AUDIE CORNISH, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish, in for Guy Raz.
Five years ago this week, a storm called Katrina was churning toward the Gulf Coast. It would tear up the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, and rip up levees in the city of New Orleans.
Over the next few days, NPR will look across the region at the hurricane's legacy. And we'll spend the first part of today's program looking at the political transformation in New Orleans.
We'll start in 2005, just before the storm hit.
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Unidentified Man #1: You're talking about one and a half million people in the greater metropolitan area. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of people that have to evacuate.
Unidentified Man #2: The city that I know and love and grew up in just will never be the same.
Unidentified Woman #1: I do not want to take my grandchildren and run again. I do not want to live like this.
Unidentified Woman #2: I'm not sure where I'm going, but it'll be better than where I've been.
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Unidentified Woman #3: If you've left town, don't come back. Don't come back, baby - don't even think about it.
Unidentified Man #3: I left with about 35 people. They all been placed in different cities all over the country.
Unidentified Woman #4: Dallas, Texas.
Unidentified Man #4: Troy, Alabama.
Unidentified Man #5: North Carolina.
Unidentified Woman #5: And Houston.
Unidentified Man #6: Buffalo, New York.
Unidentified Woman #6: San Francisco.
Unidentified Man #7: I'm in Memphis now.
Unidentified Man #8: I got an auntie in Chicago, but I don't want to go there (unintelligible). They said New Orleans destroyed, so plan on moving on, start life all over.
Mr. RAY NAGIN (Former Democratic Mayor, New Orleans): We ask black people, it's time. It's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don't care what people are saying. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.
Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU (Democrat, New Orleans): You know, the issue in the race really centers around, do people feel disenfranchised? Do they think they're going to have an opportunity? Do they think they have access? And so I wanted to send a message clearly tonight that as a leader of the city of New Orleans, we have to get beyond race.
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CORNISH: Those last two voices you heard were former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and his successor, Mitch Landrieu.
This past winter, Landrieu was the first white mayor elected since his father held the post three decades ago. And he's not the only white candidate to see broad-based support. Elections for the city council, the district attorney, school board positions are no longer dominated by black candidates.
And in this fall's midterm congressional elections, the district that includes New Orleans is one of the few that has Republicans across the country worried. The man who won that seat two years ago was a Vietnamese-born Republican, Joseph Cao.
Representative JOSEPH CAO (Republican, Louisiana): To tell you the truth, I thought my chances were slim to none.
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CORNISH: We'll talk more with him later. Cao took over the seat previously held by William Jefferson. You might remember him for the $90,000 federal agents found in his freezer.
But all through his legal troubles, Jefferson kept winning re-election -until he faced Joseph Cao.
Mr. JAMES FARWELL (Republican Strategist): Politico rated it one of the 10 major upsets in the country in 2009.
CORNISH: That's national Republican strategist James Farwell. He helped run Cao's campaign, and says there were two keys to the Republican's win.
Mr. FARWELL: First and foremost was a desire within the district to remove Bill Jefferson. And that was very important. He had gotten into trouble, and people really were just tired of that. The second thing was that Cao himself is a very smart guy. It wasn't enough just to replace Jefferson. It takes somebody to beat somebody.
CORNISH: But there were other factors at play. Another storm, Hurricane Gustav, hit the week of the primaries. That pushed the general election back until December, and Jefferson couldn't ride Barack Obama's coattails in November. And Cao won the vast majority of the white vote.
Flash forward to 2010, congressman Cao is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country. He took a break from his re-election campaign in New Orleans to tell me his story.
Rep. CAO: I came to the United States in 1975, at the age of 8. I came with my older sister and a younger brother right after the war. My father was in prison, in the Communist re-education camp, for seven years. And my mother had to stay behind to take care of my other sisters.
I was eventually raised by an uncle, got my bachelor degree in physics, and decided to become a Catholic priest. So I entered the Society of Jesus and spent six years before I left, got my law degree and eventually, ran for office.
CORNISH: So physics and Jesuits. There's a lot of things there that don't necessarily lead to politics. So how did you end up running for election in New Orleans - especially since I read that you weren't originally a Republican. You were actually been registered an independent for a very long time.
Rep. CAO: Correct. When I was in the Society of Jesus, I had the great opportunity of working with the poor all over the world. And I felt a compelling need to promote social change. And I thought the best possible way for me to do that was to become politically involved.
