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For the National Republican Congressional Committee, Anh “Joseph” Cao was a diamond in a shitpile.  The 41-year old Vietnamese lawyer, (pronounced “Gow”), knocked off scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson in a bright blue, majority black district.  Cao’s three point victory made him the first Vietnamese-American in Congress, and the NRCC immediately trumpeted his success as a harbinger of better days.

So who is he?  Cao was born in Saigon, son of an ARVN officer.  His father was captured by the Communists, and spent seven years in prison as his mother fled with her children to the United States.  After being released, his father rejoined the family in America.  Joseph moved to Louisiana in 1997 for law school, and lives there with his wife and two daughters.  Thus, your template:  A refugee from a Communist country, member of a politically conservative ethnic group, also happens to be a convert to Catholicism.  On the surface, Cao has all the trappings of a far-right Republican.

Thing is, he’s not.  Cao has a fascinating background.  Following his Jesuit training and MA in Philosophy at Fordham (Go Rams!), Cao moved to Virginia where he worked with Boat People S.O.S. (BPSOS).  BPSOS is a community-based organization dedicated to helping Vietnamese refugees in America.  After earning his J.D., Cao took a position as BPSOS’ in-house counsel.  After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and office, Cao returned to New Orleans where he joined the board of the Mary Queen of Vietnam (MQVN) Church’s Community Development Corporation.  MQVN has earned a strong reputation for community development work in the aftermath of the hurricane.  Its leader characterized the situation:

“Before the storm, I guess you could call us libertarians,” Father Vien said. “Our attitude toward government was: ‘you don’t bother us, we won’t bother you.’ But Katrina changed all that. We had a responsibility to speak out.”

With MQVN, Cao fought to have utilities turned back on as quickly as possible in storm-damaged neighborhoods.  He also worked against a landfill project that would have dumped a quarter of Katrina debris in New Orleans East.  Eric Tang’s excellant Huffington Post profile notes praise for MQVN’s work from African-American leaders including local progressives.  Senator Obama visited the church in February.  Overall, Cao’s religious perspective informs a social gospel:

“When I was in Mexico helping the poor, I had a struggle with the issue of poverty and of evil in the world,” Mr. Cao said. “I told my spiritual director about my struggles, and basically he told me that God sends good people to help with human suffering – people like Gandhi and (the Rev.) Martin Luther King (Jr.). I thought the best way I could effect social change was to go to law school and into politics.”

Until 2007, Cao was registered independant.  He frequently cites Aristotle’s definition of virtue: “To walk in the middle line.” Cao says he “is not a hardcore conservative,” and there’s absolutely zero Republican branding on his website.  In an interview with the New York Times, the incoming Representative explained his overall view of things:  “Life is absurd but one cannot succumb to the absurdity of it.”  How often do Republicans channel Camus?

What about social issues?  Whither God and gays?  Cao spoke with U.S. News:

How important were traditional family values issues, like abortion and marriage, in your race?
Very little. I was focusing on the need to rebuild the Second Congressional District so the issues of abortion and marriage were not the focus of my campaign at all.

That’s refreshing, as was this follow-up:

Are those values issue high priorities for your first term in Congress?
My main priority in the first couple of years is to focus on rebuilding the Second Congressional District in Louisiana. Three and half years after Katrina, there are areas that remain devastated. The healthcare system is in need of reform. The educational system is in need of reform. We need to develop economically, need to look at the levies and at coastal restoration. Those are the issues right now that concern the majority of my constituents, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

As a devout Catholic, Cao will likely be a reliable pro-life vote.  That said, he strikes me as someone who would vote against gay marriage but might just oppose a Constitutional ban.

Most importantly, the tone of his campaign has been heavily focused on the needs of his constituents.  This might be a matter of necessity in the 29th-bluest district in the country, but his record does show a powerful commitment to community development.  Cao has expressed interest in joining the Congressional Black Caucus, arguing that he represents a majority-black district.  It won’t happen, (outstanding progressive Steve Cohen of Memphis already tried it and failed), but Cao’s record suggests this is a real, good-faith effort to strengthen the voice of his voters.

