The William Jefferson Chronicles

Newcomer Joseph Cao hopes to unseat U.S. Rep. William Jefferson

by Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune

Monday December 01, 2008, 9:16 AM

On paper, Anh "Joseph" Cao has an ideal life story for a political candidate.

Born in war-ravaged Vietnam, Cao fled to the United States when he was 8, learned English, earned degrees in physics and philosophy, and joined the Catholic seminary. When his views on how best to serve the poor changed, Cao went to law school, began a practice specializing in immigration, settled in Venetian Isles and started a family.

• Read Anh "Joseph" Cao's bio

In his bid to unseat Rep. William Jefferson in the 2nd Congressional District, however, Cao must try to overcome three tall hurdles: He's not a Democrat, he's not black and he has never held public office. Indeed, in his only other election bid, Cao, running then as an independent, finished fifth of six candidates.

Though Jefferson's star has dimmed considerably since federal authorities charged him in a wide-ranging bribery scheme, the nine-term incumbent remains a force in local politics.

Jefferson, the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction, finished first in this fall's crowded Democratic primary. He then crushed his runoff opponent, former TV news reporter Helena Moreno, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Like Moreno, a white Hispanic who was making her first bid for public office, Cao has downplayed his inexperience and suggested that the congressman's legal woes make him unfit for office and unable to serve as a champion for south Louisiana.

Cao has vowed that if he wins Saturday's general election, he will restore "ethics and honesty" to the office.

"Experience is relative," he said, "but judgment has a certain objectivity."

If Jefferson's legal entanglements provide Cao with an opportunity, the political allegiances of the district favor the incumbent: Two-thirds of the district's voters are registered Democrats.

--- Factoring in new rules ---

On the other hand, new election rules that divided the primary by party may have worked in Cao's favor. As the only Republican to qualify for the general election, he was able to spend September and October meeting voters, honing his message and raising money.

Jefferson, meanwhile, faced six Democratic challengers who raised a combined $1.7 million to try to unseat him. Though he emerged as his party's general election candidate after spending just $160,000, the investment depleted Jefferson's war chest. Because the new system permitted only registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters to participate in the Democratic primary, registered Republicans sat on the sidelines throughout the fiery primary season. Cao's backers hope that about 50,000 registered voters, most of them enlisted with the GOP, will leap into the action now.

At the same time, however, 62 percent of the electorate is comprised of African-American voters, perhaps the congressman's most loyal constituency. In the Nov. 4 runoff, Jefferson managed to defeat Moreno by winning three times as many votes as she did in heavily black neighborhoods, even as Moreno outpaced Jefferson five votes to one in mostly white areas.

Cao's best shot may be the possibility that some black voters -- who far outnumbered white voters in 2nd District runoff voting on a day that President-elect Barack Obama was atop the ticket -- stay home Saturday.

Besides Cao and Jefferson, two candidates with scant political bases -- Libertarian Party candidate Gregory Kahn and Green Party candidate Malik Rahim -- also will appear on Saturday's ballot. The district covers most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner.

Cao has acknowledged the obstacles he faces. Despite endorsements from a spate of suburban officials -- Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and Parish Council President John Young, and state legislators Patrick Connick, Tony Ligi and Julie Quinn -- Cao has struggled to secure public support in New Orleans, save from GOP stalwarts such as former City Councilmen Jay Batt and Bryan Wagner.

He has gotten a boost, however, from state and national GOP organizations looking for a win after last month's crushing defeats.

A former national finance director for the Republican National Committee is consulting on Cao's campaign. And a lawsuit filed by Cao and others challenging a decades-old campaign financing cap says that both the state and national Republican fundraising groups have pledged the maximum $42,000 to Cao.

--- Life-altering 'faith crisis' ---

Cao's entree into politics followed what he called a "faith crisis" during his time at Jesuit seminary in the early 1990s.

After witnessing dire poverty during mission trips to Mexico and Hong Kong, he questioned how a loving God could abide such misery. After much contemplation, Cao concluded: "God does address the issue of human suffering by sending good people" to alleviate it.

The resolution led to him leave the Jesuits and pursue another path to social change: politics.

Cao went to Washington to advocate for refugees. Recognizing he lacked necessary legal skills, he returned to New Orleans to attend Loyola University's law school. He worked for an immigrant advocacy group, then opened a law practice with a similar focus.

When Hurricane Katrina left his home and office in Venetian Isles swamped, Cao looked more closely at local politics. He lobbied with the Vietnamese community to shut down an eastern New Orleans landfill. Then last year, he made his first bid for public office when he sought the open 103rd House District seat.

Though Cao described himself as a longtime Republican -- he opposes abortion, supports school vouchers and wants to shrink the size of government -- he ran as an independent. He concedes it a matter of "political maneuvering" in an effort to appeal to the district's mostly Democratic electorate.

Cao nonetheless finished fifth in a field of six candidates.

About a year ago, shortly after a Virginia grand jury handed down the 16-count indictment against Jefferson, Cao decided to look at the 2nd District. "We need reform," Cao said. "We need to have a person who will be accountable for his actions."

Jefferson has maintained that -- despite being shunned by the Democratic leadership -- he still wields influence in Washington through relationships with powerful members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But Jefferson's name has appeared on few bills in recent years, and a nonpartisan research firm recently ranked him as the "second least-effective" member of Congress.

--- Touting 'political clout' ---

Cao, vying to become the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, said that if he wins, he'll join the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which he thinks will sympathize with the region's recovery needs.

"I will have pull with the members of Congress who represent the 1.5 million Vietnamese in this country," Cao said. "I will have political clout."

Cao said he would push for 100-year flood protection, as well as for Louisiana to immediately begin receiving its full share of offshore oil and gas revenue to invest in coastal restoration.

Cao said he would replace the state's traditional two-tiered health care system with a "patient-centered" approach by opening more neighborhood health clinics and offering "credits" to families to purchase health insurance.

In an apparent dig at his opponent, Cao also has vowed to halt taxpayer-financed retirement benefits to public officials convicted of corruption.

A soft-spoken leader who pairs a keen legal mind with an ability to build consensus, Cao would be an effective advocate for the 2nd District, said John-Hoa Nguyen, a real estate broker and Vietnamese community organizer.

Not widely known before he began pushing the closure of the Chef Menteur landfill, Cao's advice to appeal to the state's Department of Environmental Quality initially was rejected by many who preferred blockading the lot, Nguyen said.

By explaining his legal strategy -- and joining his neighbors in protests -- Cao won people over, and the department eventually shuttered the site.

"People were skeptical at first," Nguyen said, "but in the end, (Cao) earned the respect of the people for his logical thinking and for the effort and time he gave."

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Michelle Krupa can be reached at or 504.826.3312.

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