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A new face in the politics of New Orleans

Fausset is a Times staff writer.

Anh “Joseph” Cao, who hopes to be the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, was helping a TV host with the pronunciation of his name.

It’s not “cow” but “gow,” he explained recently, with a hard “g.” The interviewer, Eustis Guillemet -- an African American jazz bassist who also runs a local public affairs show -- practiced the name repeatedly, as if learning a new riff.

“You know, ‘Cao’ means ‘tall,’ ” added the Republican candidate, who stands 5 feet 2 in his loafers. “And if you notice, I ain’t that tall.”

The “ain’t” was a departure for an otherwise formal man -- a playful, deliberate shift into the soulful local vernacular and an acknowledgment, perhaps, that this rising star in New Orleans’ Vietnamese community will have to charm a significant number of black voters if he hopes to defeat the scandal-plagued but resilient incumbent, Rep. William J. Jefferson.

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Jefferson, a black Democrat, has represented Louisiana’s majority-black 2nd Congressional District, which covers much of New Orleans, since 1991. He is facing an upcoming trial on federal corruption charges stemming from a bribery probe in which investigators found $90,000 in his freezer.

Wags in this scandal-weary city have concocted countless jokes about the congressman’s “cold cash,” and on Capitol Hill, House Democrats have stripped Jefferson of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. But he has maintained his innocence and his base of black support: In a Nov. 4 Democratic primary runoff, he handily defeated Helena Moreno, a white candidate, after garnering a significant number of black votes.

With Cao, Republicans hope to offer a fresh alternative for voters in the Dec. 6 general election. The immigration lawyer, 41, is a former college ethics teacher who spent six years training to be a Jesuit priest before leaving his studies in 1996.

Republicans are also hoping, in this season of broken racial barriers, that Cao’s Vietnamese heritage will help him transcend the old tensions that have long defined New Orleans politics.

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“It’s no longer an issue of black and white,” Cao said. “It now goes to the issue of who’s going to better represent the 2nd District to bring about change, to bring about reform.”

The continuing appeal of Jefferson can be partly explained by his relationships with voters and his record of meeting their needs. Guillemet, the TV host, said many blacks were sticking with Jefferson because they feared ceding political power to whites.

“They still feel that this is their land,” said Guillemet, who is a Republican, adding, “People just won’t let go.”

The district is 60% black and 60% Democratic, so Cao will need to win support from those groups, and from Republicans and independents.

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Bryan Wagner, a former New Orleans councilman who is helping Cao’s campaign, said his Vietnamese heritage might help him with black voters who would be wary of a white candidate.

“Joseph Cao is very definitely going to get black votes,” he said. “There’s no question.”

Though Cao is considered an underdog even by people in his own campaign, his run represents a political arrival of sorts for the Vietnamese of New Orleans, most of whom arrived after South Vietnam fell to communist forces in the mid-1970s. By most estimates, there are more than 20,000 Vietnamese Americans in the area. After Hurricane Katrina, during which many of them lived in New Orleans’ most flood-prone areas, the vast majority returned and rebuilt.

Cao, who fled Saigon as an 8-year-old boy, argues that he has much in common with black voters: Like them, he has had to rebuild his house after flooding -- in his case, from hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. He said he helped start a charter school in eastern New Orleans that enrolls black and Vietnamese students.

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Jefferson did not respond to a request for an interview for this article. A spokesman, Eugene Green, said voters would consider the congressman innocent until proven guilty and reward him for his work on hurricane relief and other issues.

“The goal is to continually emphasize the truth: that the congressman has done a good job for the citizens of his district,” Green said.

Jefferson has kept a low profile this election season. In the primaries, he did not take part in any debates, and he will probably not do so with Cao. The challenger, meanwhile, has begun introducing himself to New Orleans voters in person.

What voters encounter is a modest man, with a soft, precise voice inflected with the accent of his homeland, a self-professed introvert with a fondness for Dostoevsky.

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In many ways, he is the polar opposite of the kind of back-slapping pol that has been a Louisiana staple for decades. At a cafe near downtown last week, voter Wallace Joseph, 51, had to almost beg Cao to stay and chat after Cao briefly introduced himself.

“Hey, how’s the campaign going?” Joseph yelled, drawing the candidate back.

The two talked about the Jefferson case; Cao was careful not to criticize the incumbent too vigorously.

Joseph, an oil field worker, was impressed. He considers himself a Louisiana Creole: a mix of black, white and Native American. He had voted for Jefferson in the past, but he was fed up with the congressman’s legal troubles.

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“He’s not a politician,” Joseph said of Cao. “He’ll have to become one if he’s elected, but I guess that’s what I like about him.”

Cao has compared himself to President-elect Barack Obama for his potential for cross-racial appeal. But the Obama factor that may help him most is the possibility that black voters may not show up in great numbers in December now that they have helped elect a black president.

Fred Menville, 47, who is black, said he was usually inclined to vote for Jefferson. But this time, he said, he got “what we wanted” with Obama’s election. “I think I might sit out this time,” he said.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com


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