First-Ever Vietnamese-American Congressman Is Republicans’ New Ethnic Hope

The Times-Picayune

Cao celebrates - Photo: The Times-Picayune

If you were surprised when the first-ever Vietnamese American was elected to Congress a few days ago, you’re not alone.

Many Vietnamese immigrants across the U.S. were also unaware of Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao until his victory this Saturday in a special election in New Orleans. Cao defeated the tainted nine-term Democratic incumbent, William Jefferson, an African American from an overwhelmingly black congressional district.

Not even his fellow Republicans knew that much about Cao, an immigration lawyer from East New Orleans. According to The Washington Post, D.C. party aides had to look up his ads on YouTube to learn how to pronounce his last name. [Here’s one of the ads; the pronunciation is close to “gow.”]

Unknown or not, Cao’s victory seems to have earned him the right to carry the hopes and expectations of both Vietnamese-Americans and Republicans on his shoulders.

“First Viet Congressman Ever!” celebrated a headline in the “all Viet, all the time” blog The blog’s story on Cao’s election has received an outpouring of congratulatory comments.

“The older Vietnamese generation is especially proud to see a Vietnamese enter Congress,” New Orleans Vietnamese pastor Luke Nguyen Hungdung told USA Today.

Republican leaders in Washington celebrated the unexpected victory (Jefferson had previously won reelection in 2006 despite being involved in a corruption case for which he’ll go to trial soon.) The Post reported that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner issued a memo Sunday declaring that “The future is Cao.”

Indeed, Cao now joins his state’s governor, Republican Bobby Jindal — who is Indian American — in offering the GOP successful figures with an immigrant background the party can trumpet. After an election in which the GOP seemed to lose considerable ground among immigrants, it surely needs help from “ethnic” politicians.

Cao’s story is compelling in its own right. Born in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon,) he fled Vietnam in a helicopter at age 8. In the U.S., he graduated from Baylor University with a bachelor’s degree in physics and became a Jesuit seminarian; after several missions abroad, he went to law school at Loyola University.

“Never in my life did I think I could be a future congressman,” he said at a victory party Saturday night. “The American dream is well and alive.”

Cao, 41, lives and works in East New Orleans, a district damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. From his law firm, specializing in immigration, he provided support to other Vietnamese refugees through the nationwide organization Boat People S.O.S. (New Orleans’ Vietnamese community is smaller than others in California, Houston, Seattle and the D.C. area.)

As the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune noted, “(Cao) will represent a district that was specifically drawn to give African-Americans an electoral advantage and one in which two of every three voters are registered Democrats.” Analysts said Cao benefited from the election schedule having been pushed back due to Hurricane Gustav — which separated the Congressional race from the Presidential election, in which many African Americans voted.

On Saturday, many fewer Jefferson supporters bothered to vote for the man who is scheduled to go on trial early next year. According to the Times-Picayune, a Virginia grand jury indicted him last year “on charges of bribery and public corruption following revelations in 2005 that FBI agents found $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer and linked him and several relatives to a wide-ranging bribery scheme.”

But Cao’s victory was also a reflection of the growing influence of Asians in the area, which started being noticed after Katrina. Lawyer Joel Waltzer, who has for years represented Vietnamese homeowners and fishermen in eastern New Orleans, told The Associated Press,

Before Katrina, they were an ignored constituency and now they are strong enough to elect their own congressman. They’ve become ambitious. They want a voice in their own rebuilding, a place at the table when these very important decisions are made.

Now, Congressman-elect Cao says he wants to help the Republican Party turn its luck around. He told the Post he hopes his victory will help lead to a “more inclusive” party.

“I hope that I can contribute in my own way to the rebranding,” he said.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.