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Minority report

Politics | Rep. Joseph Cao is a minority in the GOP and in his Democratic hometown of New Orleans-and one of the few incumbents who might miss the Republican wave

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

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."

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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.

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