Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

The Tao of Cao

Four signs that freshman Congressman Joseph Cao ranks among Louisiana's most socially aware politicos

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As a Republican representing staunchly Democratic New Orleans, and as the only Vietnamese-American in Congress, U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao must sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land. In addition, Cao's floor speeches, public appearances and press releases set him apart from Louisiana's congressional delegation (and the state GOP) for reasons that carry with them a social significance: he has an inner moral compass, and he follows it.

  Just consider the following instances from recent months:

  1. Cao embraces his roots. One would be hard-pressed to find instances in which Gov. Bobby Jindal has embraced his Indian heritage. Cao, on the other hand, has sought out topics relating to his native Vietnam. The comparison is one that should resonate, as both men are firsts in the respective offices, from a national perspective even — Cao as a Vietnamese-American in Congress and Jindal as an Indian-American governor. At a time when ethnic derision still plays an unwelcome role in politics, Cao's decision not to run from his ethnicity is not only a brave move but also one that allows his constituents to know him better.

  Most recently, Cao called on his homeland to release imprisoned bloggers and respect Internet freedom. From the floor of the House of Representatives, he delivered an impassioned plea asking the United States to "take a bold stance against the tyranny of the Vietnamese government and more effectively promote democracy there and throughout the world." He was speaking on behalf of a resolution that expressed the same sentiments.

  He also said Vietnam should be put back on the Countries of Particular Concern list, be required to pay $3.5 million in restitution that the high court of the American Samoa adjudicated 10 years ago and be denied entry into a U.S. program that cuts tariffs for poorer countries. "In the United States, we have been blessed with these rights. With these gifts comes great responsibility," Cao said during his floor speech. "It is necessary that we advocate on behalf of these Vietnamese citizens who simply hope for a better future."

  2. Cao is down with the Dalai Lama. As a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a congressional caucus that advocates human rights issues, Cao met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama last month to discuss freedom for Tibet and other countries oppressed by totalitarian governments. Cao says that the Tibetan leader began the discussion with his own optimistic sentiment that "in spite of present difficulties, eventually freedom will come."

  According to a press release, in his conversation with the Dalai Lama, Cao shared information about his past as well as his current efforts to fight religious persecution around the world. As a refugee from Vietnam, Cao fled religious and political oppression. The two also reportedly discussed the best approaches for ending human rights violations and the plight of refugees from around the globe.

  3. Cao honors religious martyrs. Just two weeks ago, Cao took to the House floor again to commemorate the lives of eight Jesuit priests who were executed by members of the Salvadoran Army 20 years ago this month. It was a tribute that bordered on the personal, given Cao's background. "Having spent six years in the Jesuit order studying to become a Jesuit priest, I have a deep appreciation for the sacrifice these people made in pursuit of religious freedom and human rights," he says. "These eight martyrs actually inspired me to join the Society of Jesus in 1990 and to carry on their struggle for religious freedom and human rights 19 years later."

  Cao explained to his colleagues that "this senseless mass murder was incited when the six priests took a stand for social justice and against the oppressive elements in Salvadoran society, notably the tyrannical military." It happened during the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 16, 1989, when members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl counterinsurgency battalion raided the San Salvador campus of the Jesuit University of Central America, killing six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The killings were committed during a military offensive by the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

  4. Cao crosses party lines. While Cao has certainly stood with the Republican Party on many issues, he's also made independent stands. In September, when conservatives were hollering about President Barack Obama's address to schoolchildren in Florida, Cao took to the floor once more — a trend that can't be ignored and signals that he's just as comfortable carrying his personal agenda in the flesh as through press releases. At the time, Obama's back-to-school speech had sparked controversy from those who felt it would be partisan and politically divisive. Cao offered a different take. "The president's address to students this morning promoted students setting high standards, supporting our teachers and principals, and reforming our schools," he said on the House floor. "He encouraged students to take advantage of educational opportunities for successful careers and the opportunities to achieve the American dream."

  At the end of the political day, a collection of socially aware speeches and strong stances on human rights issues might not be enough to get Cao re-elected, but it's a sign that Louisiana's congressional delegation has a special kind of consciousness that's rare in the Deep South — at least until next year's election cycle.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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