Anh "Joseph" Cao, who this week upset embattled Democratic incumbent Rep. William Jefferson in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, has become the unexpected toast of the Republican Party.
He is the face of the future, national leaders gushed after Cao's victory Saturday, proof that after a dismal election cycle the GOP can win — and win with an unconventional candidate.
There's been a lot of media attention surrounding Cao ahead of his arrival on the Hill Wednesday. But there was a time not so long ago that Cao, who will be the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress, couldn't get anyone to pay attention to his long-shot bid to become the first Republican since the late 1800s to represent New Orleans in Congress.
He got the brushoff from local newspapers and television stations. He was all but invisible to state Republican leaders. And the GOP's big money people in Washington had never heard of the young lawyer. After all, what chance would an untested refugee have in a predominantly African-American district against a nine-term incumbent — even one indicted on corruption charges?
"They just ignored me," said Cao, 41, who fled war-ravaged Vietnam as a boy. "The message was, 'Why waste our time?' "
Now, after his hurricane-delayed election win, Cao has been besieged by interview requests and touted as proof that the beleaguered Republican Party is still alive and kicking. "The future is Cao," House Minority Leader John Boehner declared in a post-election memo. But an assertion by Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan that Cao's success shows the party still knows how to win seems more than a bit disingenuous, even to the victor.
"I'm a little bit mad at the Republican Party because they, like everybody else, ignored us until the very end — until they saw that we might actually win," says Cao, pronounced "Gow."
The party didn't pony up any money until three weeks before the election, he says — and then only at the urging of party leaders like Newt Gingrich, who says he recognized an opportunity against wounded incumbent Jefferson, who became the butt of late-night comics after investigators discovered $90,000 hidden in his freezer. "I know the impact of even the smallest word of encouragement," said Gingrich, who lost twice before winning a seat in Congress in 1979.
Endorsements were equally slow to come. Popular Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American and himself promoted as the future of the GOP, waited until three days before the election to back his fellow party member, Cao says.
And then there was the hurricane effect. Even Cao says that his victory was largely made possible by Hurricane Gustav. Its early September appearance in Louisiana pushed back the congressional contest from Election Day, when he would have faced Jefferson on a Democratic ticket topped by Barack Obama. Only 66,000 voters showed up for the Dec. 6 special election, about 100,000 fewer than on Election Day.
"If not for Gustav, we would have been swamped by African-American voters on Election Day, and I would still be ignored," Cao said in an interview Tuesday. Gustav, says Gingrich, "created the opportunity."
Jefferson has blamed his loss on the rescheduled election and on low voter turnout in a district where Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 captured more than three-quarters of the vote. District data are not yet available for this year.
Cao, whose law practice is largely devoted to personal injury and immigration issues, will head to Washington this week with a unique personal story. After fleeing Vietnam as an 8-year-old, he lived with family members and eventually graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Later, as a Jesuit seminarian, Cao says he was transformed by the time he spent working with the poor in Tijuana, Mexico.
"I saw extreme poverty and the need for social change," he said. "At that time, I saw the fastest way to achieve that change was through political activity." That presented a conflict with his pursuit of the priesthood, as did his desire for a family. He left the Jesuits, eventually earned a law degree at Loyola University New Orleans, married and now has two young daughters.
Cao made a name for himself in his community after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His own home and law office destroyed, he rebuilt and fought efforts to locate a garbage dump in the city's ruined Vietnamese-American enclave. "It would have completely diminished our community," says Huey Truong, 27, a secretary at Cao's law office. "He is a role model for Asian-Americans — I am really honored by his election."
Cao says his Washington agenda is simple: "To address the needs of the 2nd District, many parts of which are still decimated by Katrina." That includes, he says, fixing the health care system and restoring coastal wetland areas.
Cao says he also wants to bring a more progressive voice to his own party, including one that is "less anti-immigrant."
"When minorities like me hear that negative message, we really have to think what's going through these people's minds," he said. "Even though we need to have security and prevent illegal immigration, we don't have to express it negatively."
Gingrich says that Cao and Jindal could be key to reaching out to the broader Asian-American community, which he sees as receptive to a conservative economic message. But first order of business for Cao, Gingrich says, is to remain focused on rebuilding New Orleans, and to reach out to Democrats and the African-American community in his district.
Cao says that one of his most life-forming moments was when, as a 9-year-old refugee living with his uncle in Goshen, Ind., he received a letter from his father, who was being held in a prison camp in South Vietnam. "Son," the letter said, "you have to study hard, work hard and give back to your community and your country."
"That has stuck with me since," says Cao, who insists he is holding no grudges over earlier slights by his party and the media. "I'm being quite gracious to everyone — I'm for the people."
"I see great hope for Vietnamese-Americans in the United States, and this is a first step in what I hope will be many to come."