The Possible Dream
Louisiana's Historic New Congressman Seems to Surprise Everyone but Himself

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NEW ORLEANS Anh "Joseph" Cao -- the hot new property in Congress, Mr. Upset, the first Vietnamese American elected to the U.S. House or Senate, the first Republican to win Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District since before Louis Armstrong was born -- is driving across this Gothic American bayou. He's relating how, as a Jesuit seminarian in the slums of Mexico nearly 20 years ago, he experienced a crisis of faith.

He was dispirited by how God could let such human misery exist, he says and then stops himself.

"Do you ever read Kierkegaard?" he asks.

Um, the 19th-century Danish philosopher is in our memory bank, but "Fear and Trembling" has not been on our coffee table for quite some time.

"Kierkegaard had this story about a man going through life. The man reached an abyss. He had to make what Kierkegaard called the leap of faith. In life's journey, you sometimes reach a level of uncertainty that you have to make such a leap.

"That's what happened to me in Mexico. I was working in extremely poor conditions, and I wanted to promote social change. I came to believe, over the course of two or three years, that the best way to do that would be to enter public office. It would also allow me to have a family -- the celibate life can be quite lonely. So I drafted a course of action for myself to enter politics. But it was a quite painful discernment. It implied I would have to leave the seminary. I would have to start life over again. I would have to make that leap of faith."

Cao (pronounced "gow") is 41. He is soft-spoken, with neatly combed, thick black hair. His trade, until recently, was immigration and personal-injury lawyer. He stands just under 5-2. Soaking wet, he might weigh 125 pounds. He is a very good listener. He smiles, but not all the time. He runs five miles every day before dawn.

He is telling this story in his lightly accented English, a reminder that he was airlifted as a child out of Saigon "two or three days" before that city fell to communist forces.

He makes scant mention of other hardships: arriving in Indiana without his parents, a terrified 8-year-old who spoke no English; leaving the seminary in 1996 in a weathered Honda Accord, bound for his sister's house in Falls Church; arriving there with $20 to his name and no prospects save for his faith, determination and intellect. (In this tableau, Hurricane Katrina washing out his New Orleans home with eight feet of water in 2005 is not anything much to discuss.)

So -- he's back to his story now -- his stunning victory earlier this month over veteran congressman William "Cold Cash" Jefferson, he of the beaucoup federal indictments and $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer. It didn't surprise Cao at all.

He's been running for office for 10 years. It's just in the past few weeks that anyone noticed.

"Nobody gave him a chance, and all of a sudden -- boom! -- he was right there," gushes Eddie White, a retired electrician who has a fishing shack just down the canal from Cao's home way out in the bayous of east New Orleans. "It's like the American dream."

Shaping the Man

If America was a land of dreams in 1975, it seemed more like a phantasm to the bookish Vietnamese boy who stepped off the plane.

His country had collapsed, his family had fractured. As communist forces overran Saigon, his mother took him, a brother and a sister to the airfield and handed them off to an aunt, who shepherded them as far as Guam. The brother stayed with their aunt, and the sister was sent to an American foster family in Florida. Cao went to live with a bachelor uncle in Goshen, Ind.

Cao's father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was arrested by the new regime and shipped to a brutal reeducation camp for seven years. His mother and his five other siblings remained in Vietnam. (A younger sister who stayed behind was later hit by a car and killed; it would be years before most of the family was reunited in the United States.)

"We didn't have a good childhood, let me put it that way," says Thanh Tran, the sister who was raised in Florida and who now lives in Falls Church.

In Goshen, Cao's uncle worked nights at a McDonald's. They lived in a basement apartment, with windows that were barely above the ground. In the winters, snowdrifts blanketed them. The winds, the blowing branches, storms, darkness: They filled the boy with terrors of mythical Vietnamese ghosts.

"It was horrifying," he remembers.

There were no English as a Second Language classes, so school administrators put him in the first grade to learn English with the little kids. He prayed and dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest. He took a paper route to earn money. He made friends and discovered that he liked the snow after all.

After his uncle married, they wound up with other relatives in Houston, with most of his family reunited. Cao graduated from Baylor University with a degree in physics before joining the Society of Jesus in 1990. Better known as the Jesuits, the 468-year-old society requires vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The "absolute requirement" is the "promotion of justice."

