Friday, Oct. 01, 2010

Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District: Joseph Cao vs. Cedric Richmond

Freshman Representative Anh "Joseph" Cao is a particularly rare breed of candidate this election cycle: an endangered incumbent Republican. Cao won Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, representing most of New Orleans, in 2008 thanks to a near perfect storm of circumstances: nine-term Democratic incumbent William Jefferson was under indictment on bribery charges (he's currently serving a 13-year prison sentence), and the general election was delayed a month by Hurricane Gustav, resulting in low turnout. Cao beat Jefferson 50%-47% in a largely black district that had gone for Barack Obama with 75% of the presidential vote, prompting a delighted House minority leader John Boehner to declare, "The future is Cao."

But if Cao defied the Democratic wave in 2008, he doesn't look poised to ride the GOP wave this year. Dems have found, if not an ideal candidate, a viable one in Representative Cedric Richmond. Richmond, chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, has his flaws: his law license was suspended after he was found to have falsely claimed residency in a district he was running to represent in 2005. But he has the backing of the Democratic machine, with endorsements from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and President Obama. And he has a proven record of bringing home the bacon — an essential for any Louisiana politician, Democrat or Republican. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he authored a tax credit that helped bring $250 million to the affected areas.

Despite the fact that he represents a largely Democratic district, Cao has sided mostly with his party. He voted against the stimulus, climate-change legislation and final passage of health care reform. He was, however, the lone Republican to vote for the House version of the health care legislation after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi included strident antiabortion language and the Catholic Conference of Bishops endorsed the bill. "I voted for the House bill because it had the language in it to prevent federal funding from going to abortions," Cao, a deeply religious Jesuit, told TIME in a recent interview. "But the Senate bill did not. In fact, it would open the door to have federal funding to go for abortions, so I could not support it."

On other issues, like earmarks, Cao has taken on his party. New Orleans, still struggling to recover from Katrina, is more dependent than most cities on government largesse, and Cao bristled at a GOP moratorium on earmarks this year. He's also been a forceful advocate for oil-spill-recovery funds, endorsing the $20 billion the Obama Administration demanded from BP for reparations when many of his colleagues were slamming the move as a government-run slush fund.

Cao has found himself defending his votes against the Obama Administration's agenda. When asked why he voted against the stimulus bill, he says it was a bad deal for his district. "Three days before the vote, the White House came out and said that my district would receive the least amount of money of all the districts in the U.S., and during that time where we were still rebuilding, still struggling to survive," Cao says. "It would've been irresponsible to agree to a bill that would force my people to pay more out than they would've received in." On climate change, he says he's a "very green person" but claims the bill would've resulted in energy, fuel and food-price increases his constituents could ill afford. "Looking at the green code that would require people looking to sell their homes, that their homes be brought up to green code. We have a lot of old homes here. We don't have $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000 to bring our homes up to green code before selling them — it would've devastated the housing market of New Orleans," Cao says.

Still, in a district that remains highly supportive of Obama and his agenda, Cao currently lags in some polls by as much as 10 points. He's not likely to draw the black vote against Richmond, an African American. And barring another natural disaster, the election-day turnout is sure to be greater than that at a stand-alone, postponed congressional contest in the wake of a major hurricane.