John Kennedy

John Kennedy in his anti-crime ad released on Sept. 30, 2022.

A provocative anti-crime TV ad by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy is prompting an outcry on the left, with some calling it racist – and that may be just the reaction Kennedy wants as he campaigns for a second term.

The ad shows images of people committing crimes and marching against police brutality. It ends with Kennedy saying, “Look, if you hate cops just because they’re cops, the next time you get in trouble, call a crackhead.”

Gary Chambers Jr., a Democrat challenging Kennedy, said “crackhead” is a racially coded phrase because of extensive media coverage during the era when a disproportionate number of Blacks were arrested for the drug.

“We have more people in Louisiana die from opioids than homicides, and he’s not talking about opioid addicts,” Chambers said in an interview. “Most are White.”

Chambers added that virtually all of the people shown committing the crimes and marching against police brutality in Kennedy’s 30-second ad are Black.

“It’s a way for him to say the N-word without him saying it,” Chambers said. “It speaks to the worst in us. I think this is worse than the Willie Horton ad.”

In that ad, broadcast by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in his winning 1988 presidential campaign, viewers saw a clip of Horton in an ad that accused Bush’s opponent of being soft on crime. Critics said Bush was engaging in race-baiting.

Kennedy begins the ad by saying that “crime is surging in Louisiana. Woke leaders blame the police. I blame the criminals.”

A Black woman is shown holding a sign that reads, “Defund the police.”

“A mom should not have to look over her shoulder when she is pumping gas,” Kennedy adds.

The Daily Kos, a liberal online site, wrote Monday that “woke leaders” is “code for Black or progressive."

The article added, "Of course, Kennedy isn’t stupid — although he tries to sound as if he is. He knows perfectly well that the term ‘crackhead,’ which came to use during the 1980s crack epidemic and the early War on Drugs, led to the incarceration and vilification of millions of Black Americans.”

Emails seeking a response from the Kennedy campaign Tuesday went unanswered.

“The ad outlines Kennedy’s record of fighting crime, supporting law enforcement and working to make Louisiana communities safe,” the campaign said in a press release last week, noting that Kennedy has the endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association.

Greg Buisson, a veteran Jefferson Parish-based political consultant, said he believes Kennedy will welcome the attacks.

“The more that opponents of his cry foul on that commercial, the stronger it will make him with his base of the electorate,” Buisson said. “I bet it was a well thought-out strategy by him and his team. It strikes at all of the emotions and creates a real reason for someone who has any of those emotions, feelings or beliefs to act upon them and vote for him.”

The Hayride, a conservative online site, lauded the ad.

“Left-wing politicians in mayor’s offices and city councils have trashed the police, and the leadership of the police forces is horribly weak, and people don’t want to work in those conditions when they know the political class won’t support them when things get ugly,” wrote editor Scott McKay.

Kennedy released the ad at a time when voters are deeply concerned about the high crime rates in Louisiana’s biggest cities.

Like Kennedy, Republican candidates throughout the country are attempting to capitalize on voter fears with anti-crime ads.

Charlamagne da God, a host on “The Breakfast Club,” a liberal, nationally syndicated radio talk show in New York, blasted Kennedy on Monday for saying in the ad that he opposes efforts to “defund” the police.

“Once again, for the billionth time, to defund the police simply means to fund alternative services such as mental health programs and job training which will reduce crime,” da God said. “Someone like John Kennedy will never truly be against police brutality because police are brutalizing the people John Kennedy is demonizing in this video – Black people….Folks are not against the police. They’re just against police brutality.”

Reagan Sidney, host of “The Wake Up Show” on WBOK-AM in New Orleans, said her callers lit up the phone lines Monday after she aired the ad.

“A lot of them felt it was racist and said nobody should vote for him,” Sidney said in an interview, adding that she found the ad “appalling.”

The primary is Nov. 8.

Besides Chambers, the other major Democrats challenging Kennedy are Luke Mixon, a former fighter pilot, and Syrita Steib, who oversees a nonprofit that helps women find jobs and housing after they leave prison.

“We know historically that the laws have been more stringent for people who are convicted of crimes with crack,” Steib said. “The racial undertones of the ad are clear, targeting the Black community.”

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.