'Mr. Cao' Recalls Rookie Congressman's Unlikely Rise

Jun 10, 2012
Originally published on June 10, 2012 5:11 pm

In 2008, Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao was elected to Louisiana's predominantly black and Democratic 2nd Congressional District, which includes New Orleans, making him the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress. Needless to say, it was an unlikely rise.

Cao's victory came on the heels of a bribery scandal involving then-incumbent Democratic Rep. William Jefferson. "They found $90,000 in cash in [Jefferson's] freezer, in pie tins and boxes," filmmaker Leo Chiang tells NPR's Guy Raz. "It was basically the biggest scandal in congressional history."

That scandal helped set the stage for Cao's ascent, which Chiang documents in his film Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, showing at film festivals this summer and airing on PBS in November.

Chiang explains that despite the scandal, Jefferson ran again in 2008. With the district's Democratic leanings, his re-election initially seemed like a foregone conclusion. "And here comes this little 5-foot-2 Vietnamese-American, Joseph Cao, who is a Republican, and he decides that he was going to run for Congress," Chiang says. "Doesn't matter that nobody [knew] who he was."

A first-generation Vietnamese immigrant and a lawyer by trade, Cao ultimately unseated Jefferson, taking the 2nd District on a platform of change. Chiang says, "He was selling himself ... as a change agent — much like President Obama was doing — to this district that has been long plagued by corruption and lots of dirty politics."

Breaking Ranks

In Chiang's film, Cao comes across as a genuinely nice, almost naive person. At one event, he tells a constituent that "political affiliations [are] only for convenience" and "nothing else." Chiang attributes Cao's idealistic convictions to his background as a seminarian — he studied to be a priest before eventually becoming a lawyer.

"He really believed that the American government should be bipartisan," Chiang says, "should be full of compromises, should be able to do service for the people, and he — little Joseph Cao — was going to come and make that happen."

And a few months after arriving in Washington, Cao drew national attention for pursuing those convictions. He was the only Republican to support the health care legislation introduced by House Democrats in 2009, for which he was sharply criticized by Republican leadership. But he broke ranks, Chiang says, "because he really believed that his district needed it. It is one of the poorest districts in the country, and four short years prior to that vote, Hurricane Katrina devastated that district." It was a matter of principle.

Chiang posits that some might argue it was also an extremely smart political calculation on Cao's part — voting in favor of Democratic legislation and siding with President Obama made sense for a Republican congressman in a Democratic-dominated district. But once the bill made its way through the Senate and back to the House, Cao withdrew his support.

"From [Cao's] point of view, there was not ... sufficient language that prevents federal funding of abortion," Chiang says.

A Matter Of Personal Principle

Despite his many seemingly liberal positions — opposition to "don't ask, don't tell," support for immigration reform and the DREAM Act — Cao's stance on abortion was more traditionally conservative and in line with his seminarian background.

"My theory is that, as a young man, religion was something that gave him comfort," Chiang says, "He really believed in what the church says about abortion and it became his most important personal principle."

But Cao's Democratic constituents felt betrayed. When the next election rolled around, his victory over Democratic rival Cedric Richmond seemed unlikely and Cao's re-election campaign took an unusual turn — he went negative. But the turn didn't suit him. Chiang says lambasting his opponent's legal history, which included a law license suspension for perjury and an arrest over a bar brawl, was "a bit of a [desperate] measure" for Cao.

To top it all off, President Obama, whom Cao counted as a friend, was backing his opponent. "There was not a whole lot that they could do if they kept pursuing this narrative of [Cao] being this man of principle that was going to be best for the district," Chiang says.

Cao lost that race to Richmond, and his stint in Washington came to an end, but Chiang says in some ways this is just the first chapter of his subject's political story. Cao has been touring the country with a Vietnamese-American PAC, raising funds for Vietnamese-American candidates nationwide, and as "the pioneer politician in the Vietnamese-American community," Chiang says, "I don't think we've seen the last of Joseph Cao yet in the political world."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Well, here in Washington, there are very few examples of Mr. Smith, the fictional character played by Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

JIMMY STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) I don't think I'm going to be much help to you down there in Washington. So I'll do my best.

RAZ: The story, of course, is about a hapless young man sent to the Capitol to do the bidding of special interests but who eventually decides to put principles over politics.

Well, the filmmaker Leo Chiang saw a similarity between that story and the one of a modern-day Louisiana lawmaker named Anh Joseph Cao. And Chiang decided to chronicle Cao's rise and fall in a documentary called "Mr. Cao Goes to Washington."

In 2009, Joseph Cao became the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Cao was a Republican elected in a majority Democratic and African-American district. Voters in that district decided to give Cao a chance after the incumbent William Jefferson was caught up in a major scandal.

LEO CHIANG: They found $90,000 in cash in his freezer, in pie tins and boxes. It was basically the biggest scandal perhaps in congressional history.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS ARCHIVE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...bribery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cold hard cash, investigators say, wrapped in foil in Tupperware containers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There are two sides to every story.

CHIANG: In 2008, he ran again hoping to get re-elected. He had won a Democratic primary that had a very strong feel, and he thought that was it. You know, he's got another term in the bag. This is New Orleans we're talking about, which is 65 percent African-American, 75 percent Democratic. If Bill Jefferson was able to win the Democratic primary, he should...

RAZ: That's it. He's going to win.

