The first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress took advantage of dissatisfaction with a longtime incumbent dogged by corruption allegations and reflects the changing nature of New Orleans politics since Hurricane Katrina.
Republican immigration attorney Anh “Joseph” Cao defeated Democratic U.S. William Jefferson on Saturday in an election postponed for a month by Hurricane Gustav.
By CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press Writer
Above: Republican Anh ‘Joseph’ Cao, with his daughter Sophia Cao, 5, and his wife Kate Cao, talks to reporters after church in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. Cao defeated Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., for the 2nd Congressional District in Louisiana, making him the first Vietnamese-American in Congress.(AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber)
The victory for a 41-year-old child of Vietnam War refugees was greeted with amazement and drew parallels to last year’s election of Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American Republican.
It also confirms a general shift to the GOP in Louisiana, where the Democratic Party dominated for generations and no Republican had represented New Orleans since 1890.
“This is kind of uncharted waters here,” said Larry Powell, a Tulane University historian.
Cao was buoyed by low turnout, a lackluster campaign by Jefferson, strong third-party candidates and the election being postponed a month by Hurricane Gustav. State and national Republicans seized on the race with a well-funded and effective campaign, bombarding targeted neighborhoods with automated telephone calls, signs and flyers.
Jefferson faced some of the most direct attacks since 2005, when a wide-reaching corruption probe against him was made public and FBI agents found $90,000 in alleged bribe payments in his freezer. He currently faces trial on charges of money laundering, racketeering and bribery, but no date has been set.
In conceding the race, Jefferson blamed fatigue among his supporters.
“I think people just ran out of gas a bit,” Jefferson said Saturday night. “People today flat didn’t come out in large numbers.”
In many ways, Cao won on a protest vote by white voters from both major parties indignant about Jefferson’s staying power. Analysts said white voters turned out by a ratio of 2-to-1 over blacks.
Nonetheless, Cao’s win was viewed as improbable and important for the Asian communities of eastern New Orleans and the West Bank, a series of suburbs across the Mississippi River from the city.
“It’s a David and Goliath story,” said Joel Waltzer, a lawyer who’s worked for 20 years representing Vietnamese homeowners and fishermen in eastern New Orleans. Before starting his own law practice, Cao worked for Waltzer.