I can't say I envy the guy, but frankly, he should have switched parties after his fluke election in 2008. After all, he ran as an independent two years earlier, so it would not have been much of a stretch.
NEW ORLEANS — Anh "Joseph" Cao — the most politically endangered member of Congress, the one and only Republican who voted for President Obama's health-care plan, a target of Democrats and source of frustration to many in his party — is facing a crowd in a smoky tavern near downtown.
"Oftentimes I'm pretty sure that decisions I make might not be the decisions you would make," the lawmaker tells about 125 people lured by free beer and jambalaya to the Bridge Lounge. "You might want to scream and bang your head against the wall" or "reach out and strangle me," he continues, but one constant, his one guiding principle, is "a focus on service ... how I could better serve the people of my district."
The response — no applause, only the low buzz of conversation — speaks loudly to the political difficulty Cao faces.
He is a Vietnamese American representing an overwhelmingly black and Democratic district. His victory in December 2008 against a criminally indicted incumbent resulted from one of those star-sun-moon convergences unlikely to be repeated. He is neither a dynamic speaker nor, at 5 feet 2, much of a physical presence.
Yet, Cao, 42, and a political novice, says he can — and will — win a second term in November by ignoring party labels, acting independently, voting his conscience and working hard for the people of this hard-pressed, Katrina-battered city.
For Cao — whose name is pronounced "Gow" — that idealistic vow may be his best, and perhaps only, shot at winning re-election, even if it seems quixotic in an age when the gap between parties is widening, the campaign rhetoric is growing uglier and voters, as a result, have become angrier and even more cynical.
The thing is, Cao seems to believe what he says.
His campaign speeches are homilies about caring and community, compassion and reflecting on how we can all work together to build a better, more just society. (The message was politely received at a charter-school honors assembly, but seemed a bit lost on the drinking crowd at the Bridge Lounge.)
It is, Cao said later, the Jesuit in him. He is a man of deep religious faith, who spent more than five years training for the priesthood until a spiritual crisis led him to seek other ways to save the world.
It also is incredibly naive, some say, to believe that good intentions and an inspiring life story — Cao was a war refugee who arrived in America at age 8, alone and destitute — can surmount party loyalties and the deeply ingrained politics of race. (Besides, people wanting the best for New Orleans may have other ideas what that entails.)
"He may be a nice enough guy. I can't say anything bad about him," said Blair Boutte, a veteran Democratic strategist. "But when you represent a district that has a majority of voters aligning a certain way, they want your conscience to line up with theirs."
Instead, Cao upset Democrats and Republicans alike when confronted with the two biggest issues facing Congress in the past year.
He was part of the unanimous House GOP opposition to Obama's economic-stimulus plan, calling it wasteful and a bad deal for constituents who, Cao said, would end up paying more to Washington, D.C., than they received in benefits. (Cao's district finished last, out of 435, when the White House projected the number of jobs created.)
Democrats took the vote as a slap at Obama, who remains popular here, and said it was inexplicable as the region continues to struggle nearly 4 ½ years after Hurricane Katrina. "There's a sense we need all the help we can get," said Edward Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political scientist.
The national Democratic Party, which has made Cao its No. 1 target, attacked him in radio ads, calling him a job killer and accusing him of "putting politics ahead of families." There was talk of a recall, but it fizzled when state officials declared the move unconstitutional.
Backed Dem bill
Then came health care. Cao infuriated Republicans by supporting the Democratic bill, ignoring the No. 2 GOP House leader who sat at his right elbow throughout the cliff-hanging vote, urging solidarity. The bill squeaked through on a tally of 219 Democrats and Cao.
The result was a flood of angry phone calls and e-mails, a roasting on talk radio and an unusual statement of reproval from the Louisiana Republican Party. A New Orleans neighbor, who had been friendly, stuck a letter in Cao's mailbox. "Very nasty," Cao says, "using words that I have to bleep out, every other word."
Cao agonized over his health-care vote but not, he said, out of fealty to the GOP. Nearly one-quarter of people in his district lack health insurance. Many are poor. So the promise of broadly expanded medical coverage was enticing.
But abortion is a paramount concern for Cao. His opposition is the main reason he is a Republican, and he would not have voted for the House bill if not for language, inserted at the last minute, ensuring that no federal funds would be used for the procedure.
Many Democrats, including Obama, believe the language went too far, so the Senate passed a less restrictive version.
Negotiators are trying to reconcile the bills, and that has pushed Cao back to the undecided column. He will oppose final passage unless the legislation bill contains the same abortion restriction as the House version, no matter the political consequence.
"It will be ammunition for my opponent," Cao acknowledged, but "I will not go against my principles simply to preserve the congressional seat."