New Orleans When Anh “Joseph” Cao was 8 and Saigon was about to fall, his mother asked if he wanted to take a trip to the beach.
Despite his youth, Cao said he still knew the story was a ruse.
“I said, ‘Mom, we’re not going to the beach. We’re going to America,’” Cao recalled recently. “And she said, ‘Yes. Yes, you are going to America.’”
On Tuesday, more than 30 years after that refugee child escaped aboard a U.S. military transport plane with his uncle, brother and sister, leaving their parents behind, Cao was sworn in as the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress.
The slender, 5-foot-2 Republican attorney’s history-making victory came against an 18-year incumbent — the first black congressman from Louisiana since Reconstruction — who was considered invincible despite being hobbled by scandal.
“People are calling me a dragon-slayer,” Cao said recently.
Vu H. Pham, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Vietnamese American Exhibit, said Tuesday that Cao’s rise shows “we’ve come so far as a refugee community.”
“We fled ... a political regime that was persecuting our people. So now, to come here, not only for survival but for freedom, but to take that many levels higher — to become part of that political freedom, that Democratic process — that’s the strongest statement of what that says about us as a nation,” said Pham, who is Vietnamese American.
Until a few weeks ago, Cao, who looks younger than his 41 years, was virtually unknown outside the tightly knit Vietnamese-American community in eastern New Orleans. Then came his narrow victory against Rep. William Jefferson, an icon in the mostly black, mostly Democratic district.
With a boost from Jefferson’s legal troubles and a hurricane’s fickle path, Cao passed the latest test in his tumultuous life.
Mortar damage once shut down his elementary school in South Vietnam. He remembers scrambling under his bed at night while fragments from explosions rained down on his home.
After escaping the country in 1975, he faced adapting to the American culture without his parents. His mother stayed behind to be with his father, a South Vietnamese military officer who would later spend years imprisoned in a “re-education camp.” It would be 16 years before Cao would see his parents again.
Thirty years after fleeing Saigon, Cao escaped again — this time from Hurricane Katrina, with his wife and two daughters. In its aftermath, Cao emerged as a leader in his hard-hit community, particularly as part of a successful effort to shut down a landfill.
The Rev. Vien The Nguyen, from Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, said Cao has long advocated for Vietnamese refugees. He characterized him as a tenacious if soft-spoken leader, not a dogmatic politician.
“He’s an attorney but he’s also a philosophy teacher,” Vien said. “So for him it’s very difficult to come out and say that one thing or the other is absolute.”
Cao earned a physics degree from Baylor University in the 1980s, then entered the Society of Jesus to train as a Roman Catholic priest. He got a master’s in philosophy from Fordham University and worked with the poor in Mexico — service that ultimately led to a change in plans.
“I worked in extreme poverty and had a faith struggle, with the situation of human suffering: Why did a loving and powerful God create a world with so much human suffering?” Cao said.
“My spiritual director told me ... that God sends good people to help address the issue of human suffering.”
Cao left priesthood training in 1996 and opted to study law with an eye toward effecting change through politics. He got his law degree, taught at Loyola University Law School in New Orleans and settled in the city’s thriving Vietnamese community, which became more politically active as a group after the storm.
A staunch opponent of abortion, Cao was elected to local Republican Party posts and went to the 2008 Republican National Convention.
And he decided to run against Jefferson, who was so popular he was expected to win re-election despite a federal indictment alleging that agents found $90,000 in bribes in his freezer.
“I told my wife,” Cao said. “She looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re not going to win.’ I said ‘I know that.’”