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Joseph Cao, First Vietnamese-American Elected to U.S. Congress

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Right Man, Right Time, Right Place

Joseph Cao, a 41-year old New Orleans lawyer, has defeated nine-term Democratic Congressman William Jefferson in an upset that gave him 49.6 percent of the votes to Jefferson’s 46.8. With a low turnout of just 66,000 voters, Cao beat Jefferson by 2,000 votes, joining Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, an Indian American, in the ethnic expansion. He breaks a tradition of more than a century of Democratic control in New Orleans.
Cao’s life is a success story. In 1975, when he was eight, he and his brother and sister were shoved onto an American military helicopter by his mother as they fled Communist Vietnam. They drifted from Arkansas to Mississippi to Indiana, then grew up in Houston, raised by an uncle. He was separated for 16 years from his mother and father, a former army officer, who was imprisoned by Vietnam’s new government.
Cao (pronounced Kow) learned English, graduated with degrees in physics from Baylor and in philosophy from Fordham, and entered the Jesuit seminary in the 1990s. He worked with people in extreme poverty in Mexico and in Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong.
Cao changed course following what he called a “faith crisis,” concluding that God wanted “to address the issue of human suffering by sending good people to alleviate it.” He went to Washington to advocate for refugees, but lacked legal skills. So he earned a law degree at Loyola, New Orleans, specializing in immigration. He then opened a practice and settled with his wife and daughter in Venetian Isles in southern Louisiana. That life was upset by Hurricane Katrina, which completely flooded his house and his law office in 2005.
Bouncing back, he restarted his life by volunteering at Village d’Est, or Versailles, a small Vietnamese community of dress-makers, carpenters, and shop owners. Cao now has close ties with the powerful Vietnamese Catholic church there, Mary Queen of Vietnam, in that village.
As a lawyer, Cao worked for Boat People SOS, a national non-profit that supports refugees and immigrants. In 2006, he lobbied to close a landfill for Katrina debris, and Village d’Est was recognized for its rebuilding efforts after the hurricane. The following year, he ran for Louisiana Assembly as an independent and lost.

Transcending Party and Race

Cao says his political bid was motivated by his religious vision, “It was something that I was called to do.” In an interview during his campaign, Cao said that he wanted to “bring social reforms and promote social change.” Only 5 feet 2 and calm in temperament, Cao ran as a Republican against the well-known Democrat Jefferson, a black incumbent who has been indicted on charges of bribery and money-laundering. Cao vowed to bring “ethics and honesty” to the office. Although the district‘s voting-age population is 64% black, Jefferson presented Cao with a window of opportunity, and he campaigned as a community organizer and a clean-slate newcomer turned politician.
Cao raised only $47,000 and borrowed another $70,000 for his campaign, as opposed to Jefferson’s $800,000. Cao said that if he won, he would join the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and represent the 1.5 million Vietnamese in the U.S.
Cao received endorsements from some Democrats and green party members, and the area’s Vietnamese-American community. The national GOP, which barely noticed Cao during the campaign, did spend $50,000 (less than 1/3 of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe) portraying Jefferson as corrupt and inefficient, flooding constituents with automated phone calls, signs, flyers and ads.
Soulsurvival, an online blogger, wrote that he was a Democrat and an African-American, but voted for Cao. “When it comes down to it, party loyalty and racial prejudice should all take a back seat to cleaning up our politics.” Another constituent posted, “This election will show the world whether the New Orleans area African-American community is more or less racist than the Caucasian community.”
Did Cao win on a protest vote? “A vote for Cao is not just a vote against Jefferson. Joseph Cao is a well rounded man who is more than capable of representing us,” 504stradamus wrote. After claiming victory, Cao himself declared, “The people of the second district were able to transcend party, transcend race.” He concluded, “The people of Louisiana are very special, very progressive, and I think we will serve as a beacon for the rest of the country.”
The GOP lost 21 House seats this fall and 30 seats in 2006, and will have only 178 seats in 2009. Republicans now view Cao as a rallying point and a symbol of the future.

(Lu Anhthu, a Democrat activist, said, “It’s very encouraging that Joseph Cao got elected to Congress. The fact that he has never held public office makes him more dei=sirable because that shows that his campaign was really for changes and not political agfenda, and tht he has real conviction to make a difference. It’s more effective in my views when Capitol Hill is represented by people who are close and in touch with the working class of America, the average Americans. He will bring the experiences of his own life as an immigrant, of the people that he works with, the daily experiences and struggles that an average family goes through. For those reasons, his voice will be that of the people. That is the change he will bring to Congress, the real voice of the real people.)