The Magazine

The Unlikeliest Congressman

Anh Cao, Republican from New Orleans.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By KEVIN VANCE
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After devastating losses on November 4, Republicans finished the 2008 election cycle on a high note. Immigration lawyer and community leader Anh "Joseph" Cao (pronounced "gow") last Saturday narrowly defeated indicted Democratic congressman William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson in Louisiana's Second District, becoming the first Republican to represent New Orleans in over a century. When he's sworn in, Cao will also have the distinction of being the nation's first Vietnamese-American member of Congress.

The election was pushed back to December 6 because of Hurricane Gustav. In this majority African-American district, turnout collapsed without Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Cao acknowledges that low turnout was a major factor in his victory, since voters embarrassed by Jefferson were more likely to turn out than voters supportive of Jefferson. Consider that Jefferson won reelection two years ago after federal officials found $90,000 in $100 bills in his freezer (the cash had come from an FBI informant as part of a bribery investigation).

Cao's impressive life story proved to be a plus in a year when heavily Democratic New Orleans was more concerned with integrity than political ideology. He left Vietnam as a child after the fall of Saigon, with two of his seven siblings. After finishing high school and college in Texas, he traveled abroad to help the world's poor as a Jesuit seminarian. But he left the order before becoming a priest, and became an immigration lawyer in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, Cao worked to bring electricity and other services back to New Orleans East.

While conservatives may be heartened by Cao's victory, the congressman-elect calls himself a moderate and only became a Republican last year at the urging of Bryan Wagner, whom he describes as his "mentor." Wagner made history in the 1980s by becoming New Orleans's first GOP city councilman since Reconstruction.

Wagner said that when he met Cao "it was instantly obvious that he was incredibly intelligent, incredibly humble, and that he would be an excellent public servant." Wagner says he suggested Cao become a Republican because of their shared admiration for John McCain. He thought this year's congressional race would be a good campaign for Cao, because of the contrast between the ex-seminarian and the indicted congressman.

Cao preferred not to discuss specific issues when I spoke to him on the Friday after his election, but he did give some indications as to what kind of congressman he will be. He thinks of himself as a reformer above all, who can help rebuild his city and accelerate economic development. Like other New Orleans reformers, he supports scrapping the city's antiquated charity hospital system in favor of a community-based health care delivery model.

When it comes to broad philosophical issues, Cao is inclined to favor private over government-run health care and thinks the best way to alleviate poverty is through education. He doesn't shy from talking about social issues and believes life begins at conception. "I hope we can all take a stance to protect life," he says. Cao is reminiscent of Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's reform-minded, pro-life, Catholic, Indian-American governor.

In other areas, though, Cao departs from conservative orthodoxy. He supports comprehensive immigration reform. "I hope that we can look at issues of immigration reform even before we secure our borders," he says. To win back power in Congress, Republicans need "to be more inclusive of minorities, not so anti-immigrant, and to basically have an open and progressive view of certain issues, such as climate change and alternative energy," he says.

Already, Cao is being compared to one-term Republican congressman Michael Flanagan who won a heavily Democratic Chicago district against indicted congressman Dan Rostenkowski in 1994 only to be defeated two years later (by disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, incidentally).

Wagner thinks his protégé has a brighter future than that. "The same people who said he had no chance this year are the ones who say that he doesn't next year."

Cao deflects questions about his political ambitions: "At this point, .  .  . the only thing I'm concerned about is rebuilding and representing the people of the Second District," he says.

While that sounds like something any politician would say, Wagner doesn't think Cao is the kind of politician who is always contemplating the next step forward in his political career, much less reelection. "Joseph has the idea of serving people, and if he can do a job that meets his standards he'll be happy to run again, but he's his own harshest critic."