NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Meet Joe Cao, the new congressman from New Orleans and the first Vietnamese-American to ever sit in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Anh “Joseph'' Cao is a 41-year-old immigration lawyer and child of Vietnam War refugees. He is a Republican and a moderate, he said. His only stated political belief is that abortion is wrong. On everything else, he said, he's open.
“The only thing I am certain of is that I am anti-abortion,'' Cao said Sunday morning after defeating U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, the nine-term incumbent Democrat indicted on corruption charges.
Positions on anything else?
“I probably don't,'' he said. “I am pretty much moderate on many issues.''
Cao's win Saturday signaled a momentous shift in New Orleans politics and ushered in the end of Jefferson's political career, which spanned 30 years but dimmed in the wake of a wide-ranging corruption probe into African business deals. The investigation became public in 2005 when FBI agents raided his homes and offices and found $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer.
Cao's victory was greeted with amazement and drew parallels with the election of Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American Republican, to the governor's mansion last year. The two victories are helping dispel Louisiana's image as corrupt and consolidating a general shift to the GOP in Louisiana, where the Democratic Party for generations was the only party in town.
“He kind of came out of nowhere,'' said Verne Kennedy, a Louisiana pollster.
By winning as a Republican, Cao turned the tide on more than a century of Democratic dominance in New Orleans.
“This is kind of uncharted waters here,'' said Larry Powell, a Tulane University historian.
Cao was buoyed to victory by low turnout, a lackluster campaign by Jefferson, strong third-party candidates and the fact that the election, originally scheduled to fall on Election Day Nov. 4, was postponed a month by Hurricane Gustav.
In conceding the race, Jefferson blamed fatigue among his supporters.
“I think people just ran out of gas a bit,'' Jefferson said Saturday night. “People today flat didn't come out in large numbers.''
State and national Republicans seized on the combination of factors favoring Cao and managed a well-funded and effective campaign, bombarding targeted neighborhoods with automated telephone calls, signs and flyers. The GOP mounted the most direct attacks Jefferson has faced since 2005.
Jefferson _ isolated by Democrats, short on funds and embroiled in legal wrangling _ was unable to counter and now faces trial. No date has been set.
Nonetheless, Cao's win was invariably viewed as improbable, even historic.
“It's a David and Goliath story,'' said Joel Waltzer, a lawyer who's worked for 20 years representing Vietnamese homeowners and fishermen in eastern New Orleans, the same place Cao calls home. Before starting his own law practice, Cao worked for Waltzer.
Waltzer said Cao's win was profoundly important for the Asian communities of eastern New Orleans and the West Bank, a series of suburbs across the Mississippi River from the city. But his victory, he said, was only made possible by Hurricane Katrina.
“Before Katrina, they were an ignored constituency and now they are strong enough to elect their own congressman,'' Waltzer said. “They've become ambitious. They want a voice in their own rebuilding, a place at the table when these very important decisions are made.''
The Asian community of eastern New Orleans _ made up of war refugees from Southeast Asia who came here in the 1970s _ has gained in strength since Katrina and it is widely viewed as a rebuilding model.
“They jumped onto it with nobody's help,'' said Pete Gerica, a commercial fisherman and industry advocate who lives near the Asian community, known generally as Village d'Est or Versailles.
“It's a self-contained city,'' Gerica said. “They have steelworkers, carpenters, everything they need right there. They have shoe makers, they got people who make clothes. They are a very tight-knit family and that's what makes good people, when you put family first.''
Gerica, of Yugoslav ancestry, said Cao could put a new face on Louisiana's reconstruction and, if he works with Democrats like Rep. Charlie Melancon, do good things for the state. But, he added, his lack of seniority and experience with politics could be a detriment.
“I wish the man all the luck in the world. He seems very smart,'' Gerica said.
Cao (his name is pronounced “Gow'') is not a native of Louisiana and moved to Grand Coteau, La., in 1992 as a Jesuit seminarian. He later met his wife and bought a home in Venetian Isles, an upscale neighborhood outside New Orleans' levee system that fronts Lake Borgne. His home was flooded by Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, and by Gustav this Labor Day, he said.
He 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.
Bookish, slight and 5-foot-2, Cao had seemed like a long-shot Republican candidate in Saturday's election for New Orleans' predominantly black and Democratic 2nd Congressional District. The last Republican to represent New Orleans proper was Hamilton Dudley Coleman in 1890, said Powell, the Tulane historian. Coleman served one term.
In many ways, Cao won on a protest vote by white voters from both major parties indignant about Jefferson staying in power despite the money laundering, racketeering and bribery charges. Analysts said white voters turned out by a ratio of 2-to-1 over blacks.
Cao largely is unknown, but voters may have been attracted by his life story.
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.
Cao has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University, a Jesuit college in New York City, and a law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans.
As a lawyer, he has worked for Boat People S.O.S., a national Vietnamese-American advocacy group for refugees. He came to prominence in New Orleans circles during 2006 when he became a leader in an emotional fight after Katrina to close a new landfill near Village d'Est.
In 2007, Cao ran for a state House seat as an independent and lost.
He said his win Saturday proved Louisiana is open-minded.
“The people of Louisiana are very special, very progressive,'' he said, “and I think we will serve as a beacon for the rest of the country.''
Pictured above is Anh Cao.