's a kind of a complex situation, which gets to our first story of the day. We're going to be talking about what is actually happening. We're going to be talking about marijuana. What are
Tim Meadows 2:21
y'all doing here? We're smoking reefer and you don't want no part of this shit. You know what I don't want no hangover I can't get no hangover. It doesn't give you a hangover. I'll get addicted to it or something. It's not habit forming. I don't want to overdose on it. You can't OD on it. Sounds kind of expensive is the cheapest drug there is
David Sirota 2:42
President Biden aka dark Brandon, aka now dank. Brandon made headlines last week when he announced that his administration would be taking steps to decriminalize marijuana. First, Biden plans to pardon all federal offenses of simple cannabis possession. Next, he called on state governors to issue pardons in their states for cannabis possession. Finally, Biden asked the Health and Human Services Secretary to look into rescheduling cannabis. So it's no longer on schedule one of the Controlled Substances Act meaning it's no longer as much of a federal crime
Producer Frank 3:19
important to note, cannabis is currently on the same level as heroin right, which
David Sirota 3:23
is totally insane. While these moves are certainly a step in the right direction. Biden has received some criticism from both the right and left first on the right, you had ghouls like ASA Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, by the way, former head of the DEA, an actual NARC, who said in a statement that Biden quote, has waved the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse, and is adopted all the talking points of the drug legalizers. It should be noted that in the United States, roughly 95,000 People die every year from alcohol related deaths. And roughly 80,000 people died from opioid overdoses just in 2021. Meanwhile, I couldn't nail down a statistic on cannabis related deaths in the United States, because it's so difficult to quantify. Certainly not at the level of those other drugs that I just mentioned, which are legal. Hutchinson, as I said, was the administrator of the DEA. So keep that in mind when you hear criticism. Also, keep in mind that the Republican Governors Association gets lots and lots and lots of money from the private prison industry, which says that it has a vested financial interest in making sure that the current drug laws, the current drug enforcement stays the same. So always follow the
Producer Frank 4:50
money. You just wrote up a story about that for the lever, right?
David Sirota 4:53
Yes, exactly. And we always follow the money at the lever. And so when I saw those Republican governors come out and say that they're not going to listen to Biden asking them to, to pardon folks in their states for a low level marijuana offenses. All you did is you punch up the money and say, Oh, well, there's lots and lots of money from the private prison industry flowing into Republican coffers. Now, on the left, you also had drug policy activist criticizing Biden, for not going far enough, saying that the pardons should apply to all nonviolent marijuana offenses, not just simple possession, as well as include re sentencing expungement and removing immigration consequences for non citizens. Whether you think this announcement is just a tactic of the Biden administration to garner support before the midterm elections, or if you think that he hasn't done nearly enough to actually reverse the devastating effects of the war on drugs, of which by the way, Biden was a major architect of that war. I think it's clear that this is a step at least a step in the right direction. To help us break everything down the good, and the bad, and the ugly, will now be going to the levers interview with Shaleen. Title, and attorney and longtime drug policy activist and founder of the parabola center, a think tank focused on restorative justice in drug policy. Chalene also served as the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, from 2017 to 2020. She's the author of the book fair and square, how to effectively incorporate social equity into cannabis laws and regulations. And also the book bigger is not better preventing monopolies in the national cannabis market. Just a heads up the interview is between Chalene and the levers Managing Editor Joe Warner, who has years of experience reporting on the cannabis industry in Colorado.
Joel Warner 6:52
Chalene thank you so much for joining us today. Um, can we start with you telling us a bit about yourself to me? Tell us a bit more about your background? What kind of work you're currently doing, what your past week has been like?
Shaleen Title 7:06
Sure, yeah. So I've been working on marijuana legalization for a long time, about 20 years. And I went to law school actually hoping that I would one day get to write legal marijuana laws. That's exactly what happened. I worked on the Colorado campaign in 2012, which is how I met you, I think. And then since then, I've been working on trying to make sure that legalization is better. I did a lot of racial and social equity work on legalization, which is how I got tapped to become a regulator in Massachusetts, I spent three years leading the rollout of legal marijuana here. And then when I left my term, I really wanted to focus on getting the corporate greed out of the legalization movement. So I started a new nonprofit think tank called parabola Center for Law and Policy. And that's what we focus on marijuana legalization for people, not for corporations.
Joel Warner 8:03
I heard you use the term marijuana in describing your background. And Frank and I were having a discussion around this around the correct terminology these days, I don't think we need to discuss why terms like weed and pot are a bit behind the times. But if we can, for folks who are not in the know, like producer Frank, can you kind of share kind of the differences between using terms like marijuana, and cannabis? And how should regular people sound most informed when they're kind of discussing these issues?
