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?
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.