Elbert Guillory knows a thing or two about taking risks. Shortly before he switched his party allegiance from Democrat to Republican, he rappelled down the side of a 20-story building in Baton Rouge, La., to help raise money for adoption services.
"I thought I'd take my maturing body and do something for adoption," said Mr. Guillory with a laugh.
Compared to that, becoming the first black Republican state senator in Louisiana since Reconstruction was a breeze.
Mr. Guillory, who turns 69 Monday, became a YouTube sensation last week after posting a video for his constituents explaining why he had flipped his party affiliation to Republican after being elected in 2007 as a Democrat.
Since then, he says he has received thousands of calls and emails — almost all positive.
"I've had 4,000 emails in the last 24 hours from all over the country," Mr. Guillory said Friday. "It's been amazing."
The only negative comments have come from a few Democratic leaders, he said, "but those are from persons in the hierarchy, not my constituents."
"People in my district really appreciated the statement I made, and I really made it for the folks back home," said Mr. Guillory, a resident of Opelousas, La. "I was very surprised by the national attention."
In the video, Mr. Guillory argues that the Democratic Party agenda has failed Americans, particularly black Americans, arguing that welfare programs "aren't designed to lift black Americans out of poverty, they were always intended as a mechanism for politicians to control the black community."
Mr. Guillory described the idea of freedom as "complex and all-encompassing."
"But most importantly, it is the idea that the individual must be free to pursue his or her own happiness free from government dependence and free from government control. Because to be truly free is to be reliant on no one other than the author of our destiny. These are the ideas at the core of the Republican Party, and it is why I am a Republican," he said.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Guillory has come under attack from critics on the left, who point out that he was a registered Republican before running for office.
Stephen Handwerk, executive director of the Louisiana State Democratic Party, called the switch "a craven display of political opportunism," according to The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge. Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature.
Mr. Guillory, an attorney who earned his law degree from the Rutgers School of Law, said he switched his party affiliation previously as a result of staff positions he held in local government.
"Some of them were Democrats, some were Republicans, and you had to align your party with your boss," Mr. Guillory said.
The newly minted Republican may be changing parties, but he has long been known for his right-of-center stance on issues. A frequent ally of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mr. Guillory has regularly broken ranks with Democrats to side with Republicans in the Legislature.
"It caught [Democrats] by surprise, but it has not been a warm and close fit," Mr. Guillory said. "They've wanted me to toe the line, and I am nobody's boy. I serve the Lord first and then my district. Party is way down that list."
What prompted the switch? He credits his 103-year-old mother, who called him after hearing a Democratic state senator accuse foes of "Obamacare" of racism.
"She was appalled by that statement, and called me and said, 'Elbert Lee! I hope you're not involved with any of that,'" Mr. Guillory said. "That's what finally pushed me over the edge."
His district is about 65 percent Democrat, but he doesn't anticipate any problems with voters when he comes up for re-election in 2016.
"The Democratic Party has really moved to the left of Louisiana," Mr. Guillory said. "Louisiana is pretty moderate, and the Democratic Party is not. They've just moved so far from basic American and Louisiana values.
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