Since we are going through an impossibly long Republican primary season, we’re being inundated with the twists and turns of the political process: its ups, downs, and downright strangeness.
Seeing Leo Chiang’s film, “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” has a special resonance for us. Few of us may know who Joseph Cao is—a two-year term Republican representative from Louisiana, he served from 2008 to 2010. His is an interesting story of democracy in action and illuminates what a rough game contemporary politics is.
Joseph Cao is a refugee from Vietnam and former Catholic priest. He left the church to earn a law degree, marry and raise a family. Belonging to the small refugee community of Catholic Vietnamese in New Orleans does not seem a likely springboard for national politics, but Cao, a personable, intelligent and warm person, became the accidental congressman; the republican candidate in a district 75 percent democratic, and also predominantly black. The incumbent, black democratic Congressman William Jefferson was convicted of fraud and corruption, after authorities found $90,000 stashed in a home freezer. Needless to say, Jefferson was a vulnerable candidate and Cao managed to eke out a win. He became the first Vietnamese American to make it to Congress, and the first Republican to win in that district in decades.
You could call him the accidental politician and in the footage showing him campaigning, one can see that his warmth and obvious sincerity were great assets, though the film doesn’t show us quite how he won. Then came the hard part.
Cao’s life sounds like an American Dream come true. He’s obviously ambitious, but there is a major disconnect: his tie to the Republican Party. He shows up to a meeting of Young Republicans, asks them to look at themselves and see he is the only non-white in the group, emphasizing himself as a distinct outsider. Shots of him standing next to various politicians, including President Obama, emphasize his smallness and difference. The heart of the film resides in this man’s attempts to juggle the demands of the Republican Party, the Vietnamese community, the predominantly black constituency of his district, and his personal faith and convictions.
His term encompasses overwhelming problems: the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and the BP oil disaster. The one vote in Congress that the film focuses on is his vote supporting Obama’s health care bill, the lone Republican to do so. However, when he has to vote again on the compromise bill, he votes against it, citing his opposition to anything that has pro-choice provisions because he is emphatically anti-abortion.
This is an unusually compelling narrative, and director Chiang and crew have fashioned an unusual American drama. Cao is defeated in a re-election bid, beaten by a young African American, Cedric Richmond. No matter how diligently he worked, he couldn’t overcome the fact that his district was at heart, democratic and overwhelmingly black.
Is this the end of his political career? One wonders if the Republican Party is the best fit for him, but as he says, the Republicans first approached him to run, so his improbable candidacy was mounted on their willingness to fight for him.
Leo Chiang’s other film, “A Village Called Versailles,” profiled how the Catholic Vietnamese community in Louisiana coped with so many trials—first in Vietnan, then as a refugee group hit by Hurricane Katrina. Cao came out of that environment, and entered the American mainstream in a big way. “Mr. Cao” shows Chiang’s growing mastery of the documentary form.