NEW ORLEANS-Mel Favorite is a lifelong Democrat and politico, but on the first Saturday of October he was walking through a street festival in the New Orleans suburbs fist-bumping police officers and talking up a Republican congressman: Anh "Joseph" Cao. Favorite, an African-American in a New Orleans Saints championship hat, leaned to Cao (pronounced "Gow"), a 5-foot-1 Vietnamese-American in a polo, steering him through the festival crowds to people he should meet. That judge, this officer, that businessman. Cao moved demurely through, offering a baby-bird handshake here and there, but rarely lingering, a contrast to Favorite's bayou politicking.
The contrast is part of what draws Favorite to Cao: He is tired of the clubby Louisiana politics and the corruption with it. He sees Cao, who won his seat with no background in politics and at one time was in seminary to become a Jesuit priest, as a refreshing change. "He did more in two years than some did in four or eight," Favorite said. From rousting out incompetent officials at FEMA to gaining oil-spill compensation to spurring continued rebuilding efforts from hurricanes, Cao has built a reputation here. It might not be enough.
Cao, 43, is the rare endangered Republican in this election cycle. He's an Asian in the majority African-American district that went 75 percent for Barack Obama, and most call his 2008 win a fluke because Hurricane Gustav delayed the vote, resulting in low turnout. President Obama, whom Cao calls a friend, endorsed his opponent, even though Cao is the House Republican most likely to vote with the president. The National Republican Congressional Committee hasn't wired him any money yet. I asked Cao how it felt to be a minority member whose party wasn't funding him: "I don't feel that the NRCC is neglecting a minority member," he said. "Their resources are limited."
If Democrats have a chance of maintaining their majority in the House, this historically blue seat is one they must win. But the congressman has competitive numbers, trailing his Democratic challenger, state representative Cedric Richmond, by about 10 points in recent polls. With Democratic turnout expected to be low, that lead could shrink-Cook Political Report lists the district as a competitive race in the "lean Democratic" category.
Cao has African-American supporters, like Favorite. His deputy chief of staff in New Orleans, Rosalind Peychaud, is also African-American and a former Democratic state legislator. Another supporter, Rev. Byron Clay, who recently stepped down as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, said he expects Cao to win 25 percent of the African-American vote, an optimistic but not impossible number. A recent poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling shows Cao with 15 percent of the black vote, and another 14 percent of blacks are undecided.
New Orleans has its share of racial issues, from the wrongs of slavery and Reconstruction to wounds from Hurricane Katrina, but it's like no other city in America. Before the Civil War, almost 20,000 free blacks lived in the city; they were poets, physicians, and businesspeople. New Orleans began integrating public schools in the 1870s, before most cities in the North. "I always say Nola is the most integrated segregated place in America," Ray Cannata, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, wrote me in an email. "It doesn't fit American categories for understanding racial dynamics." This year, for instance, the mostly black city elected a white man, Mitch Landrieu, to be mayor; his father Moon Landrieu served as mayor in the 1970s.
"Washington," said Cao, "does not understand the local dynamics in New Orleans."
Cao may face an uphill battle for reelection, but he's overcome circumstances bigger than politics in his past. In 1975, when he was 8 years old, Cao's parents sent him and his five siblings out of a downwardly spiraling South Vietnam, where his father was then captured by the North Vietnamese at the end of the war and served seven years in a Communist "re-education camp." Without his parents, he soon had to separate from his siblings to settle with an uncle in Houston, Texas. He didn't speak English. Now he has multiple degrees (in pre-med, philosophy, and law) and is fluent in French, Vietnamese, Spanish, and English.
Cao's district covers central New Orleans and stretches southwest across the Mississippi River through Jefferson Parish and northeast along Lake Ponchartrain to New Orleans East, the Vietnamese community where Cao lives. The street festival where Favorite was delivering fist-bumps was in Gretna, a majority white suburb just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Even in October, the bayou heat beat on people buying daiquiris and muffalettas by the levee.
Gretna has some controversial history to overcome. As the Katrina floodwaters rose in New Orleans in 2005, thousands on foot tried to cross the only bridge from the central city over the Mississippi River to the suburbs, known as the West Bank. But police officers from the West Bank blocked those fleeing New Orleans, firing shots over their heads, according to a number of those who tried to cross the bridge. The refugees turned back to the chaotic city. The West Bank city of Gretna, which made the decision to seal the bridge in conjunction with Jefferson Parish, got the reputation, deserved or not, of being the white suburb that turned away blacks during an hour of need.
Thirty-five percent of Gretna's population is black, more than double the national average, so perhaps the case wasn't simply that white people didn't want black people coming into their neighborhoods. The mayor of Gretna, Ronnie Harris (who is white), afterwards said city officials made the decision to shut the bridge down because the city was ravaged and had no aid to offer the thousands trying to come through. He and other officials argued that they had to provide for the security of their residents first. At least one judge sided with the city, ruling that the decision to shut the bridge was constitutional. But the story remains vivid in locals' minds.
