New Orleans Lawmaker Faces Uncertain Future As Cultures Clash

Representative Anh Joseph Cao is the nation's highest ranking Vietnamese-American currently holding elected office. As Cao concludes his first term representing Louisiana's 2nd District in Congress, the road to reelection by a heavily African-American constituency could prove to be a difficult one. Host Michel Martin speaks with Washington Post staff writer Steve Hendrix who recently profiled Representative Cao in the Washington Post Magazine.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that many civilians believe military life is quote, something for other people to do, unquote. We'll talk about whether that's true, and how to close that gap, in just a few minutes.

But first, we open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine - something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

This week, we're talking about a question of political fate. With midterm elections just around the corner, much of Congress returned home over the weekend for the final weeks of campaigning, and some of those elected officials have more campaigning to do than others.

One of them is Anh Joseph Cao. He is a Republican who represents Louisiana's 2nd District, which includes much of the city of New Orleans. Two years ago, Cao narrowly beat out William Jefferson after Jefferson became embroiled in a corruption investigation.

And Joseph Cao became the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress, and he also happens to be Republican, representing a majority African-American Democratic district.

Washington Post staff writer Steve Hendrix profiled congressman Cao in this week's Post Magazine, in a piece titled "The Ongoing Storm," and he joins us now from our studios - from his studios at the Post to talk more about it. Welcome back, thanks for joining us again.

Mr. STEVE HENDRIX (Author, "The Ongoing Storm"): Hey, Michel, thanks for having me back.

MARTIN: Now, it sounds like, you know, the profile of a member of Congress doesn't seem like it would be that hard of an assignment, you know, frankly, because it's the Post and so forth. But it sounds like this was actually a little more difficult than some because he actually doesn't really love the attention. Did I get that right?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, you're right. You know, the guy is not a natural-born politician. That's one of the most interesting things about him. I have to say, he was very generous with his time, and it's never a hardship to go down to New Orleans for any reason.

But it was harder to get your - kind of hands around him as a political figure, and a public figure, than it usually is. And to me, that's one of the most interesting things about him.

MARTIN: Well, he sounds like a very nice person, and I don't mean that in a demeaning way, to say oh, he but he just seems like a very nice person. But there was this aura of - kind of a stranger in a strange land, that he just doesn't quite fit the mold of what people think a congressman from that district should be. Was that right? How does he and he knows that. So how does he deal with that?

Mr. HENDRIX: He does know that, and I think the last two years have been among the strangest in a very strange life. He's in some ways, he's just a very normal person. He's sort of like - if you could take all these members of Congress, and all these national politicians, and wind the clock back to when they were their younger, pre-professional selves, you'd probably find a lot of more normal people.

But politics and power and time in Washington - does seem to change people, and I guess the reasons for that are obvious. When you have so much influence, and you're constantly surrounded by people who want something from you or want to catch your attention; they're always flattering you.

He isn't there yet, and I don't know if he'll have a long-enough congressional career to make that switch. But he's still a guy who just brings to this job what - you know, his normal life.

For him, it's very strange - one of a person who was born in Vietnam and had to flee that country as a young boy, and grew up without his parents here and then ended up, for personal reasons, spending most of his early adult life in the priesthood - or rather, as a seminarian, a Jesuit seminarian. And so that's not your classic path to Congress, by any means.

MARTIN: And Representative Cao has kind of come to national attention, really, twice in his short career. One was when he was elected, just to begin with -well, three times, I would say. Secondly, when he was, I believe, one of the only House Republicans - if the only House Republican - to vote with the president on health-care reform.

And then the third was with some comments that he made before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing back in June. I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say to BP America President Lamar McKay.

Representative ANH CAO (Republican, Louisiana): Mr. Stern asked Mr. McKay to resign. Well, in the Asian culture, we do things differently. During the samurai days, we'd just give you a knife and ask you to commit hari-kari.

MARTIN: Well, how first of all, how are these comments received, particularly in his district? And is that kind of representative of his style, of just of kind of blunt and, you know?

Mr. HENDRIX: You know, for a Jesuit seminarian who spent most of his seminary career as a missionary in the poorest parts of the world, it's probably the most violent, harsh thing he's ever said.

I think it played very, very well in his district. You could hardly go too far in villainizing BP down in New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana.

I don't think it was a calculated comment. He says it was not. He said it was born out of the frustration that he - and everyone else in that area - felt at the slow pace of the recovery, in plugging the well.

But it served him well, I think. It put him where a politician needs to be in that part of the country - which was firmly on the side of, you know, the little guys against the big oil corporation.

MARTIN: Well, I'm not going to ask you to predict, because that's always a dangerous business for any of us, particularly journalists. But I do want to ask how you assess his re-election chances. I mean, freshmen are typically vulnerable anyway, thing one.

And thing two, he is an anomaly in his district demographically, given that it is a - predominately African-American, it is overwhelmingly Democratic, and he is a, you know, Republican who is not African-American.

You describe, for example, in your piece a group of African-American men sitting on a porch in the Eighth Ward, and one gentleman whom you interviewed said he's a Democrat leaning toward Cao.

But another gentleman said - look, you know, when you asked somebody else if they would, and he said, well, if he's black, I'll vote for him - said one of the other gentlemen you interviewed - if he's not black, I won't. So how do you assess his chances?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, I'll tell you, I'll defer to the political analysts. And they rank him as the most vulnerable Republican in the Congress. It is an African-American and Democratic district by something like 75 percent.

On the so they don't give him much of a chance, frankly, at this point, although he has made inroads. He has done a good job of, seemingly, of showing that he's fighting for the district, did a lot of work to improve the FEMA response down there after Katrina and the Road Home Program, and gets a lot of credit for that.

And there are some variables that make this race very interesting. One is that the racial bloc voting in New Orleans seems to have abated somewhat post-Katrina, in part because of the number of African-Americans who still haven't come back.

And in part, there seems to be a real hunger just for competence, you know, in a society, a town that needs all the federal help it can get. We saw a white mayor elected in the last cycle, Mitch Landrieu.

MARTIN: And they voted for him. And they voted for him to begin with. So - Steve Hendrix is a staff writer for the Washington Post. His profile of congressman Cao, entitled "The Ongoing Storm," appears in this week's Washington Post Magazine. If you'd like to read it in its entirety - and we hope you will - we'll link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org; click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Steve, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. HENDRIX: Thank you, Michel, bye-bye.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.