Republican Joseph Cao's Unlikely Journey From Seminary to Congress

A Vietnamese immigrant who left a Jesuit seminary for politics eked out surprise victory in Louisiana.

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As a Vietnamese immigrant in a district where nearly 2 in 3 voters are black, a Republican seeking a seat that's gone Democratic since 1891, and a newcomer to political office taking on a nine-term incumbent, even Ahn "Joseph" Cao didn't see how he could win Louisiana's Second Congressional District.

Neither did the GOP, which mostly ignored his campaign. But when Cao scraped together a 1,826-vote margin of victory—a rare bright spot for Republicans, who lost 21 seats this fall—House Minority Leader John Boehner hailed him as the future of the party.

"I thought I didn't have a chance in the world. Only through a miracle could I ever win," Cao says. "Things just fell together, like divine providence."

In many ways, Cao (pronounced "gow") was in the right place at the right time. His victory was helped partly by the ethics scandal of his opponent, Rep. William Jefferson, and partly by Hurricane Gustav, which postponed the vote to a month after the presidential election, keeping black turnout low.

But even if he sees a higher influence in his political career, the soft-spoken 41-year-old with a high laugh and 5-foot-2 frame has hardly left it all to fate. In fact, when he left the Jesuit seminary where he had trained for six years in his 20s, he set a timetable for his goals. They included attending law school, marrying by 33 or 34, and, ultimately, entering politics.

Although those who know Cao consistently describe him as reserved, few are surprised at his run. "He's not a bold leader, but he's always a quiet person who steps up when his specialty is needed," says the Rev. Vien The Nguyen, pastor of Cao's church.

But they are surprised by his win.

Cao, the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress, fled Saigon three days after it fell in 1975. At 8, split from his siblings and his parents (his father was a South Vietnamese army officer who spent seven years in a re-education camp, and his mother remained in Vietnam), he moved in with an uncle in Indiana.

In those first, "terrifying" days, Cao says, he was alone much of the time. He couldn't speak English; his uncle worked nights at McDonald's. When he got bored of watching television, which he couldn't understand anyway, he'd sit with a group of elderly neighbors in the yard as they taught him words like "tree" and "squirrel." "I needed a friend," he says.

His Catholic faith, including five-hour-long rosary sessions at his grandmother's house, anchored him. After earning a bachelor's degree in physics, he joined the Society of Jesus, a 469-year-old Roman Catholic order that combines faith with promoting justice. But his work among Mexico's impoverished led him to wonder why a loving God would allow such misery.

The only answer he could find was that God eased human suffering by sending people to promote change. Cao quit the order and redrafted his course for politics.

Three years after he set up his law practice in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina struck. It devastated the city's 15,000-strong Vietnamese-American community. But it also propelled Vietnamese-American neighborhoods—and Cao—toward political activism. "The Vietnamese community got so aggressive and good at protecting itself after Katrina," says Joel Waltzer, whose law firm represented a group of Vietnamese-American plaintiffs in a 2006 fight against the city, which planned to put a landfill in their neighborhood. "I think Ahn helped in that regard."

During the landfill battle, Cao decided to run for state representative. He entered as an independent. He knocked on doors. He put up signs. He raised $20,000 and spent a few thousand dollars of his own money. And he came in fifth out of six candidates.

But he gained the attention of former City Councilman Bryan Wagner. Wagner helped Cao get involved in local politics and persuaded Cao to register as a Republican. When Cao thought about running for the House seat—despite his wife's initial laughter at the idea—Wagner quietly persuaded two other Republicans not to run against him.

Still, Cao was David to Jefferson's Goliath, even if Goliath was facing federal corruption charges. And Cao knew it. "He told God that this is his last try. If it doesn't work, then that's that," Nguyen says. "He would see that as God saying to him that's not what he's being called to."