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Interview: First Vietnamese American Elected to Congress

New America Media, Q&A, Viji Sundaram Posted: Dec 09, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, La. -- The day after Anh “Joseph” Cao unseated nine-term incumbent Congressman William Jefferson, becoming the first Vietnamese American elected to U.S. Congress, he still looked slightly stunned.

After a night of celebration with his supporters at the Palace Café on Canal Street, Cao went to his local Vietnamese church to pray and give thanks. Later that day, in an exclusive interview with New America Media at his spacious two-story home in eastern New Orleans, the 41-year-old Cao talked about his rise to power and why he believes he won.
StatueVinh Tran, president of the council of Our Lady of Lavang Mission church,
puts up the Christmas lights around the Jesus statue in the church yard.
“Vietnamese now have someone up in Washington to do something for us."

You went to Mary Queen of Vietnam church earlier today. What did you include in your prayers today?

I was giving thanks for everything that’s happened. I gave thanks for the win last night. And I gave thanks for giving me a chance to serve the people.

When did you come to the United States?

I came to the United States with my mother and siblings in a boat when I was 8. We got refugee status. I didn’t know a word of English.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Houston, raised by my uncle. I earned degrees in physics at Baylor, then a degree in philosophy at Fordham. I then studied law at Loyola (in New Orleans).

How did you get into politics?

Actually, I wanted to become a Catholic priest. I was in a Jesuit seminary for six years in the 1990s.NewspaperViet Le, 18, looks at the front page of Dec. 7 issue of The Times-Picayune
that carried the story of Anh “Joseph” Cao’s victory.
"When I found out this morning that he had won, I was like, whoa, this is cool!”
While there, I had this sudden inspiration to bring about social changes, so I quit the seminary, began practicing as an immigration lawyer and began advocating for the Vietnamese community. I believe I made the right choice.

You won against all odds – this is a district that is 60 percent Democratic, and the district has been drawn to give African-Americans a distinct electoral advantage. How did you pull it off? Did you get a lot of support from the Vietnamese community?

Actually, only 2.9 percent of the people in my district are Vietnamese. There are 17,000 Vietnamese in all of New Orleans. Of these, only 4,000 are registered voters. This neighborhood where I live (Venetian Isles) is mostly white and there are some Vietnamese.

I think I won because people were definitely ready for a change.

Do you think you could have won if your opponent hadn’t been indicted on federal corruption charges?

I don’t think so. People were getting tired of the scandal and cloud hanging over (William Jefferson’s) head.
CoupleA couple stands outside the entrance of the church.
What was the platform you ran on?

I ran on a platform of coastal restoration, levee protection, health care and improving education.

You are the second Asian in Louisiana to be elected to a position of power this year. Do you think Bobby Jindal’s win as governor and Obama’s presidential win opened the door for you as a minority?

I don’t know whether Jindal’s win had anything to do with my getting elected. He’s a very popular governor. He endorsed me only a couple of days before the election, even though we were trying to get him to endorse me for a long time.

What are your immediate plans?

I am going to take a few days’ rest. Then I’ll put on my running shoes and assemble my team to learn the ins-and-outs of D.C. politics.
ChurchThe congregation at the Our Lady of Lavang Mission church
in uptown New Orleans, the day after Cao’s victory.

Now that you have political clout, what are you going to do for your community?

I will continue working on getting a retirement center for the elderly Vietnamese in New Orleans. That aside, we are going to work toward developing an urban farm for the Vietnamese community.

What is the message you would like to give your community here?

I would like more young people to get involved in politics and bring changes we want in Vietnam.

Like what?

We’re concerned about human rights violations, issues of democracy and lack of religious freedom.

So the “Cao Now” bumper stickers I see on a lot of cars worked?

(Laughs) Yes, I guess so.

Related Articles:

Campaign 2008: Other Trailblazers Among Election Winners

A Vietnamese Journey Toward the American Dream

In the Spotlight: Asian Americans on the Political Stage

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