Joseph Cao, the unlikely congressman from New Orleans

Like the New Orleans district he represents, Republican congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao knows something about overcoming the odds.

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By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, October 3, 2010

It just seems right that the street in front of Anh "Joseph" Cao's house is always flooded. Even on fine days, the road is axle-deep from curb to curb, an everlasting flood to remind him that the world is a place of calamity, that life is a series of struggles.

At least, this part of the world. And this man's life.

On a sultry July morning, Cao, the first-term Republican congressman from New Orleans, walks out of his house in the Venetian Isles neighborhood in the easternmost part of the city, a low tentacle of land rising, just barely, above the waters of Bayou Sauvage. A dawn fog sits heavily over the adjacent swamp; a dead palm leans in memoriam to Hurricane Katrina (or maybe Gustav; both of them devastated his house).

It's 5:30 in the morning and 80 degrees. Cao's wife, Kate, a pharmacist who worked at a nearby Walgreens until he was elected to Congress, is asleep inside with their two young daughters.

At curbside, Cao steps into the back seat of his campaign manager's car, careful not to dip his black loafers in a body of water that is less a puddle than a standing pond. And it hasn't even rained.

"This is just routine; this is actually from the tide," says Cao (pronounced "Gow"), turning to look back on the wake that the Hyundai Elantra leaves along Murano Road as they pull slowly away.

He speaks with an accent still heavy with the distinctive tones of Vietnam, even though he was only 8 years old that day in 1975 when his mother sent him away to spare him from the war that was coming nearer and nearer to their village.

Cao's campaign manager, David Huguenel, drives down Chef Menteur Highway, past fishing piers and gravel pits. This is New Orleans's most rural pocket, far from the wrought-iron filigree of the French Quarter and the close-packed shotgun houses of Treme. It's a district of watermen and light industry, the seat of the city's growing Vietnamese population.

***

Some of the houses have statues of Buddha standing amid the palmetto and bougainvillea. One sign reads "Po Boys and Bubble Tea," another "Schoenberger and Luat Su -- Attorneys at Law." A third, on a lot covered with storm debris, reads "You Dump, You Die."

We roll through the development of Village de L'Est, lined with canals and lush family gardens. It's a point of pride among these serial refugees that this was one of the first neighborhoods to scrabble back from Katrina, well before government assistance programs kicked in. Nearly every household shares a history similar to Cao's, a loop of dislocation and endurance reaching back decades, stretching across oceans.

Indeed, much of Cao's day will be devoted to the latest catastrophe to strike his district: a hellhole in the bottom of the gulf that's been disgorging petroleum into local waters since the BP drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in April. He'll meet with federal officials to discuss recovery plans. He'll take a helicopter tour of the thin orange line of protective booms that divides thousands of acres of estuary from the toxic tides. Some of them, as might be expected, are within a few miles of Cao's house.


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