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."
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."