After Katrina, New Orleans Has A New Political Face

Joseph Cao

"I felt a compelling need to promote social change," says Republican Rep. Joseph Cao. "I thought the best possible way for me to do that was to become politically involved." Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Five years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina was churning toward the Gulf Coast. The storm ripped up levees and destroyed homes in New Orleans, but it left its mark on the city's political landscape as well.

When Katrina hit, Orleans Parish was 67 percent black; after the storm, that number fell to 59 percent. It's a shift that's brought increasing parity at the ballot box. Elections for City Council, district attorney, even school board positions are no longer dominated by black candidates.

This past winter, Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor — the first white mayor of New Orleans since his father held the post three decades ago. He's just one of several non-black candidates to see broad-based support.

Two years ago, the people of Louisiana's 2nd District elected Vietnamese-born Republican Joseph Cao. He's up for election again this year, and is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country. Whether race or party will decide the vote is anyone's guess.

The Surprised Winner

Cao took over the seat previously held by William Jefferson. You might remember Jefferson for the $90,000 found by federal corruption investigators in his freezer. Even so, it was considered one of the biggest upsets of that year's elections.

"To tell you the truth, I thought my chances were slim to none," Cao tells NPR's Audie Cornish.

"I was an unknown entity," he says. "I had never held political office, and I was going against a person who has been one of the foundations of the political process in Louisiana for a long time."

Republican strategist James Farwell helped run the Cao campaign and says there were two keys to their win.

"First and foremost was a desire to remove Bill Jefferson. That was very important," Farwell says. "He had gotten into trouble, and people were tired of that. The second was that Cao himself is a smart guy. It wasn't enough just to replace Jefferson."

But there were other factors at play. Another storm, Hurricane Gustav, hit the week of the primaries. That pushed the election back until December, when Jefferson didn't have the advantage of Obama's coattails. Cao won the majority of the white vote, and the seat.

"I don't believe it was the population decrease of Katrina that changed the political dynamics of this region. I believe that people were so tired of the political corruption that was going on," Cao says. "They felt that they could have a fresh start in this Asian-American."

The Colors That Matter: Red And Blue

In Cao's two years, he's crossed party lines, voting with Democrats on new Wall Street regulations and federal hate crime laws. He was the only member of the GOP to vote for any part of the health care overhaul. Republicans have touted him as their most independent freshman, but Democrats here are hoping voters will see it differently.

"Remember, this is the Republican Party — the party challenging the fact that the president was born in the United States," says Cedric Richmond, one of four Democrats seeking to challenge Cao in a primary election this week. Richmond is black, has the most money, and is backed by the national party leadership.

"We still have numbers here," he says. The African-American population is still significant here. But in this district, it's a 75-percent Democratic district. So this is the No. 1 pick-up seat for Democrats in the country. This is a seat that the Democrats have to have back."

Pastor Warren Buchanan leads the Berean True Holiness Church of God in Christ. He says he's more concerned about the growing sense of apathy among black voters.

"There is a lack of interest among black voters because [of a] lack of trust," he says. "We have had black representation for years, and it appears they have been there for their own aggrandizement. It makes no difference what the makeup of it is. The candidate that can get out the votes — that's who's going to win.

And in that way, five years after the storm, New Orleans isn't much different from anywhere else.

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