Vietnamese American gearing for run

Anh Cao will have to appeal to black voters. Anh Cao will have to appeal to black voters.
By Richard Fausset
Los Angeles Times / December 1, 2008
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NEW ORLEANS - Anh "Joseph" Cao, who hopes to be the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, was helping a TV interviewer with the pronunciation of his name.

It's not "cow" but "gow," he explained recently, with a hard G.

"You know, 'Cao' means 'tall,' " added the Republican candidate, who stands 5 feet 2 inches. "And if you notice, I ain't that tall."

The "ain't" was a departure for an otherwise formal man - a playful, deliberate shift into the local vernacular and an acknowledgment, perhaps, that this rising star in New Orleans's Vietnamese community will have to charm black voters if he hopes to defeat the scandal-plagued but resilient incumbent, Representative William J. Jefferson.

Jefferson, a black Democrat, has represented Louisiana's majority-black Second Congressional District, which covers much of New Orleans, since 1991. He is facing a trial on federal corruption charges stemming from a bribery investigation in which $90,000 was found in his freezer.

In a Democratic primary runoff Nov. 4, Jefferson handily defeated Helena Moreno, a white candidate, after garnering a significant number of black votes.

With Cao, Republicans hope to offer a fresh alternative in the general election Dec. 6. The immigration lawyer, 41, is a former college ethics teacher who spent six years training to be a Jesuit priest before leaving his studies in 1996.

Republicans are also hoping, in this season of broken racial barriers, that Cao's Vietnamese heritage will help him transcend the tensions that have long defined New Orleans politics.

"It's no longer an issue of black and white," Cao said. "It now goes to the issue of who's going to better represent the Second District to bring about change, to bring about reform."

The continuing appeal of Jefferson can be partly explained by his relationships with voters and his record of meeting their needs.

The district is 60 percent black and 60 percent Democratic, so Cao will need to win support from those groups.

Bryan Wagner, a former New Orleans councilor who is helping Cao's campaign, said his Vietnamese heritage might help him with black voters who would be wary of a white candidate.

Although Cao is considered an underdog even by people in his own campaign, his run represents a political arrival of sorts for the Vietnamese of New Orleans, most of whom arrived after South Vietnam fell to communist forces in the mid-1970s. By most estimates, there are more than 20,000 Vietnamese Americans in the area.

Cao, who fled Saigon as an 8-year-old, says he has much in common with black voters: Like them, he has had to rebuild his house after flooding - in his case, from hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. He said he helped start a charter school in eastern New Orleans that enrolls black and Vietnamese students.

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