Shaleen Title 8:34
Yeah, I mean, I think you can't really go wrong. I use the terms interchangeably. So I think if people know what you're talking about, that's fine. But if you want to sound informed, cannabis is the scientific name for the plant. Generally, over the last 10 years or so, the legal term has been shifting from marijuana to cannabis. And a lot of people feel that because marijuana was used 100 years ago intentionally to bring out the racism in decision makers because it sounded foreign. They want to avoid using those words. But there's also a whole group of people that thinks that think we should reclaim the term marijuana, you know, with its Mexican and Spanish origin, or ganja, which is a Sanskrit term where I'm from. So I think any of these terms really make sense. As long as people know what you're talking about.
Joel Warner 9:24
Oh, well, I did not realize that, like so many other terms, these terms have been kind of this kind of deeper level politicization, which to me is fascinating. But if it's okay, can we get into Joe Biden's policy announcement from the past week? So, as we've been noting, in our coverage at the lever, Joe Biden announced last week that he's taking some steps to begin the process of decriminalizing cannabis. If it's okay, I want to kind of go through this announcement piece by piece delve into each of these policy proposals because I think there is some subtleties involved. So first off, Biden says that up lands department all federal offenses of simple cannabis possession, which would help remove barriers for those with records to employment, to housing and educational opportunities. Well, at least that's what should happen in theory. But if we could like, like, what does pardoning these federal kind of cannabis possession offenses actually kind of translate to in the real world?
Shaleen Title 10:21
Yeah, let's break that down. I think it's a really big, powerful step. And the first thing I just want to point out as someone who works on avoiding the corporate greed is that there is tremendous pressure on Congress and the White House to do things for businesses to do commercially based reform. And so the fact that the first big action that Biden took was to pardon people, I think, in and of itself is a huge victory. But let's talk about like you said, the concrete impact. It's pretty small. It's pretty small, but it's real. So no one is actually locked up for simple possession at the federal level, which is what the pardons are going to be issued for. So it's about 6500, people who have federal level charges, and for them, employment, housing, education, all these different types of barriers, will now those barriers will now be removed, because they will have a pardon for their record. So it's a small impact, but a real one.
Joel Warner 11:29
So I've been thinking about these, these 6500 individuals who've been mentioned, do we know much about them, other than this number, like has there been reporting on who these people are? how their lives have led them to this point, and how this really will kind of impact their lives? Or is just one of those kind of kind of general kind of concepts that people haven't really kind of dug into about who these people are that this could actually help?
Shaleen Title 11:51
Yeah, it's funny that you mentioned it, because I, you mentioned, how is the week been? For me? A lot of people have been asking, do you know anybody who would be affected by this? Who can talk about it, I think both at the small number of people, so it's hard to get to them. And also, they don't necessarily want to speak out about this, right? Because the whole point is that talking about having a conviction is causing problems in their lives, right. So they don't necessarily want to be public about it, which is a whole reason why we need programs like this.
Joel Warner 12:23
Okay, that makes sense. So I mean, along with this kind of small, but concrete step, like most things with President Biden, there were caveats. Okay. So one thing was that he specified that this policy would not apply to non citizens, which feels somewhat punitive. You know, do you have any thoughts about why Biden, in this big cannabis announcement would take the time effort to be like, well, this only applies to citizens?
Shaleen Title 12:50
Yeah, I agree with you, Joe. I think it does sound punitive. And my best guess is that this was a political move, right. Obviously, it's a hugely popular move was right before an election. And I think there was probably some thought that perhaps there was risk if non citizens were included, or people who sell cannabis were included. And so it was made to be very small. I think that was probably a miscalculated political calculation, because most people, regardless of party now agree that a marijuana should be legalized and be people should not face serious consequences for having used it. So I hope that in the future, you know, perhaps he will feel a bit more confident based on the reception to this move, and will in fact, include non citizens as well.
Joel Warner 13:43
I mean, as, as we've been talking about here at the lever. This, of course, the president who was the main architect of the war on drugs, and then to 80s, and 1990s. So it's not hugely surprising that he's sticking some of these more kind of punitive measures into this. As you said, let's hope that this is a step in the right direction. And along those lines. I mean, from your perspective, is there anything else that Biden could do in the way of federal pardons or executive power terms of expunging some of these records? Like for you? What's the next step Biden should do?
Shaleen Title 14:16
Yeah, there's a lot more you can do. I think the most clear non, the most clear next step is to make this apply to people who sold cannabis, not just possessed it, because that's going to have a real impact. It's actually going to probably affect people who are locked up as well. And I think if he keeps talking about this, it is going to change the stigma and that is going to affect real life. He could certainly apologize for as you said, his role in the drug war. He was a lead architect. And I think if he apologized, it would make a difference.