So Cao strode into the mostly white crowd at the Gretna festival flanked by several African-Americans-Favorite among them. Two of Favorite's neighborhood friends, flashing gold-toothed smiles and wearing Cao T-shirts, joined Cao. Cao was the only Asian in sight. "I'm used to being an ethnic minority," Cao told me. "I've been a minority since I came to the United States."
Cao is the kind of Republican President Obama might want to embrace, but instead the first ad Obama recorded for the midterms was for Cao's opponent. In the ad for Richmond, Obama noted that the state representative had mentored "kids who grew up like he did," as images of Richmond with black children played. "Cedric's always been there," the president said. While the president has blasted Republican opponents, Cao supported financial regulatory reform and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He was the only Republican to support the initial version of the healthcare bill, though he voted against the final bill because of his concerns that it would provide federal funding for abortions.
And the president has been friendly with the congressman. Cao was the only Republican the president invited to the White House Super Bowl party this year when the New Orleans Saints won. In June Cao's wife Kate and girls Sophia and Betsy joined first lady Michelle Obama for a community service project in Washington. The House Democratic leadership hasn't shown Cao any such friendship-he said the Speaker's office has never sought him to discuss anything. The Democrats' style, he said, is, "'You do it our way or no way at all.' I don't think that's the way you should govern."
The congressman wasn't surprised that Obama endorsed Richmond: "The president is the face of the Democratic Party." But he warned that such endorsements can come at a cost to the "integrity of the presidency" because of Richmond's baggage. The state Supreme Court suspended Richmond's law license for two months in 2008 because he lied about his current address. Also that year, the state ethics board ruled that he violated ethics rules by not reporting legal work for a state agency-Richmond said he simply filed the wrong form. In 2007, he was arrested for a bar fight in Baton Rouge and charged with a misdemeanor, which was later dismissed. In 2005, the state Supreme Court barred him from running for a New Orleans city council seat because he didn't meet residency requirements. Cao characterizes Richmond as part of New Orleans' old, corrupt political culture, the same culture Cao ran against when he ousted the nine-term incumbent Rep. William Jefferson, a black Democrat who had hidden $90,000 in cold cash in his freezer. Jefferson was indicted for corruption soon before the election in 2008, and he was later convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
But Richmond appears relatively confident about his chances. While Cao had been visiting churches in his district every Sunday morning for six weeks, Richmond had zero public events scheduled the first weekend of October, when races were heating up nationwide.
On Sunday morning, Oct. 3, Cao had already been to one church service when he arrived for Guiding Light Missionary Church's 7:30 a.m. service. Byron Clay, the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, was at the congressman's side, as he has been for all the church visits. After the sermon, the all-black church brought two boys to the front who are planning to be baptized in the coming weeks. "You could have been drug dealers, robbers," Rev. Anthony Smith noted as he praised God for their faith and the congregation clapped. The service closed, and in the time for announcements, Cao came to the front. "You mentioned drug dealers and robbers," he said, "but you left out politicians." Cao seemed more at ease in this black church than at the Gretna street festival, and he delivered an understated campaign pitch. "I will continue to work with you in whatever capacity I'm in," Cao told the congregation. Bites were still visible on his arm from an incident a few weeks earlier when he was clearing brush in New Orleans' 9th Ward and came under a fire ant attack.
After the service congregants picked up whole pickles and munched on them over white styrofoam cups as they talked over the upcoming Saints game and waited outside in the warm morning sun to talk to Cao. For every man in the congregation, there were at least five women, and women are the predominant voters in New Orleans too. Clay chatted with congregants, mentioning that he remembered as a boy seeing the church under construction.
"I'm not backing a Republican. I'm backing Joseph Cao the person. Nobody has more integrity and more character than this man," Clay told me as the church emptied. "We're going to surprise a lot of people."
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus are well-known Democratic coalitions in the House that wield real political power. The GOP has no parallel. Cao is one of three Asian Republicans in the House; there are eight more who are Democrats.
Of the House's 41 African-American members, all are Democrats according to Congressional Research Service. Of the 28 Hispanics in the House, 24 are Democrats. The one Native American in the House, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, is Republican.
But more ethnic minorities are running on the Republican ticket this time. Tim Scott, an African-American, expects to win the 1st District in South Carolina, and he would be the first black Republican in the House since Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma left office in 2003. African-American Allen West is in a neck-and-neck race with Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida's 22nd District. Another,
Ryan Frazier, is trying to unseat Rep. Ed Perlmutter in Colorado's 7th.
A Vietnamese-American, California state assemblyman Van Tran, has put Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez's reelection in California in jeopardy. A Republican, Tran represents an increasingly influential Vietnamese community in southern California, and Sanchez said on the Spanish-language channel Univision that "the Vietnamese and Republicans" were trying "to take this seat from us." She said later she regretted her choice of words. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, an African-American, has said one of his goals is to increase the party's ethnic diversity.