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Minority report

"Minority report" Continued...

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

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.

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