Joel Warner 14:52
Yes. We'll see if he gets around to doing that. So the next part of Biden's announcement was that he called on state governor was to issue pardons in their states for cannabis possession, saying, and I quote, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason. What are your thoughts on this piece? Do you think it'll just be a party line thing where the GOP governors are gonna say no way democratic kind of governors are going to kind of step up on this? Or is do you think we're gonna see more kind of individual kind of reaction, depending on the governor and the state? Yeah, I
Shaleen Title 15:27
think it will vary by state. But I'm super excited about this part. Because I happen to be in the ideal state. I'm in Massachusetts, and we have a gubernatorial election taking place. And almost immediately after the announcement came out, our most likely candidate for governor or Attorney General Maura Healey came out and said, Yes, she's going to heed the call, she's going to make the pardons at the state level. And I fully expect her to do that. And I think what's really cool is that would not have happened otherwise. But because we're in Massachusetts, when Biden made this announcement and put this pressure on her of like, okay, are you in Massachusetts going to be to the right of Biden, you know, and so, of course, she's not a very pro legalization politician, but she had to say it, because Biden has now changed what the minimum acceptable position is
Joel Warner 16:24
awesome. So in some ways, we actually might see some real benefits from Biden kind of moving kind of the goal line here. So in some ways, the timing of this announcement might have been positive, because it's going to force some of the kind of Democrats the election to respond to it. So I guess that's a good sign. Is there anything else you think that Biden could do to, to either kind of force the governors to make moves or supersede the governors and get this done by himself? Or is this part strictly in the purview of state law? So there's only so much that the federal government can do?
Shaleen Title 16:56
Well, I think it's a little bit of both because legally, there's nothing that the federal government can do. It has to be the states that that take the charge on state level expungement and governor's on pardons. But I think that by saying something, it makes a big difference. I think that most people agree about expungement, and record clearance. But usually states are hesitant, actually, because it's a lot of expense, and paperwork to go and find all of those records, you know, and destroy them. And so if you have enough political pressure to make the states do it, both in red and blue states, and I think the President is certainly capable of creating this pressure, then they will actually invest in the actual record clearance process, which means a lot for people who have convictions on their records.
Joel Warner 17:50
And I assume, along with the pressure from the President, activists are going to be stepping up the pressure from from down below as well. So if we're seeing these lawmakers feel good kind of faced pressure from two directions, say yes, I know, what's more paperwork for you. I know it's aggravation, but these are people's lives, and we might actually see a movement.
Shaleen Title 18:09
Exactly. It's a whole snowball effect for activists because you get political pressure, you get media attention, you get people asking what expungement is, and it's this whole gift that renews the call. And that's exactly what just happened here in the last week with our soon to be governor. And then
Joel Warner 18:26
finally, as part of his announcement last week, Biden asked Health and Human Services Secretary Javier Becerra to look into rescheduling cannabis. So it's no longer unscheduled, one of the Controlled Substances Act. Now, to be honest, this once again, feels a bit of a caveat a little bit bullshitty because Biden's asking Becerra to look into this concept, right to, to form a committee to come up with suggestions, etc, etc. But from your perspective, like what would what would actually be required to actually either reschedule or reschedule kind of cannabis? And what would be the concrete impact of, of moving kind of cannabis off schedule one.
Shaleen Title 19:07
So a schedule one drug for people who don't know means that a drug has a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic potential, which, of course, is not true for cannabis. And I think the President is acknowledging that by asking for a review. I think you're right, that on the one hand, it could be a bull city move and nothing could come from this review. On the other hand, I think it's exactly the right way to start this approach of let's clear records for people who are locked up or facing barriers now, and then start this D scheduling and rescheduling process, which may have some impact for people. But generally, this is a business economic industry change. It's going to be a complete sea change. So Do you live in a state with legal cannabis after rescheduling or D scheduling, it's going to look completely different. And if cannabis is, in fact D scheduled, that's when you will see the big corporate interests like Amazon, big tobacco, big alcohol, Big Pharma, all of whom are waiting in the wings for D scheduling. And so that is not a process that we want to rush in any form. So I think it's absolutely right to start with a review. I think that HHS and DEA need to be thinking about who the regulators should be at the federal level, looking at what the states have done, what evidence we have. And if that takes some time, that's fine, because we can continue to stop arrest and legalize at the state level. In the meantime,
Joel Warner 20:47
it's interesting hearing you say this, because I think there would probably be a naive assumption in members of the public that kind of drug drug policy reform activists who be like, No, let's get this done tomorrow. This is Let's just remove it. But from what you're saying, in this day and age, there are complexities there that actually mean no, we need to kind of be smart and tactical, but how we kind of remove these long standing federal barriers,
Shaleen Title 21:13
right. And I think a lot of people might mistakenly assume that if cannabis is de scheduled, that would stop the arrest. But in fact, as we said, most of the arrest takes place at the state level. And states are the ones who decide whether to criminalize or not. So even if national federal legalization takes place, and it's D scheduled, states can still choose to criminalize and arrest people. And if we want to make the change, we have to do it at the state level. And so there's no like, automatic, wonderful utopian thing that will happen with de scheduling. But there's a lot of disaster that could actually come. So you don't hear that very often. Unless it's someone who has perhaps been in a regulator role like me, you can see the potential for harm. And so asking for review did not cause active harm. And I think it's actually the best way to start out.
