If the political career of Joseph Cao comes to a sudden halt on November 2nd, he will have done more by himself than legions of other Louisiana elected officials before him to have changed the political culture and the rightfully assigned negative perception of Louisiana politics.
I first met Cao in 2007 while we were running for state representative in the same district. As his voter base and mine were different in the sprawling, gerrymandered legislative district our paths only crossed at forums. At the time Cao was a registered Independent, an affiliation shared by much of the TEA Party crowd who have involved themselves in the GOP in order to do the work that established Republican office-holders wouldn’t do.
As the last precinct reported, I ran third and Cao ran fifth so neither of us made the runoff, though the order didn’t matter much since, to paraphrase a saying from a certain movie that mocked NASCAR, if you’re not first (or second), you’re last.
After endorsing the same candidate in the general election (a Republican who himself fell short), we kept in touch, talking on the phone about the GOP and politics in general about once a month.
Then in May of 2008, Cao called to ask what I thought about the idea of him running for Congress. He’d be challenging the first African-American to be elected from Louisiana to Congress since Reconstruction in a majority black district and, despite the cloud of scandal that ominously loomed over him personally and politically, had won re-election by a landslide against a well-financed, credible black candidate.
Not one to mince words, I said he should do it.
It didn’t matter what the odds were. It didn’t matter what the city political machine would do during the election (or after balloting ended).
What mattered was that the voters of the congressional district had a real choice. What they did with that choice would be more of a reflection on them than the earnest Republican-convert.
Without going into the minutiae of how things played out (that’s well documented in the 2008 archives of my blog), Cao won a historic victory in a perfect political storm.
Since taking office Cao has carved a voting record that is more conservative than the people he represents, though not nearly conservative enough for most of his critics, who have sniped at him from districts far removed from the lower Ninth Ward.
Cao was elected as an unconventional candidate and went to Washington to be an unconventional congressman. Any political naiveté on his part should be forgiven and/or appreciated.
Cao broke with his party on a number of votes, particularly related to social programs that are utilized by his constituents, many of whom live below the poverty line and reside in neighborhoods no Republican activist would go door to door in without sporting a Brooks Brothers vest made of kevlar.
However, Cao has cast votes that no other Democratic replacement would ever wish to make. If the only conservative vote Cao made was against Cap and Trade, which I consider economic treason, political insanity and industrial redistribution, I would be satisfied as it would be more than a conservative should ever expect to come forth from the Second District.
Here are a few reasons to vote for Cao:
1) Life experience: Cao’s story is one of the most remarkable in American politics and is comparable to that of the late Tom Lantos. Cao was an adolescent refugee forced to flee the Communist take over of his country of birth (South Vietnam) while having to abandon his father to the reeducation camps of the Viet Cong. Before his father passed away a few days ago, Cao shared with me how his father was mentally scarred for life from that experience. It’s one thing for congressmen to bloviate for hours on CSPAN about oppressive regimes around the world; Cao knows their nature from personal experience.
2) Life experience, Part Deux: Cao had the misfortune of his home being inundated during both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav. There’s no question that he has a vested interest in securing better flood protection for South Louisiana; he needs it!
3) He made the effort: Cao went to Washington prepared to work with President Barack Obama, who had carped much about working across the aisle to bring a new era of civility to the national government. Cao’s willingness to sit down with the president earned him the moniker of being Obama’s favorite Republican. Thanks to Cao’s naiveté, Obama has been exposed as a complete fraud, in which in the president’s mind the only good Republican is one out of office. The president cut his first commercial for Cao’s Democratic opponent, removing any illusion from Cao or anyone else that blindly bought what Obama was selling about the importance of bipartisanship. The emperor truly hath no sincerity.
4) Cao or Another cog in the political machine? Cao has busied himself with being a congressman, keeping his forays into other political realms at a complete minimum. The Democratic alternative to Cao is a machine politician being pushed by New Orleans City Hall, which under its new management has become active in virtually every race appearing on an Orleans Parish ballot. Cao is now having to fend off both the White House and City Hall for the crimes of being a Republican and occupying a piece of coveted political real estate. Cao’s defeat and replacement by a machine politician who will no doubt get himself involved in other elections would mark a regression for reform in New Orleans.
5) Cao Will Be Able to Deliver More for New Orleans: Let there be no doubt on this point, Cao’s odds of being re-elected as Congressman are far better than Nancy Pelosi’s chances of being re-elected speaker. Obama and other Democrats whined about the way the Republicans mishandled Hurricane Katrina and abandoned rebuilding New Orleans (the second part is a complete lie). What happened after Obama took office? The Second District, the most ardently Democratic in Louisiana, got the least amount of support from the stimulus bill! Talk about not putting your money where your mouth is. A Republican Congress would be hard pressed to do less for New Orleans than the Democratic Congress did. Especially since the incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives declared Cao was the future.
6) Cao Stepped Up While Richmond Stepped Out: No other Republican was willing to put his name on the ballot against Jefferson in 2008, but Cao did. Cedric Richmond also ran against Jefferson, though in the Democratic primary. Richmond flayed him in paid advertisements about how awful he was yet when Richmond didn’t make the runoff, he didn’t support the other candidate who faced Jefferson in that race nor did he oppose Jefferson in the general election.
Two years ago, the voters of Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish chose to end the embarrassment. This is not the time to sow the seeds of future embarrassment by replacing a reform-oriented, hard-working congressman with a machine politician who will be on the opposite side of the new governing majority in the US House of Representatives.
For those conservative voters resentful of Cao’s less than sterling voting record, keep in mind that this race is bigger than a Beltway think tank’s tally sheet with the consequences extending to our state’s image and whether the old way of doing business in New Orleans is behind us or just waiting right around the corner.
For a conservative to vote for any other candidate but Cao would be illogical and irresponsible. The protest will fall on deaf ears and Democrats have been exposed around the country manufacturing faux TEA Party candidates in a scheme to siphon away votes from Republican candidates in tight races.
In 1960 there was a move by conservative delegates at the Republican National Convention to draft Arizona US Senator Barry Goldwater as an alternative to then-Vice-President Richard Nixon as the GOP’s presidential nominee.
Goldwater took to the podium to admonish the attempt to split the party in what was one of the closest (if not TOO close) presidential elections in American history, stating, “Let’s grow up conservatives. If we want to take this party back, and I think we can some day, let’s go to work.”
Anyone conservative who can’t see the national and local importance of re-electing Cao needs to grow up. Seriously.
There is no runoff as whichever candidate receives the most votes (50%+1 is not necessary under this election system) wins.
Though four candidates are on the ballot for US Representative from the Second District, a vote for only Cao means one less vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker and a blow to the full re-establishment of the political machine in Orleans Parish. A vote for any other candidate, no matter what they claim to represent, is a vote for Cedric Richmond and all that will come with it.