CORNISH: Now, your election in 2008 was one of the biggest - considered one of the biggest upset victories of that year and of that election. You're actually one of several elected officials - or officials elected in the New Orleans area recently who aren't black, but who did gain the support of what is essentially a mostly black electorate, a mostly black district. How did you win over those votes?
Rep. CAO: Well, just by conveying a very simple message, that my sole desire was to serve. And I believe that my life history, my life story incorporated this desire. And so they decided to choose this Asian-American.
CORNISH: This time around, you're the incumbent. And you're not necessarily dealing with competitors who have quite the same level of issues as congressman Jefferson did. How is your approach different than it was two years ago?
Rep. CAO: My approach, to tell you the truth, has not changed. For the past two years, I've been very much focused on rebuilding the city after Katrina, and now we have to struggle with the rebuilding after the oil spill.
I have been committed to do everything that I possibly can to bring the necessary money for us to address those issues, and I have done quite well to be in the minority party.
I've - through my push to reform FEMA, for instance, we were able to unclog the backlog of public work projects, and FEMA money started to flow into the district in the amounts of hundreds of millions - even close to a billion dollars.
CORNISH: You mentioned being member of the minority in Congress. And I'm wondering what it has been like for you these past two years, balancing the priorities of the Republican Party with the need to satisfy your voters. You know, it's essentially a Democrat-majority district.
Rep. CAO: Well, I have never been focused on party politics. I have this conviction that my primary role is to make the best possible decisions for my district, irrelevant of whether or not the issue is a Republican issue or the issue is a Democratic issue.
CORNISH: But you must have gotten a lot of criticism. I mean, this past year, you had initial support, at least, for the health-care bill before voting against it. And then at the same time, you voted for, say, the Wall Street regulations, which is something that most of the GOP voted against.
Rep. CAO: I did receive a lot of criticisms from the Republican constituency. But at the same time, I've always been about making the right decisions for my district and for the country. And if that entails making Republicans mad, then so be it.
CORNISH: Congressman Joseph Cao represents Louisiana's 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Thank you so much.
Rep. CAO: Thank you.
CORNISH: So what role will race play this fall? We went to a community meeting in the neighborhood known as the Treme, and asked Lorraine Boyd(ph) and Andrew Ricks(ph).
Ms. LORRAINE BOYD: It's an issue. I'm not going to say a small issue. It's an issue because a lot of African-American people tend to feel that we've been snuffed out, and you have to look a little past of this feeling that way.
Mr. ANDREW RICKS: It doesn't matter, as long as you help the community. Whoever get in there, they must deserve it, and they got the qualifications to be in that office. So whoever get in, I'm down with it.
Rep. CAO: Black leadership really only came to the city after the civil rights era. When William Jefferson took office in 1991, he was the first black politician to hold the congressional seat since Reconstruction. Since Hurricane Katrina hit, the black population in Orleans Parish is down 27 percent. For whites, it's just down 11 percent. And that's brought increasing parity at the ballot box.
But it could be party, not race, that's the biggest obstacle for Cao. While Republicans have touted him as their most independent freshman, Democrats here are hoping voters will see him differently.
Mr. CEDRIC RICHMOND (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Louisiana): They want to keep this seat, and they're going to do anything they can to keep this seat. Remember, this Republican Party is still the party challenging whether the president was born in the United States or not.
CORNISH: That's Cedric Richmond, one of four Democrats competing in a primary this week to take on Cao. Richmond has the most money and is the choice of the national party leadership.
I caught up with him at a campaign event at Dooky Chase, a restaurant fabled for the political wheelings and dealings done in its back rooms.
Mr. RICHMOND: We still have numbers here. The African-American population is still significant here. But in this district, it's a 75 percent Democratic district. So this is the number one pick-up seat for Democrats in the country. This is a seat that the Democrats have to have back. And if you don't have the perfect storm that you had last time, Joseph Cao wouldn't have been elected.
CORNISH: Richmond then excused himself to greet a room full of local clergy, an influential block of tastemakers in this town, like Pastor Warren Buchanan; he leads the Berean True Holiness Church of God in Christ. Buchanan says he's more concerned about the growing sense of apathy among black voters.
Mr. WARREN BUCHANAN (Reverend, Berean True Holiness Church of God in Christ): For one reason - is because there is a lack of interest because of a lack of trust. We have had black representation for years, and it appears that they have been there for their own aggrandizement. It makes no difference what the makeup of it is, because the candidate that can get out the votes - that's going to win.
CORNISH: And in that way, five years after the storm, New Orleans isn't much different from anywhere else.
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