A lonely road for a political novice

Joseph Cao -- the most politically endangered member of Congress, the one and only Republican who voted for President Obama’s healthcare plan, a target of Democrats and a source of frustration to many in his own party -- is facing a hometown crowd.

“Oftentimes I’m pretty sure that decisions I make might not be the decisions you would make,” the lawmaker tells about 125 people lured by free beer and jambalaya to a smoky tavern near downtown.

“You might want to scream and bang your head against the wall” or “reach out and strangle me,” he continues, but one constant, his one guiding principle, is “a focus on service . . . how I could better serve the people of my district.”

The response -- no applause, just the low buzz of conversation -- speaks loudly to the political difficulty Cao faces.

He is a Vietnamese American representing a district that is overwhelmingly black and Democratic. His victory in December 2008 against a criminally indicted incumbent resulted from one of those star-sun-moon convergences that will never be repeated. He is neither a dynamic speaker nor, a mere wisp at 5 feet 2, much of a physical presence.

Yet Cao, 42 and a political novice, says he can -- and will -- win a second term in November by ignoring party labels, acting independently, voting his conscience and working hard for the people of this hard-pressed, Katrina-battered city.


It is the sort of thing politicians are supposed to say, and they often do, usually accompanied by an obligatory swipe at Washington and the mindless partisanship of the place. But for Cao -- whose name is pronounced “Gow” -- that idealistic vow may be his best, and perhaps only, shot at winning reelection, even if it seems quixotic in an age when the gap between parties is widening, the campaign rhetoric is growing uglier and voters, as a result, have become angrier and even more cynical.

The thing is, Cao seems to actually believe what he says.

His speeches are homilies about caring and community, compassion and reflecting on how we can all work together to build a better, more just society. (The message was politely received at a charter school honors assembly, but seemed a bit lost on the drinking crowd at the Bridge Lounge.)

It is, Cao says later, the Jesuit in him. He is a man of deep religious faith, who spent more than five years training for the priesthood until a spiritual crisis led him to seek other ways to save the world.

It is also incredibly naive, some say, to believe that good intentions and an inspiring life story -- Cao was a war refugee who arrived in America at age 8, alone and destitute -- can surmount party loyalties and the deeply ingrained politics of race. (Besides, people wanting the best for New Orleans may have completely different ideas what that entails.)

“He may be a nice enough guy. I can’t say anything bad about him,” said Blair Boutte, a veteran Democratic strategist. “But when you represent a district that has a majority of voters aligning a certain way, they want your conscience to line up with theirs.”

Instead, Cao upset both Democrats and Republicans when confronted with the two biggest issues facing Congress in the last year.

He was part of the unanimous House GOP opposition to Obama’s economic stimulus plan, calling it wasteful and a bad deal for constituents who, Cao said, would end up paying more to Washington than they received in benefits. (Cao’s district finished last, out of 435, when the White House projected the number of jobs created.)

Democrats took the vote as a slap at Obama, who remains popular here, and said it was inexplicable as the region continues to struggle nearly 4 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina. “There’s a sense we need all the help we can get,” said Edward Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political scientist.

The national Democratic Party, which has made Cao its No. 1 target, attacked him in radio ads, calling him a job killer and accusing him of “putting politics ahead of families.” There was talk of a recall, but it fizzled when state officials declared the move unconstitutional.

Then came healthcare. Cao infuriated Republicans by supporting the Democratic bill, ignoring the No. 2 GOP House leader who sat at his right elbow throughout the cliff-hanging vote, urging solidarity. The bill squeaked through on a tally of 219 Democrats and Cao.

The result was a flood of angry phone calls and e-mails, a roasting on talk radio and an unusual statement of reproval from the Louisiana Republican Party. Two of Cao’s fundraisers were canceled, and a few contributors asked for their money back. A New Orleans neighbor, who had been friendly, stuck an angry letter in Cao’s mailbox. “Very nasty,” Cao says, “using words that I have to bleep out, every other word.”

The Republican leadership in Washington has been more supportive, as lawmakers recognize Cao’s situation at home: Democrats make up nearly 7 in 10 registered voters in his district and Republicans about 1 in 10. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio has given Cao $5,000 toward his reelection. Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, Cao’s companion during the debate, has contributed $10,000.

“He’s a hard-working member of our conference and Mr. Cantor looks forward to working with him throughout 2010,” said Brad Dayspring, a Cantor spokesman. (Which is a rather less exuberant statement than Boehner’s reaction -- “The future is Cao!” -- after his upset win.)

Cao agonized over his healthcare vote but not, he says, out of fealty to the GOP. Nearly a quarter of the people in his district lack health insurance. Many are poor. So the promise of broadly expanded medical coverage was enticing.

