America’s first Vietnam-born congressman was once dubbed “the future” of the Republican Party by House Minority Leader John Boehner. Anh Joseph Cao had pulled off a minor miracle by becoming the first Republican since 1890 to be elected from the overwhelmingly democratic district encompassing New Orleans.
That heady acclaim from a party boss makes Cao all the more admirable for breaking ranks with the GOP on three crucial votes that showed that commitment to his constituents trumped party loyalty.
In September of 2009 Cao was one of only seven House Republicans to vote in favor of rebuking Joe Wilson for shouting “You lie!” during Obama’s healthcare address to a joint session of Congress. In November 2009 Cao was the lone Republican voting to support the democratic healthcare reform bill (though he ultimately voted against the final version in March because of language that the GOP interpreted as providing federal funding for abortion). On March 31, 2010 Cao was one of three Republicans to defy the GOP’s self-imposed one-year moratorium on earmark requests. the ground that the needs of his New Orleans constituents was simply too great.
Cao’s willingness to buck his party is even more remarkable given that he had just begun his first term in January 2009 after squeaking past a nine-term incumbent by a margin of 49.6% to 46.8%. And barely a month after taking office Cao became the target of a swift recall campaign for voting against Obama’s stimulus package on the ground that it gave New Orleans the smallest assistance among the nation’s 435 congressional districts.
But Cao has proven his zeal for winning federal attention to the needs of his district. On February 25, 2009 he announced that his staff was investigating the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) office in New Orleans for complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment, ethics violations, nepotism and cronyism. For Cao it was the continuation of a crusade he had launched while working as a community activist for Hurricane Katrina victims. Cao turned up the heat the next day by calling for New Orleans FEMA boss Doug Whitmer to step down. Thanks to the popular outcry he triggered, Whitmer was replaced two days later.
Anh “Joseph” Cao was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on March 13, 1967. His father, a South Vietnamese Army lieutenant, was captured at the end of the war and sent to a Communist reeducation camp for seven years. Cao’s mother rushed 8-year-old Anh to the United States with two siblings and an uncle. She stayed behind with five other children. The family was eventually reunited after Cao’s father was released suffering from diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anh Cao graduated from Houston’s Jersey Village High School. He earned a B.S. in physics from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Cao first arrived in New Orleans in 1992. He spent six years at a Jesuit seminary, but ultimately abandoned his dream of becoming a Catholic priest. He ascribes this decision to a burning desire to seek social justice after seeing how the government failed to respond to its neediest citizens.
Cao went to New York’s Fordham University to earn a master’s in philosophy and returned to New Orleans to attend Loyola University Law School. While earning his J.D. he also taught philosophy and ethics to undergrads. Between September 1996 and March 2002 Cao served on the board of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), an organization dedicated to helping Vietnamese refugees and immigrants become more self-sufficient. After getting his J.D. in 2000 he practiced briefly with the firm of Waltzer & Associates before opening his own immigration law practice.
In 2002 Archbishop Alfred Hughes chose Cao to become a member of the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that post Cao addressed women’s rights in the Catholic Church, child abuse and the church’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was a personal tragedy for Cao and his family. They lost their home and his law office and were forced to move temporarily to Westwego to begin rebuilding their lives.
It was during that period of fighting insurance companies and government bureaucracy that Cao became deeply immersed in the crusade to secure federal assistance to help rebuild the most basic infrastructural needs of New Orleans residents. In 2007 he was appointed by the newly-elected Governor Bobby Jindal to the Board of Elections for Orleans Parish. On December 6, 2008 he was elected to represent Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District. Congressman Cao currently serves on the Committees on Homeland Security, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Oversight and Government Reform.
Cao lives with wife Hieu “Kate” Hoang and their daughters Sophia and Betsy in New Orleans’ Venetian Isles neighborhood. The couple met in 1998 at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in New Orleans East where the family continues to attend services. Kate is a registered pharmacist who worked at the New Orleans Walgreens pharmacy before resigning after Cao’s election. The couple disclosed their assets as of 2009 at $195,000 and potential liabilities, including student loans, at $215,000, making Cao one of the least affluent members of Congress.