Joel Warner 22:09
Interesting. So I wanted to kind of sum up our discussion about Biden's announcement. From your perspective, how good a move is this? Like, were you over the moon? Were you excited, but had concerns or were you like this is this is mostly just kind of political speak, but we'll take what we can get.
Shaleen Title 22:30
I think it's a great political move. I think that it's a small but great concrete impact, and it didn't do any harm. So all of those things together, I'm very happy because it is, in fact, easy to do harm when you start messing with federal drug laws,
Joel Warner 22:50
if it's okay, I want to segue a bit to a story we just put out this morning, where we noted that in response to Biden calling on governors to look into issue partying in their states, we had several GOP governors, I mean, they say No way, we're not going to do this. And not just because of the party line stuff. But of course, these governors, including the governor of Texas, have been some of the biggest recipients of private prison money. So I want to if we kind of want to talk about this concept of terms of the opposition to reform kind of cannabis law as one, what is the opposition look like these days? More importantly, who's funding it and why? You know, we at this point, 70% of Americans support expunging cannabis related convictions. We are including majority of independents and Republicans. But as we know, public support doesn't always translate to the laws being changed, because they aren't necessarily holding the levers of power. So yeah. So to you, can we talk about what sort of opposition we're seeing these days to these sorts of changes and where the money is coming from?
Shaleen Title 23:59
Yeah, I think the anti legalization movement is constantly rebranding. So the main opposition organization called fams party, Smart Approaches to Marijuana just did a full rebrand a couple months ago. They do this all the time, because really, people don't understand. People are not against legalization, right? And they're losing people constantly because they were in a state. They were anti legalization, and then they saw dispensaries open. Right. They saw people love their products, they saw that nothing went wrong, you know, youth the Youth use didn't go up, everything kind of went smoothly. And so because they're losing people, they're rebranding. So actually, what's very funny about the current anti legalization messaging is that it sounds really similar to what people like me are saying, which is that we're worried about a big weed, right? We're worried about commercial realization, we're worrying about, essentially, this whole economy that exists both small cannabis businesses and underground operators being co opted and given to big tobacco, they use all of these talking points, but the difference is then they say, therefore, we cannot have legalization at all, whereas someone like me is actually giving a path to legalization. That's better. As for who's funding them? I don't know. I think it's a lot of small funders who they're kind of tricking, you know, people with genuine public health concerns who haven't looked into legalization as much. And then, of course, I think that the private prison industry and Big Pharma are continuing to oppose legalization as they always have.
Joel Warner 25:46
That's interesting. You also mentioned Big Pharma, because I think some members of the staff here at the level we were talking about, are looking into the money there was assumption, oh, should we look into what big alcohol is doing to oppose this and maybe also big tobacco. But as think, as we're about to discuss, I think those industries are looking at those ation in a different way than saying, do we need to stop this? Oh, quite the opposite. Yeah. So we're not seeing alcohol, fight legalization as people might have assumed. And yeah, actually, let's, let's actually get into that if that's okay. As we noted, we got to know each other when I was covering the cannabis industry here in Colorado, I started covering it right when the state became the first state in the country to legalize. Whereas really kind of grassroots at first, you know, some of the first dispensaries it was all kind of fly by night for both better and worse. And I think you've all seen this, the real kind of corporatization of the business. We've seen bigger, bigger players come in, it's starting to look like almost like a typical kind of boring industry. And I think there are some potential kind of risks in that. And I know this focus is on your work these days. So can we talk about how corporate interests are working to shape cannabis policies? As you said, companies like Amazon are waiting in the wings for the scheduling, or rescheduling? How do we know that and what do you think we'll be seeing? Well,
Shaleen Title 27:12
we know that because, for example, with Amazon, they endorsed all of the legalization bills so far, and they say that it's about their employees and they don't actually have plans to sell cannabis. So I will leave it up to your listeners if they want to trust Amazon or not. In terms of big tobacco and alcohol, they are actively funding front groups, essentially who work on marijuana legalization. So actually my counterpart in Colorado, the first Colorado regulator, Andrew Friedman, runs an organization called C pear. And it includes Altria, Molson kurz. It's a big tobacco and big alcohol funded group that is trying to influence legalization in DC. And that's why I've said so many times earlier, you know, that you could cause harm. I'll give you a quick example. When we talk about D scheduling marijuana, we can do it immediately, like what's often referred to as flipping the switch without any plan for what states currently have in place. Or we could do it gradually with protections for craft businesses with protections for state programs. And what they advocate for is the flip the switch model, which would allow big tobacco and alcohol to start buying up companies and engaging in interstate commerce across state lines, which would very likely put small businesses out of business quickly. So that's the difference, for example, and what the big corporate interests are advocating for, versus those who are worried about avoiding monopolies.