The incoming Representative is noticeably new to the political game.  He admitted to CNN that his victory was aided by low voter turnout due to Hurricane Gustav.  (Note to new members:  You are happy with turnout, you think it represents a strong mandate for change, etc. etc.)  Republicans have crowed about Cao with tacky headlines (“the future is Cao!“,) but he is unlikely to be re-elected if the Democrats offer a strong challenge.  Besides which, he’s hardly a useful model for future races.  All Cao’s victory proves politically is that Republicans can win blue districts if the Democrat has been caught with $90,000 cash in his freezer, is under indictment on election day, and if a hurricane drops turnout to approximately 1/3 of the 2004 vote total.  If that’s Boehner’s plan, well, good luck to you, sir.

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Election Day comedown has led to a series of flippant victory / schadenfreude / “woo, us!” posts in a row. But I know you rely on (us / other blog) for substantial, in-depth analysis of actual issues, so I figured it’s time for some of that.

MEMO

To: Howard Dean

From: James Carville, Terry McAuliffe, Harold Ford, the Clinton family, the national media

In re: DNC chair

“Dear Dr. Dean: We’re sorry.”

Lost in the Obamania was the utter vindication of Dr. Dean’s view of the Democratic Party. In four years, Governor Dean went from a universal punch line to the party chairman presiding over the recapture of the House, Senate, and White House. He did this despite dismissal by the national media, an internal coup attempt by party leadership, and various threats from the corporate donors who comprised the party’s fundraising base under prior Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Dean’s approach included the much-derided “50 state strategy;” major spending on party infrastructure instead of simply targeting candidates around elections; a focus on small donors; and a general shift to a decentralized party model.

It wasn’t easy. From before he took office, Dr. Dean was under fire. Folks at the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC), the centrist (read: corporatist) wing of the party, saw Dean as a populist rabble-rouser. The line of attack was that Dean was too radical, couldn’t relate to big donors, and would drive the party into a McGovernite ditch. A number of consultants, including Dean’s former campaign manger Joe Trippi and the very conservative Democrat Mike McCurry, supported Simon Rosenberg of the centrist New Democrat Network over Dean for the chairmanship. Harry Reid, and more surprisingly Nancy Pelosi, backed anti-choice social security privitizer Tim Roemer, while uber-insider Donnie Fowler (the 37-year old son of a former DNC chair) also criticized Dean as too far left. Perhaps because of the split among the three little moderates, Dean eventually won out. Reid and Pelosi came around as the perceived centrists dropped out, leaving the party to its new Vermont Commissar.

Dean hadn’t seen anything yet. The Democrats rolled up big wins in the 2006 midterms, but this only intensified the attacks. Top consultants argued that the chairman had wasted party money on infrastructure that could have been spent to try and steal a handful more marginal seats. Rumours floated of a DNC “putsch” as James Carville, the oddly-shaped, long-time Clinton surrogate, namedropped the milquetoast Blue Dog millionaire Harold Ford:

“Suppose Harold Ford became chairman of the DNC. How much more money do you think we could raise? Just think of the difference it could make in one day. Now probably Harold Ford wants to stay in Tennessee. I just appointed myself his campaign manager.”

(Ford, failed Congressional candidate and scion of a Memphis political dynasty, hands out business cards with the 10 commandments on them.) Carville, at the center of much of this, called Dean “Rumsfeldian,” while prime-time consultant Paul Begala derided the 50 state strategy as “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their noses.” Even before the 2006 midterms, The New Republic reported that supporters of then-presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton were “laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC in the event that [she] wins the nomination.” Rahm Emannual, traditionally a DLC-centrist, beefed with Dean from his post at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC.) (The DCCC thought Dean’s infrastructure spending rate was too high, and still preferred Terry McAuliffe’s previous approach of simply tossing money at Congressional races every cycle.)

