By Cain Burdeau
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anh “Joseph” Cao was taken from war-ravaged Vietnam as an 8-year-old boy, leaving his parents for the safety and hope of America. He immigrated to the United States in 1975.
“Never in my life did I think I could be a future congressman,” Cao, 41, said at a victory party Saturday, Dec. 6, after he beat out nine-term Democratic incumbent William Jefferson. “The American dream is well and alive.”
In the 2nd Congressional District, which includes most of New Orleans, Republican attorney Cao won 50 percent of the vote to Jefferson’s 47 percent and will become the first Vietnamese American in Congress. His only previous political experience was an unsuccessful 2007 bid for a seat in the state Legislature.
Republicans made an aggressive push to take the 2nd District seat from 61-year-old Jefferson, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, laundering money, and misusing his congressional office.
“The people of the 2nd District have spoken,” Cao, 41, told supporters at a restaurant near the French Quarter. “We want new direction. We want action. We want accountability.”
In a speech that was gracious but stopped short of concession, Jefferson blamed low voter turnout for his showing and said supporters may have thought he was a shoo-in after he won a Nov. 4 primary in the predominantly Black and heavily Democratic district.
“I think people just ran out of gas a bit,” he said. “People today flat didn’t come out in large numbers.”
Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans political consultant, said his analysis showed turnout in predominantly white sections of the district was double that of Black areas. He said that helped push Cao to victory over Jefferson, who became Louisiana’s first Black congressman since Reconstruction when he took office in 1991.
“This is quite a feat,” Rigamer said of Cao’s victory.
New Orleans voters had long been loyal to Jefferson, re-electing him in 2006 even after news of the bribery scandal broke. Late-night TV comics made him the butt of jokes after federal agents said they found $90,000 in alleged bribe money hidden in his freezer.
“People are innocent until proven guilty,” said Faye Leggins, 54, an educator and Democrat who moved back to the city six months ago and still has fresh memories of Hurricane Katrina. She voted for Jefferson on Saturday. “He has enough seniority, so he can do a lot to redevelop this city.”
But Republicans argued the scandal had cost Jefferson his clout in Congress. Election Day brought excitement to the state’s usually low-key Vietnamese American community, said David Nguyen, 45, a store manager and Cao supporter.
“The Vietnamese aren’t much into politics,” he said.
Cao came to the United States as a child after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and went on to earn degrees in philosophy, physics, and law.
Both the 2nd and 4th Congressional District races had been postponed because of Hurricane Gustav.
The national Republican Party also backed Cao, an immigration lawyer, with a barrage of advertising portraying Jefferson as corrupt.
Prosecutors contend Jefferson used his influence as chairman of the congressional Africa Investment and Trade Caucus to broker deals in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and other African nations on behalf of those who bribed him.
The 2007 indictment claims Jefferson received more than $500,000 in bribes and demanded millions more between 2000 and 2005, including the $90,000 found in the freezer of his Washington home. Jefferson denies wrongdoing.
No trial date has been set. ♦