Joel Warner 29:00
So let me get this straight. The person who was hired here in Colorado, as the first marijuana czar, to kind of carefully kind of move through these new policies here in the state to create an exemplary kind of regulatory system is now working for these big industry saying no, we just have to go kind of whole hog forward. And come what may? Yes, amazing, amazing what what corporate money can do to people. Okay, so with that background, I mean, where do you see the next legalization paddles, either in terms of what states or what issues like, like, where do you see the next big developments?
Shaleen Title 29:39
Well, there's the short term push to this year actually pass something incremental. And it's funny, I think, actually, Colorado, the Colorado government is somewhat the face of this, where they're pushing for a bill called Safe banking, which would provide a Safe Harbor for banks that want to work with small cannabis businesses and large cannabis businesses. I think that there are some issues with the idea that banks are the victims here, you know, and they're the first ones who need to be protected by a federal bill. So I've made some suggestions for amendments. But that does look like this year, is the bill that has the potential to pass. So that's like the immediate issue. But I think in general, you know, now that we have this order from the President to, as a society start talking about reviewing the schedule, reviewing the status of cannabis, it's really important for people to talk about what the industry should look like, like you said earlier, do we want it to end up looking like every other industry with two or three giant corporations running it, or if we want it to look differently, then we need to get together as the movement that has legalized cannabis in all these states, and is going to be responsible for doing it federally, and make a plan for what it looks like. And that will be ongoing over the next months and probably years.
Joel Warner 31:08
I want to talk about how you know, making that plan, especially what do you think, kind of listeners activists could or should be doing to help at this point? You know, what advice do you give to people say, hey, you know, I'm supportive of legalization of decolonization, but I'm concerned about kind of the corporatization What do you recommend to people that they do on an individual basis, either how they vote with their checkbooks, or how they should advocate for, for smart regulations? I mean, what do you say to people who say, Well, what, what can I do?
Shaleen Title 31:40
So the first thing I tell people is you have a lot of power on this issue. And you may not realize it, because as citizens, we don't necessarily control, you know, how industries are going to roll out. But when it comes to this particular industry, those officials that want the credit of having legalized cannabis, they're listening to people, and they're especially listening to young people, consumers. So start by understanding your own power and empowering yourself, and then educate yourself. And that's what parabola center is for. That's our whole mission is to make these policies available so that you can advocate for them. I'll give you a quick example. There's a bill called the ship Act, which was introduced by Rep Hoffman in California. And it says that upon legalization immediately, small craft producers of cannabis would be able to ship directly by mail, their products to consumers. And this is based on what craft wineries and breweries have, oh, that's the exact kind of policies that we need. And then at the state level, there's a lot you can do as well, based on what's already in place in states. So follow parabola center, and we will help you use the power that you have.
Joel Warner 32:58
How should folks follow the problem center? How can folks support the parabola center,
Shaleen Title 33:02
so we are on Twitter and Instagram at parabola center. And we're run by legal professionals as a think tank that don't have private clients or private interests. So if you have an idea for what you want to see, like home grow, for example, the right to grow plants in your house, we can help draft that for you and your state.
Unknown Speaker 33:24
Awesome. Any final thoughts for you? This is this is a fantastic
Shaleen Title 33:28
No, just thank you for having me. And I hope that people don't give up you know, and see it as inevitable inevitable that big corporate interests will take over because they don't have power. That's why they're trying to co op the movements power. And we just got this big sign, you know, from the even the White House, the drug war architect himself, that they want to repair the harms of the drug war. So let's take that and run with it.
Joel Warner 33:52
Yeah, let's hope for that. And hopefully we see more progress, and if so, we'd love to have you back on to discuss it. Thanks. So
David Sirota 33:58
we're gonna take a quick break, but we'll be right back with my interview with US Senate candidate Gary chambers. Welcome back to lever time for our big interview. Today, I'll be speaking with Gary chambers, a Democrat running for a US Senate seat in Louisiana. Born in Baton Rouge, Gary is a longtime community organizer and activist who's now found himself on the national political stage. His campaign has already made big waves from its unabashed AD AD messaging. One depicted Gary smoking weed while calling for the legalization of marijuana. Another app, there was a burning confederate flag. While Gary was denouncing Louisiana's racist voting rights history. I spoke with Gary about his background, the state of the race, the friction that he's faced the tension, the conflict that he's faced with Louisiana Democratic Party establishment, and how he hopes to become Louisiana's first black senator. And hey, Gary, how you doing? Thanks for joining us.
Gary Chambers 34:58
I'm good how you doing?
David Sirota 35:00
What I'm doing okay, I guess to start for those in our audience who don't know, you tell us a little bit about yourself. What's your background? How did you find yourself getting into politics now running for a US Senate seat in Louisiana.
