The William Jefferson Chronicles

Cao unseats Jefferson
09:34 AM CST on Sunday, December 7, 2008

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS - In a stunning victory, a little-known Vietnamese-American Republican candidate defeated nine-time Democratic Congressman William Jefferson in a majority African-American district with a very small number of Republican registered voters.

Anh ‘Joseph” Cao received 33,122 votes, or 49 percent to Jefferson’s 31,296, or 47 percent in the race for the Second Congressional District seat from Louisiana. He becomes the nation's first Vietnamese-American Congressman.

Jefferson, who is under federal indictment, blamed the low turnout on Hurricane Gustav’s delayed elections and the fact that his constituents had to turn out three times in three months.

“I’m sure some people thought I’d already won,” he said. “Many did not vote. Most of the people in the district supported us. I think some just ran out of gas.”

WWL-TV Political Analyst Clancy DuBos agreed with Jefferson’s assessment that he would have more likely succeeded had he been running against Cao on a ballot during the presidential race that featured Barack Obama, but he also said he thought that Jefferson’s legal troubles may have finally caught up with him.

“I think there was a large number of people in the community who were tired of holding their noses and voting for Mr. Jefferson,” he said.

Greg Rigamer, a political consultant for WWL-TV, said his analysis showed turnout in predominantly white sections of the district was double that in black areas. He said that helped push Cao to victory over Jefferson, who became Louisiana's first black congressman since Reconstruction when he took office in 1991.

"This is quite a feat," Rigamer said of Cao's victory.

DuBos said the loss was also a potential legal loss in that it took “the bargaining chip” of resignation off the table if Jefferson chose to try to negotiate a plea.

Cao seemed largely caught off guard with the win.

“I’m speechless right now,” he said before thanking a litany of people who he said contributed to his victory. "I came over here when I was eight years old, I had absolutely nothing. I didn't speak any English. The American dream is alive and well."

A barrage of election-day automated telephone calls on Cao's behalf flooded the district, including a pitch from the national Republican Party.

New Orleans voters had long been loyal to Jefferson, re-electing him in 2006 even after news of the bribery scandal broke. Late-night TV comics made him the butt of jokes after federal agents said they found $90,000 in alleged bribe money hidden in his freezer.

"People are innocent until proven guilty," said Faye Leggins, 54, an educator and Democrat who moved back to the city six months ago and still has fresh memories of Hurricane Katrina. She voted for Jefferson on Saturday. "He has enough seniority, so he can do a lot to redevelop this city."

But Republicans argued the scandal had cost Jefferson his clout in Congress. Election Day brought excitement to the state's usually low-key Vietnamese-American community, said David Nguyen, 45, a store manager and Cao supporter.

"The Vietnamese aren't much into politics," he said.

Turnout appeared light in the district, where two-thirds of voters are Democrats and 11 percent are Republicans. More than 60 percent are black.

Though he was the underdog, Cao received endorsements from some Democrat and green-conscious groups as well as the area's Vietnamese-American community. Cao came to the United States as a child after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and went on to earn degrees in philosophy, physics and law.

The election was one of two in Louisiana postponed because of Hurricane Gustav.

Written with AP contributions

Back to article index