But abortion is a paramount concern for Cao. His opposition is the main reason he is a Republican, and he would not have voted for the House bill if not for language, inserted at the last minute, ensuring that no federal funds would be used for the procedure.

Many Democrats, including Obama, believe the language went too far, so the Senate passed a less restrictive version. Negotiators are trying to reconcile the two bills, and that has pushed Cao back to the undecided column. He will oppose final passage unless the legislation bill contains the same abortion restriction as the House version -- no matter the political consequence. It’s the conscience thing again.

“It will be ammunition for my opponent,” Cao acknowledges, but “I will not go against my principles simply to preserve the congressional seat.”

Cao’s election was something of a fluke in the first place.

His opponent was Rep. William J. Jefferson, now famous for the $90,000 in bribe money stuffed in his freezer. Jefferson was a path-breaker: the first African American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction and a major force in New Orleans politics. He served nine terms in the House.

Even under indictment -- facing charges that would eventually result in conviction and a 13-year prison sentence -- Jefferson nearly beat Cao. The Republican won 50% to 47%, and then only because of unique circumstances. The election was postponed a month because of Hurricane Gustav; had the vote been in November, Jefferson would have probably been reelected because of heavy black turnout for Obama.

Jefferson was also hurt by the state’s new election law, which forced him to undergo two elimination rounds before reaching the final vote in December. He was battered and broke by the time he faced Cao, who was unopposed for the GOP nomination. “Never in my life did I think I could be a future congressman,” Cao said, as he claimed victory on election night.

He wasn’t the only one surprised: When he first suggested he might run, his wife burst out laughing.

Anh Cao came to America in 1975, leaving Vietnam as Communist troops overran Saigon. (Joseph is his baptismal name and the one he uses in the political sphere.) His mother placed him on a military transport, along with a brother and sister who went separate ways. Cao wound up with an uncle in Goshen, Ind. It would be 15 years before he would be reunited with his parents in America; Cao’s father, a South Vietnamese army officer, spent seven of them as a prisoner in a re-education camp.

Like many successful immigrants, Cao triumphed over poverty, isolation and loneliness while adapting to a strange culture and new language.

He graduated from Baylor University in 1990 with a degree in physics, then answered a lifelong calling by joining the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, the nearly 500-year-old Roman Catholic order that mixes faith with the promotion of social justice. In his sixth year of training, however, Cao suffered “a faith crisis” as he worked among the poor in Mexico: He wondered how a loving God could allow such misery.

His conclusion -- that God works to ease suffering by sending forth people committed to change -- led Cao to abandon his plans for the priesthood and pursue other means of doing good. He went to Washington and became an advocate for Vietnamese refugees, then obtained a law degree from New Orleans’ Loyola University and opened a practice serving the city’s growing Vietnamese community. Along the way, Cao met Hieu “Kate” Hoang, a Louisiana State pharmacy student. They married in 2001 and have two young daughters.

Katrina pushed Cao into public life. After his home and business were flooded, he helped lead rebuilding efforts. He also took on City Hall, thwarting plans to foist a landfill on the Vietnamese American community.

Eyeing a bigger platform, Cao ran in 2007 for state representative, campaigning as an independent and finishing fifth in a field of six. Despite the loss, he caught the attention of Bryan Wagner, a former GOP councilman who urged him to run as a Republican against Jefferson. “I told him it was absolutely winnable, under the right circumstances,” Wagner said, though his was a distinctly minority view: The district had been expressly drawn to send a Democrat and African American to Congress.

Overcoming his doubts -- and bringing his wife on board -- Cao waged a largely deferential campaign, focusing on recovery issues and avoiding harsh attacks on Jefferson that might have fired up Republicans but inflamed Democrats and black voters. Not that anyone needed much reminding; when Cao promised to restore “ethics and honesty” to the 2nd Congressional District, there was little doubt who, or what, he was talking about.

Tactically, it was a wise strategy. But it also suited Cao, a man self-effacing to the point of disappearing in all but the most intimate settings. In a state famous for picaresque politics, in a city with a swamp of racial and ethnic tensions, Cao is seemingly without guile, an innocent amid the alligators.

Perhaps, on some level, his message is getting through.

The crowd at the Bridge Lounge included Matt Haines, 27, bearded and earnest, who took note of Cao’s vote on healthcare and appreciates his political independence.

“I feel like his motives are wonderful,” said Haines, a Democrat and Brooklyn transplant, who works for an aid group that rebuilds homes for hurricane victims. “I feel like he’s doing it for absolutely the right reasons.”

He’s not committed to voting for Cao. Democrats have yet to settle on his opponent, and November is a long way off. But Haines won’t rule it out.