WASHINGTON, D.C.-Saigon-born Ahn "Joseph" Cao (pronounced "Gow") has managed to surprise the political establishment in his own 100 days in office. He became a Republican congressman in a Democratic district-and as a freshman lawmaker has already shown his independence, voting against President Obama's stimulus package though it had funds for his own district of New Orleans, and breaking ranks with Republicans on interrogation policies and a hate-crimes bill.
As a Republican trying to please Democratic constituents, the 42-year-old lawmaker from Louisiana has begun an uphill-and perhaps improbable-reelection battle just a year away. But "improbable" is a word that is sprinkled throughout the story of the first Vietnamese-born American ever elected to Congress.
As an 8-year-old arriving in the United States from Vietnam he knew no English, and now he is a congressman fluent in English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. In the final fury of the Vietnam War in 1975 his parents sent him with his brother and sister across the ocean to the United States, where Cao settled with his uncle. He was separated not only from his parents, but also from his other five siblings, and it took about four years for him to be able to stomach pizza. Meanwhile his father, who had been a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, was sent to a communist labor camp as the war wound down, where he suffered under forced labor and starvation for seven years. Today he and Joseph's mother are in the United States, but he is wheelchair-bound and rarely speaks.
From living parentless growing up in the States, Cao went on to study pre-med at Baylor University. But he didn't go on to medical school-instead he went to seminary to become a Jesuit priest. He never was ordained, but served the Society of Jesus in Latin America, where he says he had a revelation that he should work in politics. He came back to the States, married a Vietnamese woman, Hieu "Kate" Hoang, and got a law degree. He became an immigration lawyer in New Orleans, while teaching ethics at Loyola University (he had picked up a philosophy degree too).
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, destroying Cao's home and taking the lives of over 1,400 people there. His daughters, Betsy and Sophia, were babies at the time. The Vietnamese community in New Orleans East was one of the first to begin rebuilding, without much government help-and Cao was one of the people on the front lines, joining the board of a Vietnamese church-based community development organization that became renowned for its post-Katrina efforts. He freely criticizes the Republican administration's handling of Katrina, especially the work of FEMA. Even now, as New Orleans is still struggling to rise to its feet, Cao has called for the resignation of three administrators in FEMA's Gulf Coast operations over allegations of misconduct.
About President Bush's handling of the disaster, he said, "I would not make a moral judgment with respect to the president's personal position, but I would make a judgment with respect to his leadership; he lacked the system, he lacked the manpower, he lacked a plan."
Katrina prompted him to run for state office in 2007 as a Republican-a party he chose because of the abortion issue. He lost but wasn't discouraged and ran for national office in 2008. No Republican had won the majority black district that encompasses New Orleans in over a century, a district in which registered Republicans make up 11 percent of the population. Cao ran against nine-term African-American Democratic incumbent William Jefferson, or as he is sometimes called, "Dollar Bill." With the help of a loyal constituency, Jefferson had been reelected in 2006 even after federal agents found $90,000 in cash-alleged kickbacks-stored in his freezer.
Though Jefferson was under the shadow of more than a dozen federal indictments for bribery, he led Cao by 14 percent in the primary elections Nov. 4. Another hurricane, Gustav, had delayed the election (and incidentally filled Cao's home with three feet of water). In the month following the primary, Cao closed the gap and won by 3 percent in the final election, which Jefferson attributed to low voter turnout.
Cao is small, dovish, fresh-faced, and soft-spoken, all uncommon traits in politics and contradictions in a man who has come through a life of struggles and a tough election. He is the only congressman to have fled his home in Vietnam in the heat of war and to also see his home destroyed in the water and wind of Hurricane Katrina. Cao said these things have helped him understand loss, something rampant in New Orleans.
While he said he admires President Obama, he disagrees with the level of spending going on: "I grew up in a very poor family, and my parents have always taught for us to be frugal in how we spend money, to be careful in what we do, to respect elders, to raise children in the proper manner. I'm not saying the president doesn't do that, but . . . our decision making [is] influenced by how we were raised and our religious beliefs."
That frugality led him to vote against the stimulus bill, a vote that dismayed some of his constituents, though Louisiana received the funds anyway. Cao had indicated he would vote for it, but he switched his position at the last moment. Reporters in the Capitol laughed when they saw that vote-a "one-termer," they said, shaking their heads, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee immediately began running radio spots targeting Cao's vote.
How will he, someone with no political background, win next time when he isn't running against an indicted politician? "I would have a track record," he responded. Right now, his record is a mixed bag: He voted for Congress' pork-laden 2009 budget but then voted against next year's $3.4 trillion budget.
But in his placid, un-politician-like way, he concluded, "In the event that they don't want to vote me back in, that's fine. At least I have spent two years of my life trying to do what is right and good."