Boo! Ghost in Louisiana election

Guess what? The GOP has a new hero and his name is Anh “Joseph” Cao, who just defeated a veteran, but apparently ethically challenged, Democratic congressman from New Orleans. The Washington Post reports:

The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Cao’s election Saturday night showed that, even battered and bruised from political drubbings in the past two years, Republicans “still know how to win elections.” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was more blunt, issuing a memo Sunday declaring: “The future is Cao.”

Yet just three weeks ago, no one in the GOP establishment had even heard of Cao. They didn’t know his improbable story of triumph — how he fled war-torn Vietnam after the fall of Saigon as an 8-year-old refugee jammed into a helicopter. Now they’ve seized on his rags-to-political riches story, along with the victory last week of Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a special election in Georgia, as rare pieces of good news after the dismal November elections. …

Cao, 41, ran as a reform-minded conservative against Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), a nine-term incumbent who won reelection in 2006 despite widespread publicity about the FBI finding $90,000 in his freezer during a 2005 raid on his home. Cao, the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, plans to take a victory lap through Washington this week.

So if the future is Cao, and he won in the unique (that’s an understatement) environment of New Orleans, what were the key factors in his rise? What makes this man tick? What’s the Big Idea Here.

Well, I was certainly fascinated with one or two details that jumped out at me when I was reading the obligatory biography paragraph. Ready to look for a ghost or two?

After fleeing Vietnam as a child, Cao bounced around homes in several states with his sister and a brother before settling with an uncle in Houston. One of eight children, he did not see his mother or father, a former Vietnamese army officer who was imprisoned by Ho Chi Minh’s government, until 1991. Cao graduated from Baylor University in 1990 and began studying to become a Jesuit priest. He went on several missions before attending law school in New Orleans.

After graduating in the late 1990s, he started a law practice and volunteered to help other boat refugees from Vietnam. His home and law firm were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but he rebuilt both, and this summer, he began his seemingly quixotic quest for public office.

Whoa! Is your head still spinning?

So he went to the world’s largest Southern Baptist university and that somehow inspired him to head off to become a Jesuit? So then he did mission work and, another twist in the plot, that sent him to law school, out of the priesthood and into marriage, business, politics, etc. Consider me fascinated.

Again, what does this man stand for? The bottom line: If he’s the GOP future, what the heck is the content of that statement?

I realize that it was a strange set of political circumstances that produced this shocking victory. I mean, Cao was elected in a district that voted 75 percent for Barack Obama.

Political twists and turns aside, I assume that Cao remains a big part of this story. His unique background has to be part of the picture. Right? Instead, here’s what we keep getting:

Republicans view Cao’s win as a road map back to their roots. “The Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and work aggressively to earn the trust of the American people,” Boehner wrote in his memo. “The Cao victory is a symbol of our future.”

Roots? Those old-fashioned Republican roots that run deep into the lives of oppressed ethnic minorities that take their Catholic beliefs on to Bible Belt Baptist campuses and then seek the priesthood and then, and then, and then, what?

The Post is not alone in this struggle for content, on this newcomer. Over at The Politico, the copy desk seems to have tripped over one of those crucial biographical details, too. Check this out:

Cao came to the United States as an 8-year-old Vietnam War refugee, after his mother bundled him in a military transport plane with his siblings as Saigon fell during the spring of 1975. Raised in Houston by an uncle, he earned degrees from Baylor University, Fordham University and Loyola University New Orleans. The converted Jesuit and onetime seminarian settled in New Orleans, setting up a law practice advocating for the city’s Vietnamese community.

What in the world is a “converted Jesuit”? He was something else and then converted to Catholicism? He was a diocesan priest and then converted to become a Jesuit? He was a Jesuit and converted to be a Baptist? He was a Jesuit and decided he want to get married, so he was converted to layman status? Actually, his online biography makes his status pretty clear:

Joseph is married to Hieu “Kate” Hoang; they have two daughters, Sophia and Betsy. … (In) 2002, he was selected by Archbishop Alfred Hughes of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to be a member of the National Advisory Council to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which addresses many pressing issues, such as women’s rights in the U.S. Church, social justice, pedophilia and children protection, the Catholic response to Hurricane Katrina, and education.

So, what does this man stand for? Anyone want to make some predictions? In other words, there is some chance that he is a devout, active, traditional Roman Catholic. Odds are good this man is even consistently pro-life. This is a shock?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Brian Walden

    In other words, there is some chance that he is a devout, active, traditional Roman Catholic.

    Given that the media only calls people who openly dissent from Catholic teachings devout Catholics, they must have run out of words to describe him if he in fact is a devout Catholic.

  • FW Ken

    What in the world is a “converted Jesuit”?

    Thank you, tmatt. That one line will entertain me the rest of the day. :-)

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    We are very excited about the election of CAO down here in Louisiana. As a Catholic I am thrilled.

    Cao I suspect is very much in line with the Sam Brownback type viewpoint. A conservative that somehow thinks we have something to say about Catholic SOcial Justice Issues

    I would recommend Deal Hudson pre electiion articl on him to see what makes him tick

    InsideCatholic.com – The Jesuits Produce A Great Political Candidate

    http://insidecatholic.com/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4934&Itemid=100

  • Martha

    “What in the world is a ‘converted Jesuit’?”

    Must resist urge to snark about modern Jesuits… must struggle with temptation to remark that a ‘converted Jesuit’ is presumably a Jesuit of a different stripe to Lisa Miller’s Jesuit friend… must not give in to uncharitable impulses about reporters who couldn’t tell you the difference between a Jesuit, a novice, a layman, or a hole in the ground…

    … drat. Failed again :-)

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  • Matt

    Of course, the Vietnamese are culturally Catholic (at least, those who aren’t Buddhist), and Vietnamese-Americans are a significant presence in Catholic seminaries in the United States. Louisiana, of course, is also culturally Catholic, even (I believe) the African-Americans. So Cao would appear to have something culturally in common with his constituents, even if it’s not ethnicity.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic I am thrilled with the elections of both Bobby Jindal (Asian Indian roots) and Joey Cao (Vietnamese roots)–not because of their Catholic religion (most of the time I vote against secular sell-out Catholics like the Kennedys (Irish roots like mine), but because of their apparent Christian values.


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