Cao was 24 when the Jesuits sent him to work in poor areas of Mexico. It was there, in the fire of youth and faith, that he began to wonder whether the contemplative life was going to have enough action, whether God alone was going to do enough about the world's problems. He moved on to postings for study or work in New Orleans, Montgomery, Ala., and Washington. He did missionary work in Hong Kong and China. He obtained a master's degree at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. He went back to New Orleans, to Loyola University -- founded by the Jesuits -- and lectured. No matter where he went, he struggled with his internal "sea of doubt."

In 1996 he drafted a life-changing course of action: He would leave the seminary but retain his faith. He would have a family. He would seek the social justice the Jesuits called for, but do it through the secular means of politics.

He stepped out of the seminary and faced Kierkegaard's abyss with a practical bent: "The first part of this plan was me getting a job. I was dead broke."

Living with his sister in Falls Church, he taught religion and literature to middle-school students at St. Agnes School in Arlington for a year while he prepared for law school. He volunteered with the charity Boat People SOS, an advocacy group for Vietnamese refugees.

"He just knew he wanted to do something to help needy people," his sister remembers.

After a year, Cao went back to Loyola to study law. He joined Mary Queen of Vietnam church, the anchor of the Vietnamese community in east New Orleans. He saw Hieu "Kate" Hoang, a pharmacy student he once taught in catechism class. She was enrolled at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, about 90 minutes away.

"He would drive up on weekends, and we would go to church and to lunch," she says.

The couple married in 2001, but she declined to take his last name. "Cao" translates as "tall" or "high," and "we are not tall," Hoang says, smiling.

The couple bought a house in Venetian Isles, a waterfront development nearly 20 miles from downtown New Orleans. Cao began practicing law, soon running his own small firm. Hoang worked as a pharmacist at a Walgreens. Their daughter Sophia was born in 2003; a second daughter, Betsy, arrived the next year.

He did not pursue politics at all. If he was climbing a professional or social ladder, nobody in New Orleans or the national Vietnamese American civic groups knew about it.

Then the wind began to blow.

A Pivotal Storm

Time in New Orleans is pretty much divided into pre- and post-Katrina.

Pre-Katrina, life was largely symbolized as the good-time Big Easy, a rollicking city of jazz, funk, drive-through daiquiri bars and French Quarter cabarets ("Not Just the Same Old Thong and Dance," reads one billboard on Interstate 10). In politics, it seemed there was no end to cheerful corruption and fun-loving graft.

Post-Katrina, the city's population dropped from about 460,000 to as low as 190,000 (about 320,000 people are in the city today). The chancellor of the University of New Orleans says that enrollment went from 18,000 before the 2005 hurricane to 11,500, and that the university is losing more than $20 million per year. The airport has dropped from having 9,250 badged employees to 4,968.

But the city's 15,000 or so Vietnamese residents, stuck out in the wasteland of east New Orleans, came back en masse, some 95 percent of them. They repaired their ranch-style homes and replaced their statues of the Virgin Mary in their front yards. They went back to their shops, amid the smell of sulfur from nearby plants and the thick fog that rolls in from the backwaters.

So when the city put a landfill in their neighborhood in February 2006, Cao and other local residents were furious. They formed civic groups to fight back. Cao leapt into the fray, lending guidance and legal strategy to the protests. It was about this time that Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, came to a meeting at the neighborhood church. He said the Vietnamese community would have to get more involved in politics.

"Joseph raised his hand and said he would run for a state representative seat," remembers the Rev. Vien The Nguyen, pastor of the church. "Before Katrina, that might have been a little scary for us. But after Katrina, we saw new possibilities, not just as Vietnamese, but for everybody in Louisiana. Bobby Jindal [an Indian American] was governor. Besides, we were up to our eyeballs with being on the bottom of the pile all the time. Joseph stepped in with the intention of correcting the wrong."

The protest worked -- the landfill was shut down -- but the campaign flopped. Cao ran as an independent and placed fifth in a field of six. Hoang remembers him going alone to knock on doors, and how Cao and a brother put together his Web site.

"He just had no support at all," she remembers.

But Cao's bid caught the attention of Bryan Wagner, a Republican and former City Council member. Wagner -- portly, courtly, white-haired, as Southern as sweet tea -- saw Cao as the personification of the new civic loyalty after Katrina.

