By Danae Columbus, opinion columnist
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s happening,” said Desiree Ontiveros about yesterday’s congressional vote to impeach President Donald Trump for a second time. A Latina who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Ontiveros, 39, has formed an exploratory committee to seek Louisiana’s the Second Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond.
Also recently announced for the race is Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers Jr. Qualifying will begin Wednesday, Jan. 20, and continue through Friday, Jan. 22.
A sixth-generation native of El Paso, Texas, Ontiveros attended New Mexico State University and received a degree in marketing from California State University in Los Angeles. She considers New Orleans a “special city” that welcomed her with open arms.
In 2016 Ontiveros started the Badass Balloon Co. “organically and naturally” from a booth at the Piety Street Market that blossomed into an Etsy store and then a full-fledged business with a significant online presence. “My balloon company started as an idea that grew quickly,” Ontiveros said. Her company sells unique balloon bouquets and installations for many occasions.
“We became a thriving, growing business with a wonderful team,” she said. “We were involved in leadership training and were known as a specialist whose business success was tied to tourism, events and corporate clients.”
Ontiveros said the company was doing very well — until COVID-19 struck. “I spent a lot of time in 2020 very upset,” she said. “When I looked around I know people were struggling. The system is broken; it was not made for people like me.
“I worked very hard for a really long time to build something of my own. Over the past 12 months I have watched all this get washed away. Our elected officials have been missing in action,” she continued.
Ontiveros said she believes that Louisiana’s future has been controlled by establishment politicians for far too long. “It’s evident that the people who were making policy have never had to work for us because their livelihood depended on it because it hasn’t,” she said.
Ontiveros said her campaign theme is “Let’s Move Onward.” She will focus on sustainability, growth and economic recovery for Louisiana’s families. “This past year has been an eye-opener to the systemic barriers that limit wealth attainment,” she said. “There is very little economic diversity. We must rethink, reform and repave the path to the American dream.”
Everyone should be able to achieve their vision of the American dream without having to leave the metro area. “We must focus on reinvesting in our people and bringing opportunity here and get back on track. We must level out the playing field,” she said. “It’s time to close the economic disparity facing African-Americans, Vietnamese and the Latin community.”
Ontiveros also advocates new pathways to affordable housing and homeownership and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. “We must invest in education and creating good jobs workers in our region can get right now,” she said.
Ontiveros has not set a fundraising goal. She firmly believes voters are consuming information in different ways and plans to reach out through grassroots support and word of mouth. “Our campaign is fueled by people like me who have worked very hard but been knocked back. People have food insecurity, housing insecurity and have been pushed back into economic oppression because our government has mismanaged the pandemic. I feel like my voice represents the shared experiences of real life people,” Ontiveros said.
Ontiveros doesn’t expect to receive many political endorsements. “The community says we want change. I want the support of the people. That’s how I will win,” she concluded.
If successful in getting out her message to voters, Ontiveros could receive a significant portion of the district’s Hispanic vote and could peel off women from state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who today announced her endorsement by nationally respected voting rights leader Stacey Abrams of Georgia.
Another candidate who could cut into Black support for Peterson and state Sen. Troy Carter — the leader in most polls — is Baton Rouge blogger and social media personality Gary Chambers Jr.
A 2004 graduate of Terry Parker High School in Baton Rouge, Chambers has steadily built a reputation as a community activist through years of ongoing appearances at East Baton Rouge Metro Council and School Board meetings. Chambers, who says he is running a “people powered movement,” has an impressive social media following: 273,000 followers on Instagram, 82,000 followers on Twitter and 49,000 followers on Facebook. He personally posts on Twitter and other social media platforms multiple times each day.
Chambers, 35, lost a state Senate election to Regina Barrow in 2019. He is probably best known for his powerful oratory during the debate to rename Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge. Chambers’ remarks went viral and helped build his social media presence.
Chambers said his campaign has received 6,572 donations and has already raised $225,000. He chuckled when asked to verify the rumor that influential progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York will be endorsing him and sending in campaign workers.
“We appeal to the progressives in this country. I am a practical progressive. I have progressive values. I believe in clean air, clean water, high quality health care and that people who pay into the tax system should see the benefit,” Chambers said.
He has begun a series of intimate socially distanced “Backyard Conversations” that will be held multiple times each week in cities and towns across the district. Chambers spoke with a group of approximately 20 supporters, including WBOK radio personality Oliver Thomas, at the new Krave Lounge in Gretna on Tuesday.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and the River Parishes in the last few weeks tapping into grassroots,” said Chambers. “I am running a people-powered campaign and that’s important to me.” Born into a family of ministers, Chambers said he is entering the race because “people have called us into this fight.” The publisher of The Rouge Collection, Chambers is the father of one daughter, Zoey.
As a consultant and small-business owner, Chambers believes that government isn’t a speed boat but a ship that takes time to make policy and sustainable change. Chambers says he will be a bold voice that will step up to fight. “Some things are right; some things are wrong. We just need to call it what it is,” he said.
With significant resources already in hand, Chambers plans to run a full throttle campaign. “My objective is to win. I am hiring staff and building a team.” Although COVID is making it more challenging, Chambers said he is committed to talking directly with voters. “Louisiana voters are not satisfied with the status quo. I want to help bring us up from the bottom,” Chambers concluded.
The primary election will be held March 20.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at email@example.com.