Gary Chambers 35:13
So I was a small business owner with two of my friends. We started a company called the Rouge collection media platform here in Baton Rouge. And we would just try to be hit version of another platform here in the city. There were things happening around the country, Trayvon Martin Avenue in Florida, Mike Brown in Missouri. These things impacted me as a young black man. And so I had a media platform. When Trayvon was killed. I wrote a column when Mike Brown was killed. On my first town hall, maybe 20 people showed up. And then there was a brother named Mr. Johnson here in Baton Rouge who was pulled over by the police and Baker, he has a traffic stop. He goes to parish prison, and they say he hung himself. And this is like three weeks before Sandra Bland. His family reaches out I write a column about it. 40,000 people read that column. A few months later, our district attorney here in Baton Rouge was attempting to open a misdemeanor jail, to round up people with simple traffic violations and bench warrants and put them in jail for the weekend to pay a debt. And I just thought if you can't handle the people in parish prison, you can't have the people in the temporary jail. And I wrote columns about that showed up in my first city council meeting in I think it was 2015 killed a misdemeanor jail. And as a result, just got addicted, started showing up at city council meetings, school board meetings, airport board meetings, parks and recreation, anywhere where people were taking our tax dollars and doing nothing to help people with it. I showed up and then I met my politicians and I found out that most of them weren't that good. And I thought I could run and do a better job. And that's
David Sirota 36:57
a good way to get into politics. In my view. That's it. That's my wife is a state legislator here in Colorado. It's basically how she got involved. She started meeting, started doing activism meeting politicians and realize you know what, these people are not special, and sometimes they can be replaced. I guess. Just to give folks the context of Louisiana's election, it's a little bit different in that the Democratic primary is on November 8, which is national election day, then the general election for the Senate seat in Louisiana on December 10. So knowing that you still have a primary to face tell us the state of that primary contest. How do you differentiate yourself from your other Democratic primary opponents?
Gary Chambers 37:35
Well, one I differentiate myself by actually having ran for office and served our community in meaningful ways and I have a base of support. I'm the only Democrat running that can say that they have a base of support. That's shown up to vote for them before. We're the lead polling Democrat, we raise more money faster than any other Democrat in the race. John Kennedy, who's our senator is polling at 51%. He's not overwhelmingly popular the way that people may think he is. And so what we need to do is keep him under 50. In order to create a runoff scenario, we're the campaign that has the capacity to mobilize the base of the party and Louisiana is 34%. Black. The Democratic Party here in the state is 70% Black 30% of white voters in the state consistently vote for consistently vote for Democrats. So we believe we are the campaign most energized most likely to be able to defeat John Kennedy by motivating the base of the party.
David Sirota 38:32
Now you have made some headlines nationally with some of your ads. One ad shows you smoking weed, another Jad shows you burning a confederate flag, I want to play a clip of that ladder ad,
Gary Chambers 38:46
they said We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. But here in Louisiana, and all over the south, Jim Crow never really left and the remnants of the Confederacy remain. So
David Sirota 38:58
I want to ask you just to go deeper on that. What do you mean by the remnants of the Confederacy remain in Louisiana?
Gary Chambers 39:04
So Louisiana is the second blackest state in America, we have six congressional districts, we should have two majority minority districts. We only have one, Iran in that congressional district in 2021. It's 10. parishes, we have parishes, not counties here, and it's extremely gerrymandered. All of the other districts are like blocks. And this one's kind of like a slither of a snake that goes from North Baton Rouge all the way to New Orleans East. It picks up a huge chunk of black voters in order to disenfranchise us from being able to get federal representation. That's one aspect of it. Same thing is happening in our state legislature. We have a super majority Republican legislature in the house and almost the same in the Senate, even though Black folks and Democrats make up a huge portion of this state. We're underrepresented on our Supreme Court here. And what does that mean? That means when every policy decision is made in this state about resources that are allocated to solve problems that black people are disadvantaged in that conversation. And taxation without representation is about as unAmerican as you can be right. And that's what we have. And it's not just a problem here in Louisiana. That's a problem in Mississippi. Mississippi is the blackest state in America they 37 38% Black, they have one congressman, Bennie Thompson, they should have more than one. And in both of our states, there's not been a black person elected statewide on Louisiana there has not been a black person elected statewide since 1873. The first black governor in US history was PBS pinch back and he ascended to the governorship here in Louisiana as the president of the State Senate, the lieutenant governor dies, he becomes the governor for 30 days. And then there's 100 years before Douglas Wilder becomes the governor of Virginia, there's only been four black governors. Two of them have been elected two of them have risen by ascension, the other statewide offices 11 Black US senators, I think when we talk about the representation that minorities have had in this country, it's underwhelming. Lee, delivered from the people.
