At President Obama’s Super bowl party this weekend, there was only one Republican, U.S. Representative Ahn “Joe” Cao. Why? Aside from his life-long devotion to the Saints, it couldn’t hurt that Cao, 42, a Vietnamese American freshman lawmaker, was the only GOP member in either house of Congress to cross party lines on health reform in a full-floor vote.
With a Democratic majority in Congress, bipartisanship had been symbolically important, but with U.S. Senator Scott Brown’s victory, it has become vital to passing health care reform.
In November, I spoke with Representative Cao shortly after his vote to ask him what role he saw himself playing in the bill’s House/Senate reconciliation process. Would he be ready to compromise? And what would be his non-negotiable bottom lines?
Cao got his start as a community activist in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans where he says he worked for “African American and Asian American communities, regardless of ethnicity.” His voting record has shown Cao siding with his party in just 70% of his votes, a near-record low for a Republican in the current Congress.
On a more local front, Cao has just announced his bid for re-election. Whose tune is he marching to? In our interview, Cao said his voting pattern would be “based on the needs of (his) constituents.” He even gave his own recipe for bipartisanship: “If all of us were to focus on the messages explicit in the gospel – messages about the poor, the widowed, the sick – at that time, we will reach consensus.”
“Messages explicit in the gospel…”
Arriving in America as a refugee at age eight, Cao grew up mainly in Houston. He worked as a Jesuit seminarian in Mexico. But, instead of priesthood, Cao opted for a career as an immigration lawyer, which established him as a pillar of New Orleans’ burgeoning Vietnamese American community.
A lifelong Independent, Cao joined the Republicans the year of his House bid. Cao told the New York Times, he joined the party “because of their strong pro-life stance.” No wonder then, after lengthy vacillations and convincing from both parties, he signed onto the House health care bill after its 11th hour inclusion of the controversial Stupak amendment, which would sharply reduce the range of available insurance options for women needing abortions. When Nancy Pelosi tried to push the Senate version of the health care bill through the House, Cao made it clear that he would not sign on because the Senate version was too lenient on abortion.
This position points to an allegiance that may have a stronger hold on Cao than any political partisanship: his affiliation with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), on whose National Advisory Council he serves.
“…The poor, the widow, the sick…”
For Cao and the USCCB, being Catholic appears to be more complex than a one-point anti-abortion agenda.
In a position paper to Congress, the USCCB sided with many of the health reform bill’s Democrat sponsored measures. The letter said, “Universal coverage should be truly universal” and called for Congress to “not deny health care to those in need because of their condition, age, where they come from or when they arrive here.” To be sure, this could be read as a plea to expand “truly universal” coverage to the unborn, which “arrive here” at the moment of conception. But it could equally refer to Medicare expansion to those under 64, or the inclusion of immigrants (with or without documentation) in the Exchange(s) or even some form of “public option.”
The USCCB letter explicitly endorses several liberal-leaning health care measures: raising the cut-off for Medicaid eligibility to 133% of the federal poverty level, lifting the five-year ban on legal immigrants’ access to federal health benefits and even allowing undocumented immigrants to use their own money to purchase coverage on the health care reform bill’s proposed insurance Exchange(s).
Given his background as a refugee and his experience as an immigration attorney, such proposals might be agreeable to Cao. They might also play well in his district, with a constituency that’s 22% under the poverty line and 20% uninsured.
“….we will reach consensus.”
Cao’s success as a republican has been astonishing. His electoral upset in Louisiana’s 2nd District ended two decades of representation by William Jefferson, and he is the first Republican to represent the district in over a century. He is also the first Vietnamese American ever elected to Congress and only the second Asian American ever to win a House seat as a Republican.
After Hurricane Katrina, Cao became involved with rebuilding efforts through his relationship to Mary Queen of Vietnam church (MQVN). First as a church member, then as a community board member of the MQVN Corporation, Cao worked closely with Father Nguyen The Vien and the Vietnamese American community-based organization, SOS Boat People. He led successful fights to get utilities restored to New Orleans East and demanded FEMA accountability (eventually shutting down their state office).
And both communities rewarded that involvement during his election campaign. Civil rights organizations like Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Southern Poverty Law Center emerged as political allies, as did Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. Nevertheless, as a Republican nominee in East New Orleans, Cao’s election chances were slim. However, a combination of circumstances propelled him to a surprise victory. The corruption scandal around the incumbent representative and election delays due to Hurricane Gustav worked in Cao’s favor. By Election Day, most die-hard Democrats and Jefferson supporters did not bother voting, paving the way for Cao to win.
The night Cao announced his election bid, “several hundreds of activists” rallied in New Orleans’s Lower Garden district in support, and not just Republicans and Asian Americans. African American community leaders, including Cao’s chief aide and former Louisiana Democratic State Rep. Rosalind Peychaud, were in attendance, as were many young people.
The ground swell may be growing in New Orleans, as voting for health care reform may have boosted Cao’s re-election chances. Eleanor Brown, 84, a lifelong Democrat from New Orleans feels positive about Cao. “From the articles I’ve read about him in the Times-Picayune, I just have a good feeling about him.”