The Vietnam War was nearing its end in the spring of 1975, with South Vietnam falling to Communist North Vietnam, when 8-year-old Anh “Joseph” Cao and two of his seven siblings were spirited by their mother onto a military plane in Saigon, bound for the United States. Their mother was later told the three children had been killed, as the airport had been bombed soon after she left them. But in fact the plane had safely departed.
Fifteen years later, in 1990, Cao (pronounced “Gow”) had gone from refugee to Baylor graduate, with a degree in physics and plans to become a doctor. But then there were turns that led Cao into the seminary and later, at age 41 in 2008, to become the first Vietnamese-American ever elected to Congress — a Republican defeating a nine-term Democratic incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic House district in New Orleans.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Cao entering Congress.
Then, and as he does now, he saw the institution as one bent on winning, not governing.
Early childhood: From trauma, courage
Cao went to live alone with an uncle in a government-subsidized apartment complex in Goshen, Ind., that was inhabited mostly by elderly people.
“Most of the time I was by myself, from the age of 8 to 12, and growing up in the tropics, I was not familiar with snow and blizzards and things like that,” he recalled. “And, of course, growing up in a family of eight children, being by myself most of the time was extremely difficult — and scary, at times, especially during the winter when my uncle did not come back from work until 8 or 9, 10 o’clock at night.
“Living through that experience, it created in me a sense of resilience and built a level of courage, because I would have to overcome a lot of my own fears and a lot of my own insecurity. I was also a very shy person. But, in order to overcome my loneliness, I would have to go out and seek friends.”
Baylor leads to seminary, politics
Cao later moved to suburban Houston and decided to enter Baylor, intending to become a doctor. He said of his undergraduate years: “It was a moment of soul searching: What am I going to do with my life?”
Then a career aspiration from childhood — to become a Catholic priest — re-emerged after Cao spent time with priests while at Baylor. So, after earning his physics degree in 1990, Cao entered a Jesuit (Society of Jesus) seminary rather than medical school. The Jesuits sent him to work with the poor and the disabled in the United States and in Mexico and with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong — moves that eventually directed him to politics.
“Through working with all of these disadvantaged people, I began to think about what would be the best way to help them,” Cao said. “My first thought was to affect social policy, in order to bring about change. Because in working with them, and actually living with them, I knew of their struggles, I knew of the obstacles that they had to face in order to improve themselves.”
By age 29, Cao decided against becoming a priest, in order to become a politician, and left the seminary. After having earned a master’s in philosophy from Fordham, a Jesuit university, he got a law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans, another Jesuit school, in 2000.
A long shot winner
After an unsuccessful run as an independent for the state legislature in Louisiana, Cao drew the attention of the state Republican Party, which was looking for a candidate to run for a New Orleans-area seat in Congress in 2008. Cao believed that even though the district was overwhelmingly Democratic, he could win the seat, as the unchallenged Republican nominee, because the Democratic incumbent, William Jefferson, was the target of a federal corruption investigation. Jefferson, whom the New York Times called a “fortress” in New Orleans politics, was charged the year before the election with money laundering and bribery after the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer. (Jefferson was later convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison, but he served less than six.)
Cao was also helped by Hurricane Gustav, which forced a postponement by one month of the general election for Congress. That meant that Jefferson, an African-American, would not be on the same ballot as Barack Obama, who won his first term as president in that election. Lower turnout on the part of African-American voters, along with Jefferson’s legal problems, helped carry Cao to his historic victory.
How unlikely was his win? The New York Times noted at the time:
Mr. Cao was a refugee from Vietnam at age 8, a former Jesuit seminarian, a philosophy student with a penchant for Camus and Dostoevsky, an unknown activist lawyer for one of the least visible immigrant communities here and a Republican in a heavily Democratic district.
“All of the pieces fell into place,” Cao said. “Whether you believe that was the divine providence or what have you, who knows; because I thought about the race many, many times and how unlikely it was for me to win. All of these things had to happen in order for me to win and lo and behold, everything that I wanted to happen actually happened.”
(The election of the second Vietnamese-American to the House occurred in 2016, when Democrat Stephanie Murphy defeated incumbent John Mica, a Florida Republican.)
Disappointment during lone term
But Cao’s dream to change policy was not to be, as he entered the House when Democrats were in the majority. In what could be a description of today’s Congress, he found that both Democrats and Republicans didn’t seem interested in working together.
“Because I was trained in the Society of Jesus, you work with people, you compromise. My focus was simply to sit down and to solve problems; that’s what I wanted to do. And, of course, the reality of Congress was the total opposite of that. People don’t sit down and discuss solutions. We don’t sit down to solve problems in a bipartisan way,” he said.
“It was all about party, staying with the party lines; it was not about problem solving, it was not about helping people. It’s about you as the minority party trying to get the majority, and the majority party trying to retain your majority. And to do this, you need to come up with policies in order to make your constituents happy, whether or not they are good policy.”
Not surprisingly, not everything fell into place two years later and Cao was defeated in his attempt to win a second term.
But service in Congress earned Cao something that had eluded him. He said he was able to undo red tape at the Federal Emergency Management Agency office in New Orleans and free up funds that helped people rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.
“For the first time in my life, I actually felt fulfilled,” he said.
Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher was a 35-year newspaper reporter, finishing that career as a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. He’s the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.
More on Joseph Cao
Article: New York Times: “History and Amazement in House Race Outcome”
Documentary: PBS: “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington”
Joseph Cao timeline
1967: Born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
1975: Escapes at age 8 from what was then South Vietnam to America with a brother and sister, while his parents remained, and eventually is raised in Houston
1975-1979: Lives in Indiana alone with an uncle
1990: Graduates from Baylor with a degree in physics
1995: Earns a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University in New York
2000: Earns law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans
2000-2007: Practices law
2008: At age 41, is first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, a Republican representing a mostly African-American and Democratic district that includes New Orleans who defeated nine-term Democratic incumbent William Jefferson
2010: Loses his re-election bid to Cedric Richmond, an African-American Democratic state legislator
2012: Documentary “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” is released