CHIANG: (Unintelligible) seat. Exactly. And here comes this little five-foot-two Vietnamese-American Joseph Cao who's a Republican, and he decides that he was going to run for Congress. Doesn't matter that nobody knows who he was, and he went for it.

RAZ: This is a man who was - Joseph Cao, he's a lawyer by training. He originally studied to become a priest, and you talk about that in the film. We know Joseph Cao went off to win. He pulled off an incredible upset.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "MR. CAO GOES TO WASHINGTON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What an accomplishment for this immigrant from Vietnam, a survivor of the Fall of Saigon, now congressman-elect.

RAZ: Leo Chiang, how did he win?

CHIANG: He campaigned on the platform of, ironically, change. He was selling himself to the district as a change agent, much like President Obama was doing, to this district, that has been long plagued by corruption and lots of dirty politics.

RAZ: So what's amazing when you watch this film is how - what a nice guy he comes across as a really genuinely nice person, almost to the point of naiveté. There's a clip in there where he's at a Vietnamese-American celebration and he's chatting with a constituent and he says, listen, party labels, Democrat, Republican, they're just, you know, they're - something like they're just labels. They don't really mean anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "MR. CAO GOES TO WASHINGTON")

JOSEPH CAO: You and I, political affiliations is only for convenience. It's nothing else.

CHIANG: Perhaps having been a seminarian, perhaps having been a very religious man all his life, he really believed that, you know, certain things should work a certain way. And he really believed that the American government should be bipartisan, should be full of compromises, should be able to do service for the people. And he, little Joseph Cao, was going to come and make that happen.

RAZ: Cao comes to national attention a few months after he arrives to Washington. He becomes the only Republican to support the health care legislation that was introduced by House Democrats in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "MR. CAO GOES TO WASHINGTON")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: One lone Republican broke ranks. That was Joe Cao of Louisiana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One got away, Congressman Joseph Cao.

RAZ: He was obviously elected as a Republican that was sharply criticized by the Republican leadership, but, I mean, he felt like he had to do this.

CHIANG: You know, he wanted to vote for the health care reform because he really believed that his district needed it. It is one of the poorest district in the country. And four short years prior to that vote, Hurricane Katrina devastated that district.

Now, some might argue that this is also a extremely smart political calculation on his part, right? What better way to appease a majority Democratic district that's also a majority African-American by voting for a huge Democratic legislature, agreeing with the president?

RAZ: So he votes in support of this legislation, but then, of course, it comes back to the House after the Senate passes its own version and then it becomes, really, the final, final vote, and Cao at that point says, I'm not going to back it this time around. What happens?

CHIANG: From Joseph's point of view, there was not sufficient protection or sufficient language that prevents federal funding of abortion, and that was the reason that he ultimately decided against voting for the final bill.

RAZ: When he ultimately did decide to vote against it, it upset many, many people in his constituency.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "MR. CAO GOES TO WASHINGTON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: He has the support of white money, conservative Republicans who do not share the same world view as African-Americans do. He should have voted with the president on health care.

RAZ: I mean, he had some fairly liberal positions or positions one could argue were somewhat liberal on things like climate change and...

CHIANG: Exactly. I mean, he is pro-immigration reform. He was one of the co-sponsors for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

RAZ: Right. He also backed the Dream Act. I mean, these are issues that very few Republicans support.

CHIANG: My theory is that as a young man, religion was something that gave him comfort. And he really believed in what the church says about abortion, and it became his most important personal principle.

RAZ: As he sort of gets closer to his - to the date of the re-election, it's clear that he is not going to defeat his main rival, Cedric Richmond, the Democrat, Cao does something unusual, and something he didn't do in his first campaign - he goes negative.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "MR. CAO GOES TO WASHINGTON")

CAO: His law license was suspended for perjury. He has been arrested for fighting in a bar, fined by the state's Ethics Committee. So the whole issue here of honesty is in question if you are talking about Cedric Richmond.

REPRESENTATIVE CEDRIC RICHMOND: I'm sure that Mr. Cao's not criticizing me for defending myself against a drunk bigot who used the N word and then put his hands on me.

CAO: Did you lie to the people about where you live?

RAZ: You get the sense watching the film that Cao was not comfortable going negative. He didn't like doing this. Why do you think he went negative?

CHIANG: The negative campaigning in his re-election campaign, I believe, was a bit of a desperation measure. I mean, you know, the president, which this community overwhelmingly supports, has picked his opponent over him, even though he's been out, you know, trumping his relationship with the president. There was not a whole lot that they could do if they kept pursuing this narrative of him being this man of principle that was going to be best for the district.

RAZ: After he lost to Cedric Richmond, is he still interested in politics? Do you think he'll go back to it?

CHIANG: I believe so. I mean, I think that, you know, he's still very young, and in some ways, this is just the first chapter of his political story. He is definitely very involved still with a lot of the political causes. I know that he's been traveling around the country with a Vietnamese-American pack, that they are raising money, they're really trying to support Vietnamese-American candidates from around the country.

And him, you know, being the pioneer politician, you know, in the Vietnamese-American community, I don't think we've seen the last of Joseph Cao yet in the political world.

RAZ: That's Leo Chiang. He's the director of the new documentary "Mr. Cao Goes to Washington," and it'll air across the country later this year on PBS stations. You can find out more about the film at mrcaofilm.com. Leo Chiang, thank you so much.

CHIANG: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.