The William Jefferson Chronicles

U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao makes splash as Congress sworn in
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday January 06, 2009, 9:39 PM

WASHINGTON -- The 111th Congress was sworn into office Tuesday, including Anh "Joseph" Cao of New Orleans, who took the oath on the House floor to become the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress.

Shifting his 4-year-old daughter, Betsy, from his right arm to his left, Cao raised his right hand as he swore to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic." His other daughter, Sophia, 5, stood just behind her father on a back bench where newer members of Congress sit.

The oath was administered en masse to members of Congress by Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, freshly re-elected as speaker of the House. She told the members of the new Congress that "we are accepting a level of responsibility as daunting and demanding as any persons in positions of leadership have ever faced."

Moments earlier, Pelosi asked the members to thank their families, and Cao, 41, could be seen tilting his head back and gazing up to scan the House gallery to find his wife, Hieu "Kate" Hoang, like him a refugee from Vietnam, and his elderly parents who, as Saigon was about to fall to the Communists in 1975, sent the 8-year-old Cao, his brother and a sister to America and a new life.

Cao's father, a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, was soon after sent to a Communist "re-education camp, " where he spent seven years. Cao's mother remained in Vietnam to raise her other five daughters and wait for her husband's release. She was able to visit her husband only five times in seven years. They now live with one of Cao's sisters near Mary Queen of Vietnam, the Catholic Church that is the center of New Orleans' thriving Vietnamese community.

Cao is one of three new members in the seven-strong Louisiana delegation. Two doctors -- John Fleming, R-Minden, and Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge -- also were elected this fall. Louisiana's House delegation now has only one Democrat, Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville.

Center of attention

No new member of Congress has garnered as much attention as Cao, whose upset victory over nine-term incumbent William Jefferson, an African-American Democrat representing a majority-black district, stunned the political world.

Cao, a slight man with a ready smile and prominent pompadour, wore a dark suit, but his wife and two young daughters were stunning in their colorful ao dai, traditional long silk dresses made in Vietnam.

In the halls of Congress, they stood out.

"They're just beautiful, " said Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman.

Cao's swearing-in was the fulfillment of an extraordinary family saga.

On Monday, his parents flew from New Orleans to be there. They stayed with a daughter in Falls Church, Va., just outside Washington, and arrived on Capitol Hill just as their son was heading to the ceremonies. His mother, Khang Thi Tran, 73, wheeled her husband of 50 years, My Quang Cao, 77, round-faced and wearing a gray wool cap, from the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol, up ramps, into and out of elevators, and eventually to a special spot in the House gallery.

Cao's father, who his family says suffers both from diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder, spends most of his days sitting alone in a darkened room listening to Vietnamese-language radio. He seldom talks.

His daughter said his seven years in what she called a "concentration camp" only led him to hate the Communists more, a judgment he affirmed with a nod and a firm expression.

Neither of the parents speaks much English, though Cao's mother is a citizen who was able to vote for her son.

'Do something to help'

While he was in the Communist-run camp, the elder Cao wrote his son in America. "He told him to do something to help society, " said Thanh Tran, Cao's sister in Falls Church, who left for America with Cao and another brother in 1975, though they were soon separated.

Tran said their highest ambition for their son was that he become a priest, an even more exalted status, in their mind, than a member of Congress. Cao studied six years to be a Jesuit priest before choosing politics.

Cao lived with his sister in Virginia in 1996 while teaching at a Catholic middle school. But Tran said she didn't know he was running for Congress until she read in The Washington Post that he had been elected.

Still, she wasn't entirely surprised. His calm demeanor notwithstanding, she said her brother has always been driven to do great things.

"He always wanted to go somewhere, " she said. Even as a Jesuit seminarian, she said, "he was seeking a higher rank than just a priest."

Getting down to business

On his first day as a congressman, Cao got off to a fast start. While waiting to be sworn in on the House floor, he learned about a resolution being offered by Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., calling on the U.S. government to reinstate Vietnam on the list of "Countries of Particular Concern" for gross violations of religious freedom, and signed on.

"Vietnam has been atrocious on human rights and religious freedom, " Cao said.

He returned to his office mobbed by well-wishers.

The office, 2113 Rayburn, already has a secure place in history. In 2006, the FBI raided the office seeking evidence against Jefferson, who is facing trial this year on corruption charges. It was the first time the FBI had raided an office of a sitting congressman. On Tuesday, it was overflowing with a lively mix of New Orleanians, inside-the-Beltway officialdom and Vietnamese.

"Somebody who's a good photographer please come up and take a picture of this audience; it's a hell of an audience, " said Bryan Wagner to the crowd after Judge Robert Murphy of Jefferson Parish readministered the oath.

Cao calls Wagner, a big white-mopped teddy bear of a New Orleans pol, "pop." It was Wagner who guided Cao's Cinderella campaign, which did much to assuage Wagner's disappointment at the loss suffered by Sen. John McCain, a friend, in the presidential campaign.

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Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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