The first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress took advantage of dissatisfaction with a longtime incumbent dogged by corruption allegations and reflects the changing nature of New Orleans politics since Hurricane Katrina.
Republican immigration attorney Anh “Joseph” Cao defeated Democratic U.S. William Jefferson on Saturday in an election postponed for a month by Hurricane Gustav.
The victory for a 41-year-old child of Vietnam War refugees was greeted with amazement and drew parallels to last year’s election of Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American Republican.
It also confirms a general shift to the GOP in Louisiana, where the Democratic Party dominated for generations and no Republican had represented New Orleans since 1890.
Cao was buoyed by low turnout, a lackluster campaign by Jefferson, strong third-party candidates and the election being postponed a month by Hurricane Gustav. State and national Republicans seized on the race with a well-funded and effective campaign, bombarding targeted neighborhoods with automated telephone calls, signs and flyers.
In many ways, Cao won on a protest vote by white voters from both major parties indignant about Jefferson’s staying power. Analysts said white voters turned out by a ratio of 2-to-1 over blacks.
Cao (pronounced “Gow”) is largely unknown, but his compelling life story attracted many voters. He was born in Vietnam and had to flee the country after Saigon fell in 1975 at age 8. His father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was imprisoned by Communist forces and later released.
He earned a degree in philosophy from Fordham University, a Jesuit college in New York City, and moved to Louisiana in 1992 as a seminarian. He earned his law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans.
Cao has close ties with the powerful Vietnamese Catholic church, Mary Queen of Vietnam, and vowed that his political bid was motivated by his religiosity.
“It was something that I was called to do, literally, in the religion sense,” Cao said.
The congressman-elect describes himself as a political moderate with only one firm policy belief: He is against abortion.