The chairman was also uncomfortable glad-handing billionaires, and many of the big donors who had formed the base of the McAuliffe operation were reluctant to work with him. Although the fundraising eventually picked up, Dean remained estranged from the Wall Street wing of the party — people who felt no compulsion about threatening his position on behalf of Hillary Clinton as the 2008 nomination fight dragged on.

Eventually, Obama wins out and Hillary lines up behind him. (She’s always at her best for valedictories.) The epic success of the Obama campaign owes a massive debt to Howard Dean in his roles as both a presidential candidate and the DNC chair. Here’s a list:

  • Using the web: Working from Dean and Trippi’s 2004 internet insurgent model, the campaign used mybarackobama.com as the one-stop shop for campaign work and information. When the GOP went negative, the team unleashed fightthesmears.com, dedicated solely to debunking the kind of slanders that sank John Kerry’s swiftboat in 2004. The Obama team also hired the co-founder of Facebook and introduced text messaging as the 21st century direct mail.
  • Small donors: Obama’s wave of small donors rewrote campaign fundraising norms. Thanks to Obama’s use of the internet to solicit funds and organize meetups, Phil Nash of Campaign Advantage described the Illinois Senator as “Howard Dean 2.0.”
  • Playing offense…: The 50 state strategy was an investment plan. Rather than picking competative states every election cycle, aiming to win the Presidency with 270 electoral votes, the idea was to remake the Democrats from a regional party to something bigger. This meant throwing money at party offices in Bumblefuck, Nowhere, even if it’s only a matter of cutting an election loss from 25% to 15% in the short-term. Instead of fetishizing Ohio and Florida as “swing states,”, the Obama campaign utilized its army of volunteers to compete in Tom Schaller’s “new West” (New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada,) as well as the outer south (Virginia and North Carolina, which Schaller was wrong about.) We lost Montana by three points. MONTANA! (And, won a House seat in Idaho)
  • …and localizing campaigns: Begala’s nose-picking staffers were the ones reshaping the Democrats as a national majority, forcing the GOP (which has now been officially wiped out in the northeast) to blow resources defending their own turf. Rather than shipping in a handful of consultants, the party relied on historically massive local staff operations.

This is the way to build a national party, and Democrats are well-positioned going into 2010. The excellent Chuck Todd, in his Clinton campaign obituary, notes the overall changing of the guard in the last two election cycles:

“The midterm elections taught many Democratic activists (including those superdelegates) that they didn’t need the Clintons to win elections anymore.

The Democrats won Congress and a majority of governorships without substantial help from the Clintons. Sure the two raised money for the party and for candidates whenever asked, but it wasn’t Clintonistas or Clinton’s Democratic philosophy or ideology that was helping these candidates win.”

The leadership of the Democratic Party right now is Obama, Dean, and Pelosi; none of whom owe a plugged nickel to the Clinton machine. This represents a massive, massive step forward for a party who spent the last decade in the wilderness trying to be GOP-lite around consultant-tested messages while the House and Senate majorities atrophied to nothing.

Dr. Dean’s people-power approach was the perfect fit for such an inspirational candidate. Obama was uniquely capable of connecting Dean’s middle-class, white, college-liberal audience with the traditional Democratic base in the African-American community. This strategic combination forged a landslide, while laying the ground-level infrastructure for future campaigns. From the beginning, Dean and Obama worked well together to shape a unified approach; and Obama’s retention of Dean at the DNC symbolized his agreement with the party’s strategic direction.

Here’s a Republican who gets it. So celebrate the victory, pass the chairman some walking-around money, and get local; because, thanks to Dr. Dean, the Democratic Party is back in your hands.

*UPDATE:  Donnie Fowler (or at least some intern at his consulting firm), took the time to respond in the comments thread.  Check it out, since he clarifies his position, and you can get his organization here:  http://www.fowlercrumley.com/

To be fair, Rosenberg has also come around:  http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2007/11/the-50-year-strategy.html/

I was criticizing their runs against Dean for DNC chair, not their subsequent, more supportive statements.  So credit where it’s due, and thanks for checking in, Donnie!

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“Somewhere in the universe, a gear in the machinery shifted.”