David Sirota 41:14
I want to talk about the big news nationally because it does relate to your campaign. President Biden last week began hopefully the process of legalizing marijuana or at least decriminalizing marijuana. He asked for, for instance, the HHS, the Health and Human Services Secretary to begin the process of evaluating whether to D schedule the drug. There were also other parts of this where he said he was asking governors to pardon low level marijuana offenses. As somebody who has been campaigning on criminal justice reform campaigning on legalizing marijuana, as I mentioned that ad that you did, what do you make of what the President did? Is it a step forward? Should he do more? What What didn't he do that you'd want him to do?
Gary Chambers 42:01
I think the President made a positive step in the right direction. Of course, I would love to see him do more. But I'm I'm keenly aware of who we're dealing with. With President Biden, I think that he is honoring the things that he said as a candidate and that that is what we as voters desire, right? That someone does the things that they say they're going to do, when they when they're actually an office. I am seeking to get to the US Senate to go help make sure that it gets done all the way. We need to be scheduled cannabis, we need to make sure that we get safe banking in America. People that are in the cannabis business all over this country can't just put their money in the bank easily. It's a it's a really dangerous process that we have for a lot of people that are in business, and it's an equitable process for people who are still being incarcerated for it. You look at states like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, where they are on cannabis is archaic. Louisiana is medicinally legal, and we just decriminalize it. And I think that we're gonna get to the point of recreational cannabis here soon, because 70% of voters in Louisiana, believe that recreational cannabis should be legal. The real deal is how long is the federal government going to allow people to be incarcerated for this. And if we say that we're serious about wanting this to be something that's resolved, the fastest way for us to do it is to D schedule it at the federal level, and then put the pressure on states to do what they need to do to release all those that are incarcerated. David, I've got to say, Kevin Allen is a man who's in Angola penitentiary right now serving a life sentence for less than a gram of cannabis. He's been there since 2013. We spent $19,000 a year in Louisiana to incarcerate and $11,000 a year to educate your great State of Colorado is the fourth rank education system in the country. And we have the 48th ranked education system in the country. I think that we're getting it wrong, and we don't have the investment dollars to get it done to help our children and cannabis can help be a gateway to make sure that we can invest in our children.
David Sirota 44:05
There was a controversy that came up earlier in your campaign where James Carville, the Democratic strategist Clinton Democratic strategist who was from Louisiana, he was on TV. He had this to say about your campaign just yet.
James Carville 44:19
Right. Gary have any chance? No, and I think Gary chambers is an idiot. He's one of these kind of activist, you know, left wing activist from Baton Rouge.
David Sirota 44:32
So I think this touches on something that you've brought up a bigger issue, which is the establishment of the Democratic Party. You've you've argued that the establishment is is hostile to you and to other black candidates running statewide, because black candidates haven't been elected statewide in Louisiana. What's your response to what Carville said and give us a little bit of context for the larger argument you've been making about the Louisiana Democratic Party? So
Gary Chambers 45:00
one I've got to start by saying that James Carville supported I think Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, they lost he supported. The guy who came in second in the Democratic primary and Pennsylvania. John Fetterman, who's more progressive is the nominee in Pennsylvania. I think if you look at the record of the types of candidates he's supporting, they're losing. That's number one. Number two, if we were wise as a party, we would get around the policies that galvanize the base of our party rather than trying to get this slim margin of moderates or independents that swing Republican, right. Donald Trump, whether we like him or not taught a valuable lesson in politics, go to your base and go all in. Right. And if you do that you have the best odds at converting people because energy is transferable. The Democratic Party here is being and I won't say the entirety of the party, I will say the leadership of the party has been problematic for us from the very beginning. They said, the chair of the party told me that she didn't think a black man could win. I did everything in our power to build a grassroots strong campaign that built a national platform. We were successful in that her candidate is polling under in single digits and has been so all year long, no matter how much he's done. And a great guy but just not able to be John Kennedy. We ran a moderate Democrat in the election where Kennedy was elected, right. And that person 28% of black voters in New Orleans showed up 26% of black voters in Shreveport showed up and 32% of black voters in Baton Rouge showed up those are the three largest cities in our state. If you can't turn out the black vote in those states. A Democrat can't win we have a Democrat is our governor. People believe that he's a Democrat because he's easy elected because he's moderate. The truth is he's elected because we had crazy people running against him like John Kennedy. And that excited the base of the party and we got behind him. I think that if we gave young people and real Democrats somebody to show up for they'd show up for
David Sirota 47:11
let's let's talk about the general election opponent if you win the primary, John Kennedy, John Kennedy, it seems to me he was a Democrat. He became a Republican, which has happened many times in, in the south. John Kennedy tries to come off as this sort of folksy somewhat, I guess, Republican populist kind of candidate. Why do you think his numbers appear to be pretty weak in Louisiana, which has been a traditionally Republican state? What do you think the best arguments are the most compelling arguments to voters about why voters should get rid of him?
