In Louisiana, an unlikely victory makes history

Fausset is a Times staff writer.

Just a few days ago, congressional candidate Anh “Joseph” Cao of New Orleans had typical underdog problems: Many people didn’t know who he was or how to pronounce his name or what, exactly, he was running for.

On Monday -- two days after his victory over the Democratic incumbent, Rep. William J. Jefferson -- Cao had different things to worry about, like the 200-plus media outlets that had called him, hoping to score an interview with the man who soon will be the first Vietnamese American in Congress.

Cao, 41, a soft-spoken Republican, worried that he would send a “message of arrogance” if he didn’t get back to every reporter.


“We’re trying our best to accommodate all the needs of the press,” he said.

During the campaign, the former ethics teacher and Catholic seminarian limited himself to mild criticism of Jefferson, even though the nine-term incumbent was embroiled in one of the higher-profile ethics scandals in Washington. Few observers of the rough-and-tumble Louisiana political world gave Cao, a political neophyte, a chance: Jefferson, despite facing a criminal corruption trial, was assumed to have a formidable get-out-the-vote operation, especially among fellow African Americans.

“It was a shock to all of us,” said C.B. Forgotston Jr., an attorney and longtime Louisiana political hand. “We would have lost a lot of money if we would have bet on that race.”

Cao (whose last name is pronounced “Gow,” with a hard “G”) said his focus on wetlands and levee restoration was the key to his victory. But extremely low turnout among black voters was just as important.

Although blacks make up more than 60% of registered voters in the 2nd Congressional District -- which covers much of New Orleans and part of neighboring Jefferson Parish -- fewer than 14% showed up Saturday, according to a consulting firm that worked for Cao’s campaign. By comparison, 28% of white voters went to the polls, largely in support of the Republican. Vietnamese Americans account for less than 3% of district voters.

Cao’s victory marks a milestone for the broader Vietnamese American community, which more than three decades after the fall of Saigon is beginning to flex some political muscle.

At the time of the 2000 census, there were about 1.2 million Vietnamese Americans. Before Cao’s victory, a Vietnamese American state representative and a number of local officials had been elected in California’s Orange County, home to the nation’s largest Vietnamese community. Another Vietnamese American serves in the Texas House of Representatives.

New Orleans’ Vietnamese community comprises roughly 20,000 people, many of whom live in the low-lying suburb of New Orleans East -- which was badly flooded during Hurricane Katrina. By some estimates, 90% of the population has returned to the area.

Cao has stressed that he wants to represent all residents of this racially fractious city. On Monday, he said he would also work to “promote the whole of the Vietnamese community here in the United States,” including pushing for “a more free and democratic” Vietnam.

Cao’s father, a South Vietnamese Army officer, was arrested by the North Vietnamese army in the 1970s. The young Cao fled Saigon for the United States with other family members and spent much of his boyhood in Texas.

As a Jesuit seminarian, he traveled the world and saw the effects of poverty in places like Mexico and Hong Kong. In an interview in November, he said that those experiences informed a position that may be more moderate than those of other Republicans.

In a state known for colorful -- and sometimes crooked -- politicians, Cao’s victory was seen by some as a welcome change. Jeff Crouere, a political analyst and writer for the website, wrote Monday that the election struck “a major blow against the reputation of Louisiana as a corrupt state.”

Crouere also said that Louisiana -- where voters sent former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to a gubernatorial runoff vote in 1991 -- had defied its reputation for bigotry now that it had chosen a Vietnamese American congressman in addition to Indian American Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Already some Louisianans are predicting Cao’s tenure will be short. Only about 10% of voters in the 2nd District are Republicans, and it is likely the Democrats will find a scandal-free candidate to run in 2010.

“Yes, it was great to get rid of Bill Jefferson, but everybody knows it’s just a one-time thing,” Forgotston said.

Cao disputes that notion.

“All of the political experts have said that I had no chance in this race,” he said. “We proved them wrong. Two years from now, when they say we have no chance in that race, I’m sure we’ll prove them wrong again.”