-Eldridge Cleaver on Rosa Parks

I haven’t Cleaver’s way with words, so I hope you’ll forgive my reducing history to one man’s personal narrative of 12 hours of chaos.  At best, this will fade into the millions of personal sketches that comprise the people’s history hiding behind any newspaper headline.

Two fucking years of this stuff boiled down to one day worth of drinking, voting, waiting, waiting, drinking, waiting, and drinking again.  We kicked off at Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal’s Washington leftist landmark.  (I met Shallal when he guest-lectured on business and peacebuilding; he’s fantastic.)  Busboys is a good place to spot Dennis Kucinich and his amazon wife.  Unfortunately, the place was packed like sardines in a Chongqing bus, (line around the block,) and eventually we left for more breathable climes.

Second option was a dead little Ethiopian restaurant. There must’ve been four people in the place when our group showed up and promptly piled bottle after bottle of honey wine on top of the prior stuff.  By the time they called Ohio for Hopey, everyone was shitfaced.  At this point I started texting WIN! to 18 people at a time, even while it was still technically too early to call the election.

Once Virginia came around, the entirety of DC hit the street.  Here’s photographic evidence, and the videotape.  (Sadly, we lack footage of Mireille shrieking “I LIVE IN BLUE VIRGINIA!” for the next four hours.)  Open bottle laws went the way of the permenant Republican majority, and people were passing champagne bottles (and what I believe was heroin) along the street.  I don’t think I’ve ever hugged so many strangers.

A few thousand people marched in the rain to the White House, a sort of traveling Woodstock complete with SDS signs.  Chants of “Yes we can!” and “U-S-A!” rang out in Lafayette Park as a revelers welcomed their new patriotic hero with the funny name.  Amidst the crowd I see a familiar-looking woman, and amidst the vodka I approach her.  “Excuse me, but you look exactly like Joan Baez.”  The woman puts her hands on her face, smiles, and replies: “I wonder why?”  And then, piss-drunk at 3 AM on election night at the White House, Joan Baez hugs me.

Last night was spectacular. This morning, Washington ran out of newspapers.  DCist reports that the Washington Post printed special editions to distribute Wednesday evening.  I got home to Eastern Market around 6:30, and there was a line around the block outside the CVS.  I was carrying a paper I had bought on the way to work this morning, and three people asked me where I got it — two yelled out of car windows, one offering to buy it.  (If anyone has a copy of the New York Times, name your price.)

Undoubtedly, you all have your own stories.  It’s a rare day when an editorial cartoonist brings tears to your eyes:

Having just hugged Joan Baez, I called my mother.  It was 3 AM and I’d spoken to her earlier, but I figured it was worth waking her up again.  My mother is the most patriotic person I know.  Working for Gene McCarthy at 14, she organized a walkout of her Rockaway middle school to protest the Vietnam War.  A few years later she considered joining the Weathermen.

My mother is the most patriotic person I know.  Her parents had campaigned for communist New York City councilman Ben Davis up in Harlem, and her aunt (who used to feed me Ricola cough drops as a kid) is the subject of a 91-page, largely-redacted FBI file. My mother was raised by people who inhabited a unique social and political culture, one which simply ceased to exist with the decline of the old left and the dissipation of working-class Jewish neighborhoods in New York.  My grandparents, raised in this Yiddish socialism, still see America more as the place they are than as the place they are of.

Stuck between this passing world epitomized by my great-uncle’s charcoal drawings of Paul Robeson, and the often flaky, psychoanalytic approach of the early 70s left, my mother developed a strongly class-based political consciousness devoid of both the Yiddishkeit of her parents and the hippie ethos of her generation.  Without either, she clung to a certain cultural Americanism, maybe best described as either Woody Guthrie’s red-dirt radicalism or the likely politics of the love-child of Mark Twain and Emma Goldman.

