The William Jefferson Chronicles

Cao says he's 'here to represent everyone'
by Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Sunday December 07, 2008, 8:46 PM

The morning after he shocked south Louisiana voters by unseating nine-term Democratic U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao vowed to work across racial and party lines as an advocate for a district still struggling to rebuild.

"I'm here to represent everyone," Cao said outside Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in eastern New Orleans, where he attended Mass on Sunday with his wife, Hieu "Kate" Hoang, and their two young daughters, Sophia and Betsy.

"Whether the person is a Democrat or a Republican, whether the person is African-American, black or white or Asian, my duty as their representative is to serve the needs of all constituents," he said.

With his win, Cao, the first Vietnamese-American elected to the U.S. House, is poised to take the helm of a district whose demographics don't favor candidates like him. Drawn to give African-Americans an electoral advantage, 62 percent of the voters in the 2nd District are black, and two-thirds are registered Democrats -- although those percentages may shift as voters who have moved away since Hurricane Katrina are removed from the rolls.

Cao, a soft-spoken lawyer from Venetian Isles, managed his unlikely win by taking advantage of a remarkably low turnout in heavily black neighborhoods -- dipping to just 12 percent in areas that are more than 90 percent black -- as well as strong support from white voters and Republican groups.

With Jefferson's political might weakened as he awaits trial on federal bribery and corruption charges, Cao stopped short of attacking the incumbent for his legal problems, questioning instead his effectiveness and ethics.

"This race was the race for the rebuilding of the district, and I thought that I needed to stress that particular message," he said Sunday. "We (didn't) want to alienate anyone in this race, and therefore it was very important that we presented a positive message, a message of rebuilding, a message of reform."

Facing a rare whirlwind of attention for someone who has never held elected office, Cao said he had received phone calls Saturday night from Republican House leaders but had not had a chance to return them. Early Sunday, he had appeared on CNN, and he planned to talk later in the day with reporters from The New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as some Vietnamese publications.

He also said he had not had a moment to consider whom he will hire to staff his offices in south Louisiana and on Capitol Hill. Citing a story that appeared in Sunday's Times-Picayune, Cao said his first order of business will be clearing up delays by the Army Corps of Engineers in crafting a plan for protection against a Category 5 hurricane.

Asked about heading to Washington as a member of the minority party, Cao said he isn't worried.

"The issues . . . of the 2nd Congressional District really transcend party lines," he said. "We're all reasonable people. We can sit down and discuss and talk things out, and hopefully by the end of the day we can compromise."

Regarding his goal of promoting "a free and democratic Vietnam," Cao said he has not yet developed specific plans for advancing that issue in Congress. But he said he recognizes the "great responsibility" he has to advocate for his ethnic community as well as for Louisiana's 2nd District generally.

The Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of Cao's church and an influential community leader, said Cao's win opens a new chapter for Vietnamese immigrants in a country that for so many has been a refuge.

"We have been the beneficiaries of the American system, of the American society and all that is American because we were the late arrivals," Nguyen said. "So with Joseph Cao, this is really our first time, from the legislative perspective, that we make a contribution back to the society that gave us so much."

The victory at once validates dreams of the community's elders, he said, while showing its youth that they, too, can serve at the highest levels of U.S. government.

"Only in America would this happen, only here," Nguyen said. "I can't think of any other country where this would happen. This is the amazing thing about this country."

Nguyen said that based on Cao's childhood experience as a refugee escaping war-ravaged Saigon, he expects the newly minted congressman to be a strong advocate for the poor.

"He certainly wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and in that sense, he understands the struggle," Nguyen said.

For his part, Cao said he will need "support from everyone" as he heads to Capitol Hill, and even made an open call for resumes from people interested in working for him.

And he asked for tolerance from constituents for what he described as a bashful streak that may paint him at times as ill-suited for the office he secured Saturday.

"I'm an extremely hard worker," Cao said. "But I'm somewhat shy, so if I meet people in the streets and I don't happen to shake their hands, it's not because I'm arrogant or stuck up, but sometimes it's because of my shyness."

Michelle Krupa can be reached at or 504.826.3312.

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