He persuaded Cao to join the Republican Party, then helped Cao get on local and state party leadership committees. This summer, he saw to it that Cao secured the party's nomination to challenge the scandal-plagued Jefferson. Wagner introduced Cao to the GOP national convention leaders in September and helped him raise more than $200,000 for the campaign.

Still, Jefferson was the "prohibitive favorite," as the city's main newspaper put it. He had been in office 18 years. He was the first black candidate to win the seat since Reconstruction, a fact dear to the city's 60 percent-plus black residents. And he was a Democrat, the party that had controlled the seat for more than a century.

Jefferson was first among all Democrats in the general primary and handily won a runoff in November.

But Hurricane Gustav had delayed the election cycle a month. Jefferson was vastly diminished by the scandals and was running out of money.

Cao and Wagner had been holding back during the Democratic primaries, doing almost no campaigning, rocking the opposition to sleep. Now they pounced. They poured money into media advertising, plastering signs up all over town, making the political rounds. Cao talked about good governance and levee protection. He talked about honesty. He won newspaper endorsements. He gained the support of Democrats such as Helena Moreno, who had faced Jefferson in the runoff, and City Council President Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, a member in good standing of the city's political establishment.

It didn't hurt, as Wagner puts it, that in the 2nd District's areas outside New Orleans, where there were more Republicans and conservatives, Jefferson was "just a little less popular than [serial killer] Jeffrey Dahmer."

Final tally: Cao 33,122 votes, Jefferson 31,296.

The seminarian who left the church to pursue God's will had come through the abyss.

Toast of the Town

On a recent morning, Cao and Murray Nelson, his campaign adviser, are in the 30th-floor penthouse meeting room of Nelson's firm, Fowler Rodriguez Valdes-Fauli. The fog is gumbo thick outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, making it impossible to see the city below. Cao is explaining to Timothy P. Ryan, chancellor of the University of New Orleans, who has stopped by seeking help from Congress, that they need to work fast.

"The Republican leadership . . . is going head over heels" about his victory, Cao says. "I'm a Republican in a Democratic district. The outgoing Bush administration isn't going to be here much longer. I'm not sure how much can be accomplished, but let's strike while the support is still hot."

He reaches in his pocket to hand Ryan a business card. It turns out he doesn't have one yet.

"We really need to get cards," says Nelson.

"We really need to get an office," Cao counters, good-naturedly.

People are still getting used to the idea that Cao really did win.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who is black, once said he wanted to keep the Big Easy "chocolate" after Katrina. In an interview in City Hall recently, he described Cao's election as a "stroke of luck and brilliance." He acknowledges that there is a "feeling of loss" among the city's black residents that Cao defeated Jefferson. "But if he delivers on post-Katrina things -- really delivers -- I think he could be tough to beat," Nagin says.

The mayor is being nice.

Most people think Cao will be a political one-and-done. Once the Democrats unite behind a fresh candidate, the logic goes, they'll churn out another victory.

"People are already lining up to run against him," says John "Spud" McConnell, an actor and the hugely popular host of WWL radio's "Talk Gumbo." "He's going to have to come home with a lot of pork for the 2nd District, to stand a chance in two years."

Barbara Lacen Keller is one of those black voters whom Cao will have to sway.

An activist in city politics for 40 years, she voted for Jefferson, her fellow church member, in part because he'd come through the Democratic ranks and knew what black residents needed, she says.

But she lives in east New Orleans, not far from Cao. The area is still one of the poorest in the region. There are power lines and the interstate in the distance. There are the little shopping centers where every store has a Vietnamese name. There are junkyards and transmission shops and Gill's Crane and Dozer Services.

"This is my city. I love it. I want it to have the best," she says. "I look at the disparity Joe's been able to overcome, to come to a country where he was totally lost and had to fend for himself. He had to learn the language and culture, not just in America, but in New Orleans, a place that's so unique. To come out as successful as he is, that says something."

Somewhere, past miles of canebrake and marsh and canals and fishing shacks on stilts, there is Joseph Cao, out for his pre-dawn five-miler, believing beyond faith that he can represent this city and its people who still can't pronounce his name, if only he runs hard enough.

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