My mother is the most patriotic person I know.  She told me that she’s tried her whole life to ensure that my sister and I grow up feeling like America is our country, rather than just our home, because it took her so long to come to that conclusion.  She doesn’t fly a flag on her house, and I’m not sure she could sing you the national anthem, but that was me leading the drum line cadences in the Veterans’ Day parade and that was my sister camped out at the revolutionary war reenactment at Ticonderoga.

My mother is not a central-casting patriot.  She disdains the accoutrements of country, is uncomfortable praising a government simply because she lives under it, and tends to exist in a perpetual state of dissent.  Sadly, these traits are often mistaken for (when not deliberately spun as) indicators of ambivalence towards the fundamental promise and potential that this country has offered four generations of my family.  My mother has simply been waiting:  Waiting for a politician to talk straight with her; waiting for a politician to inspire people rather than just scaring them; waiting for a politician to reach out to people who are used to being ignored; waiting for a politician to, as John Edwards once said so well, “be patriotic about something other than war.”

So I called my mother at 3 in the morning last night to tell her that I just hugged Joan Baez in front of the White House a few hours after 64 million Americans handed a landslide victory to a half-Kenyan man, middle-named “Hussein,” raised by a single mother.  And to this my mother said the thing I’ll leave you with:

“I am amazed by your generation.”

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History

Win

Win

Exit, pursued by a bear

Exit, pursued by a bear

Full recap of the evening to come later…

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Stand up, America

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Spent my Sunday canvassing.  We drove, 2 hours and 45 minutes, to somewhere south of Richmond.  It was the pro-America part of America, and I made sure to get my passport stamped.  Among the local sights:

To be fair, Bass Pro Shop has locations in New York, Massachusetts, and Montreal, so it may be a Trotskyist front group.  As for the black Republicans, they have a massive billboard on I-95…

…that says…

…”Martin Luther King was a Republican.

I swear to God, Black GOP FTW! (On that matter, I’m still with J.C. Watts’ own father):

“A black man voting for the Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.”

Anyway, we end up in a town called Petersburg.  Sleepy little place, looks a lot like the Hudson River towns of my childhood.  Dusty antique stores, empty mid-market restaurants, a decrepit bus and train station, some churches, and shuttered-down warehouses being eaten by out-of-town artists and local roaches.  The town is actually majority-black, but it’s solidly the southern part of the state and not somewhere you’d have even seen a Kerry office; let alone one packed with 75 people from as far away as Toronto.

The canvassing itself was limited.  Turns out, by the time we arrived at 3 PM Sunday, they had nearly completed all the 2nd passes on their lists.  This wasn’t the PRNV, this was actual Dixie; and yet, the ground-game was significantly ahead of schedule.  After a pretty short run through some tree-lined streets, I ended up giving away half a stack of door hangers to passersby on the street.

We are on the ground, in the street, and in people’s doorways – everywhere.  I have a very, very good feeling about Virginia.  The polls close at 7, so we’ll know real early how the Commonwealth goes.  (If Virginia turns blue, you can punch your bingo tickets and hit the victory bong by prime-time.)  And if you’re ever down Petersburg way, it’s actually a cool little town.  Check out the the Sycamore Rouge, an adorable cabaret that was blasting Billie Holliday as we drove away.  Yes We Can.

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Before I take off for canvassing, the Washington Post reports this morning:

“The Department of Homeland Security is investigating whether its privacy policy was violated after a news organization reported that an aunt of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama is an illegal immigrant from Kenya, officials said yesterday”

The AP’s original story cited an unnamed federal law enforcement official.  Whoever he was, his action was illegal:

“Federal privacy law restricts U.S. immigration agencies from disclosing information about citizens and permanent residents, and DHS policy similarly limits disclosures about the status of legal and illegal immigrants. Asylum-seekers are granted greater protection, because of the sensitive nature of their claims and the risks of retaliation.”

The matter has been referred to the Immigration and Customs agency’s “Office of Professional Responsibility.”  (Any Bush administration agency with a nice-sounding title has earned the scare quotes.)  So kudos to the Post for pointing this out; too bad the illegally leaked non-story was leading their website yesterday. With two days left, here’s hoping that’s end of the November surprises.

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