One reason it's been hard for some conservative pundits to know exactly what to make of Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao's vote for the Democrats' health overhaul over the weekend is that he's only been a declared Republican for a couple of years.
Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao smiles at an election victory party in New Orleans in 2008.
Some critics said Cao was bought off by Democrats or let his party down.
But, as New Orleans native and American Spectator senior editor Quin Hillyer put it, "The man never claimed to be a fully committed economic conservative."
In fact, Cao's Republican affiliation is still in its infancy. He joined the party Dec. 6, 2007, exactly one year before being elected to Congress on the GOP ticket, a spokesman for the Louisiana Secretary of State told us. Cao had been registered as an unaffiliated voter at his current address since September 2000. (Older records weren't available through the state office).
Cao wasn't an old hand at politics before joining the Republican Party, either. He ran—and lost—as an independent in a 2007 race for the local state representative seat. He made no donations to national political candidates of either party until giving to his own campaign when it launched in July 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps campaign finance records dating back to 1990. Cao's campaign staff couldn't reached for comment Monday afternoon.
Political ideology didn't drive Cao's decision to enter politics, recalls Rev. Vien The Nguyen, Cao's friend and pastor at Mary Queen of Vietnam, a Catholic Church that serves their tight-knit Vietnamese-American enclave. Instead, Nguyen said, Cao's political calling sprang from a putrid landfill near their neighborhood, which is perched on a swampy, eastern extremity of New Orleans.
Cao's community fought successfully to close the dump, which served as a depository for hurricane debris from April to August 2006. When Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., visited the enclave to show support, Nguyen told him, "We've been fighting landfills for thirteen years.
"Mike Honda's response was, we need to be involved in politics" to address the issue before it becomes a problem, Nguyen said. Cao "was the one who told Honda that he wished to be involved."
Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who had been caught with $90,000 in his freezer, part of an inquiry that led to a bribery conviction, managed to overcome seven primary challengers in the 2008 election. Cao got on the ballot as a Republican, and breezed, unopposed, to the general election, defeating Jefferson in a "shocker."
Weaver is a reporter for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.