'Mr. Cao' Recalls Rookie Congressman's Unlikely Rise

Play associated audio

In 2008, Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao was elected to Louisiana's predominantly black and Democratic 2nd Congressional District, which includes New Orleans, making him the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress. Needless to say, it was an unlikely rise.

Cao's victory came on the heels of a bribery scandal involving then-incumbent Democratic Rep. William Jefferson. "They found $90,000 in cash in [Jefferson's] freezer, in pie tins and boxes," filmmaker Leo Chiang tells NPR's Guy Raz. "It was basically the biggest scandal in congressional history."

That scandal helped set the stage for Cao's ascent, which Chiang documents in his film Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, showing at film festivals this summer and airing on PBS in November.

Chiang explains that despite the scandal, Jefferson ran again in 2008. With the district's Democratic leanings, his re-election initially seemed like a foregone conclusion. "And here comes this little 5-foot-2 Vietnamese-American, Joseph Cao, who is a Republican, and he decides that he was going to run for Congress," Chiang says. "Doesn't matter that nobody [knew] who he was."

A first-generation Vietnamese immigrant and a lawyer by trade, Cao ultimately unseated Jefferson, taking the 2nd District on a platform of change. Chiang says, "He was selling himself ... as a change agent — much like President Obama was doing — to this district that has been long plagued by corruption and lots of dirty politics."

Breaking Ranks

In Chiang's film, Cao comes across as a genuinely nice, almost naive person. At one event, he tells a constituent that "political affiliations [are] only for convenience" and "nothing else." Chiang attributes Cao's idealistic convictions to his background as a seminarian — he studied to be a priest before eventually becoming a lawyer.

"He really believed that the American government should be bipartisan," Chiang says, "should be full of compromises, should be able to do service for the people, and he — little Joseph Cao — was going to come and make that happen."

And a few months after arriving in Washington, Cao drew national attention for pursuing those convictions. He was the only Republican to support the health care legislation introduced by House Democrats in 2009, for which he was sharply criticized by Republican leadership. But he broke ranks, Chiang says, "because he really believed that his district needed it. It is one of the poorest districts in the country, and four short years prior to that vote, Hurricane Katrina devastated that district." It was a matter of principle.

Chiang posits that some might argue it was also an extremely smart political calculation on Cao's part — voting in favor of Democratic legislation and siding with President Obama made sense for a Republican congressman in a Democratic-dominated district. But once the bill made its way through the Senate and back to the House, Cao withdrew his support.

"From [Cao's] point of view, there was not ... sufficient language that prevents federal funding of abortion," Chiang says.

A Matter Of Personal Principle

Despite his many seemingly liberal positions — opposition to "don't ask, don't tell," support for immigration reform and the DREAM Act — Cao's stance on abortion was more traditionally conservative and in line with his seminarian background.

"My theory is that, as a young man, religion was something that gave him comfort," Chiang says, "He really believed in what the church says about abortion and it became his most important personal principle."

But Cao's Democratic constituents felt betrayed. When the next election rolled around, his victory over Democratic rival Cedric Richmond seemed unlikely and Cao's re-election campaign took an unusual turn — he went negative. But the turn didn't suit him. Chiang says lambasting his opponent's legal history, which included a law license suspension for perjury and an arrest over a bar brawl, was "a bit of a [desperate] measure" for Cao.

To top it all off, President Obama, whom Cao counted as a friend, was backing his opponent. "There was not a whole lot that they could do if they kept pursuing this narrative of [Cao] being this man of principle that was going to be best for the district," Chiang says.

Cao lost that race to Richmond, and his stint in Washington came to an end, but Chiang says in some ways this is just the first chapter of his subject's political story. Cao has been touring the country with a Vietnamese-American PAC, raising funds for Vietnamese-American candidates nationwide, and as "the pioneer politician in the Vietnamese-American community," Chiang says, "I don't think we've seen the last of Joseph Cao yet in the political world."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Took Unlikely Path To Hollywood Royalty

Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood knows tough times. A single mom at 17 who once worked at a French fry factory to make ends meet is Hollywood royalty today. A favorite of director Tim Burton, Atwood is now costume designer for his adaptation of the darkly comic, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children and the upcoming Harry Potter prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Carnegie Deli Says It Is Closing Down Its Landmark NYC Restaurant

As news of the closing rippled far beyond the deli's home turf in Manhattan Friday, hundreds of people responded with sadness and disbelief.

The VA Will Now Pay For Fertility Treatment For Wounded Vets

Congress has reversed a law passed in 1992 that prohibited the Department of Veterans Affairs from paying for IVF for veterans and their families, after mounting political pressure.

The United Nations Is Launching A Space Mission

The U.N. is planning to send its first spacecraft into orbit, packed with scientific experiments from countries that can't afford their own space programs.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.