Gary Chambers 47:50
Once he's been elected almost as long as I've been alive, he's polling at 51%. Usually a US senator be over 60%. If they're popular, he's not there. Kennedy used to be a pro life. I mean, a pro choice Democrat. Let me say that too. Right now he's all the way pro life all of these things, and he switched to being a Republican when Obama ran for president. That's that's something that has to be pointed out because in 2004, he ran for a US Senate as a Democrat when John Kerry was on the ticket for President. John Kennedy plays whatever role necessary to win an election. He voted against infrastructure dollars here in Louisiana, infrastructure dollars aren't red, they aren't blue, they aren't black, they are white. They're everybody uses the roads. And that's six $7 billion of resources jobs that don't come here. What's insulting about it is you vote against infrastructure dollars, when we just suffered a hurricane, Hurricane either and people in mostly Republican areas of our state, Houma, Louisiana, were without power for a month, Kennedy votes against infrastructure dollars, what are those infrastructure dollars? Do they help us put those power lines on the ground so that the next time a hurricane comes, which we know we're going to have one that we don't have to have people without power for a month? This is a guy who just does not care about the people of this state. That's my argument to people when I go out. The other thing is he spends a lot of time on TV making an ass of himself. He just made a commercial where he said if you got a problem with the police call a crackhead. That is not only not solution basis insulting, and he consistently votes against things that would benefit the people of this state. The other thing is when you talk about being a pro police guy and call a crackhead, but you voted to overturn the election of Joe Biden. He's the only Senator on the ballot right now. They voted to overturn the election. And where was his pro police attitude to the cops who were being assaulted at the Capitol by Republicans who were storming the Capitol? I think he's As a con artist, and I think he's a fraud, and I think that if we're in the opportunity to run against him in a head to head matchup, we're the best suited to expose that consistently. If we got the resources to put the the foolishness that John Kennedy does into the ads that we create and put that on TV, he's going home.
David Sirota 50:20
One last question for you about the themes of your own campaign. You're a proud Christian, which is highlighted on your campaign website. How do you see your faith being a strength of your campaign, especially in 2022, as the country seems to be more and more divided, and where religion is so often used in politics, unfortunately, to divide rather than to unite,
Gary Chambers 50:44
I tried to lead with love. That's first and foremost, everything about my faith teaches me that God is love. And that we want people to become believers of what we believe that the way to get them is to love them in. Some people believe that you spend time judging people, I got my own sins to talk to God about when I get to heaven, I'm not worried about yours or anybody else's. And so that's kind of the philosophy I live with. My campaign slogan is a scripture, it's Isaiah 117, do good seek justice help the widow, the orphan, the oppressed and the poor. We just keep doing it and seek justice at the front of it. But it's a declaration and every time somebody says that they're quoting the Scripture, for me, that's the Jesus I served the Jesus who cared about the poor, who cared about the sick. And when I go to churches, and I talked about Medicare for all, I say, Jesus laid hands on the sick, that was Medicare for all, if it was good for Jesus, it's got to be good for us. And people get it right, that at the end of the day, my faith also was a choice that I made at some point in my life. God didn't force me to be a Christian, I made that choice. And I think that in making that choice, I want to give everybody else the liberty to make whatever choices they want. And that's just the way that I lead. And if I love more people, hopefully at the end of my life, more people believe that things that I believe that's the goal of discipleship, but in the goal of my elected service, it's to live a life that that shows my faith. And I live in the south, you know, people at church every Sunday here in Louisiana, I did five churches yesterday. And all of those churches were full with people who were excited about being able to get out and vote for us. And so I think it's a strength. And I think that showing the way that I believe and carrying my faith, the way that I do, hopefully gives people some comfort that everybody who's a believer in against him.
David Sirota 52:42
Gary chambers is a Democrat running for the US Senate in Louisiana. You can find his website chambers for louisiana.com. That's chambers for louisiana.com or on Twitter at Gary chambers, Jr. And you can find him there. Gary chambers, thank you so much for taking time with us. Thanks for running the aggressive campaign you're running and good luck to
Gary Chambers 53:01
you. Thank you so much, Dave.
David Sirota 53:05
That's it for today's show. As a reminder, our paid subscribers who get lever time premium get to hear our bonus segment, my interview with acclaimed climate futurist Alex Steffen, about practical sustainability and how to ruggedized your own life in the era of climate change.
Alex Steffen 53:21
In the broadest sense, my understanding of sustainability is that it is the act of leaving more options for future generations, right that the most sustainable society is the one that leaves the future the most to work with.
David Sirota 53:36
And please be sure to like, subscribe and write a review for lever time on your favorite podcast app. One last favor to ask if you liked this podcast and our reporting. Please tell your friends and family about the lever and the work we're doing forward our emails to them, encourage them to subscribe. The only way independent media grows is by word of mouth. So we need all the help we can get to continue doing the work that we're doing. Until next time, I'm David Sirota keep rocking the boat
Transcribed by https://otter.ai