Look what two hurricanes might blow in.
Sit down and make yourself comfortable, because this is one of those stories you just won’t want to miss. It’s the kind of story for which this poor pen might not do justice. And it’s the kind of story of which the world of politics needs more examples.
It’s a story that effectively starts three days before the fall of Saigon in 1975, when eight-year-old Joseph Cao escaped South Vietnam with a brother and sister and eventually made his way to the United States, where he settled with an uncle. As the story continues today, Cao is the Republican nominee for Congress from Louisiana’s Second Congressional District (mostly New Orleans), running against William “Cold Cash” Jefferson — also known as “Dollar Bill” — who for years has been fighting multiple-count bribery-related indictments after federal agents in 2005 caught nefarious activities on tape and then found $90,000 from the taped transaction hidden in his refrigerator freezer.
Because the congressional primaries were delayed by Hurricane Gustav, the general election was pushed back to Saturday, December 6.
But before you read about the congressional campaign, you’ll want to know about what happened between Saigon and today.
What happened first was that Cao’s father, a South Vietnamese military officer, was sent to a Viet Cong “re-education camp” for six years. That’s why his children had to escape Vietnam without him. As a certain recent presidential candidate could tell you, a Viet Cong camp is not a place where one is treated well.
Anyway, Cao settled in Indiana for four ears, then resettled in Houston for high school, then earned a B.S. in physics in 1990 from Baylor University. Baylor is a Baptist university. But upon graduation, Cao joined the Jesuit order. For six years he remained a Jesuit — novice, scholastic, regent — while earning a graduate degree in philosophy from Fordham University, several times doing social (anti-poverty) work abroad (including in his native Vietnam) and then teaching philosophy at Loyola University of New Orleans.
But he was never ordained a priest. He had become interested in politics, and “religion and politics don’t mix,” he told me. Cao continued teaching philosophy at Loyola while attending Loyola’s law school. (From physics to religion to philosophy to law — quite the intellectual journey.) Along the line he married, and eventually fathered two children. He found that New Orleans East had a vibrant Vietnamese expatriate community boasting a nursery run by Vietnamese nuns and an active church. He set up a shingle as general-practice attorney. He was appointed in 2001 to the National Advisory Council for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He became a board member of a charter school, and a board member for a community development corporation that runs a medical clinic, a retirement center, and an urban farm.
Meanwhile, he and his father, who was eventually released to the United States in 1991 and eventually wheelchair-bound, both greatly admired a U.S. senator named John McCain, whose service to both their native country and their adopted country had been so valiant — and so similar, in so many ways, to that of Cao’s father. He supported McCain strongly in his race for president in 2000 — and again in 2007-2008, when he was one of McCain’s earliest Louisiana backers and eventually a national convention delegate pledged to the senator.
But along the way, there came two little hurricanes. Or maybe not so little. Katrina in 2005 left eight feet of water in Cao’s house (in an area mostly home to commercial fishermen, a few miles east of where most of his fellow Vietnamese expats lived), and effectively wiped out the Vietnamese community. “We lost everything,” he said, simply.
Local businessman Fenn French, a Republican stalwart whose family has been in New Orleans (and Mardi Gras “royalty”) for generations, takes up the story. New Orleans East, he rightly notes, is one of the most unprotected parts of the whole metro area. It was utterly destroyed. “But,” he says in enthusiastic admiration, “the Vietnamese community was the very first to stand up its neighborhood again, and they did it without government assistance.”
Cao — short, slight, soft-spoken, and described by French as “one of these good-hearted, salt-of-the-Earth guys” — was a leader in that effort. After brief sojourns in Baton Rouge, in a nearby town called Westwego, and then in a rental home back in New Orleans East, Cao’s own family rebuilt as well.
“It’s peaceful out there [where he lives],” Cao told me. “The people are extremely nice, and it’s a close-knit community.”
IN 2007 CAO MUSTERED the gumption to run for a state legislative seat. He carried the New Orleans part of his legislative district, but he was swamped in the portions that crossed into neighboring St. Bernard Parish, and he thus missed getting into a runoff by a mere 250 votes.
Undaunted, Cao looked at the developing scandal around Rep. Jefferson, and his background in philosophy kicked in. Forget the 66% to 11% (23% “other”) Democrat-to-Republican edge in the Second District. Forget the 62% black voter registration (Jefferson is black). “Clearly,” said Cao campaign treasurer Murray Nelson, himself the loser last year of a state legislative race and recently the statewide executive director of McCain’s Louisiana campaign, “this is a real David going up against a Goliath, but he’s a guy who actually taught ethics going against a guy facing multiple indictments. I think he’s just offended [by Jefferson’s ethics], and he’s doing this race for the right reasons, not for himself.”
“I want to bring reform back to the Second District,” Cao told me. Again, simple as that.
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