Anh “Joseph” Cao, GSAS ’95
Anh “Joseph” Cao is a 1995 alumnus of Fordham's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Anh “Joseph” Cao was an 8-year-old boy growing up in Saigon when the Vietnam War neared its calamitous end in late April 1975. As North Vietnamese troops began shelling the capital city, he joined an uncle and two siblings on a plane to Guam and, eventually, another plane bound for the United States.
Thirty-three years after his escape, Anh “Joseph” Cao, GSAS '95, became the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress. Since then, Cao (pronounced “gow”), a Republican representing Louisiana’s 2nd District, which has a huge Democratic enrollment edge, has emerged as a moderate voice, trying to buck the partisan tide as he negotiates the tricky political waters on Capitol Hill. Cao, who spent six years in Jesuit training, hasn't forgotten his religious roots. He looks to the process of discernment outlined in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, to make decisions on difficult policy issues. And in keeping with the Jesuit tradition of frugality, he sleeps on the black leather couch in his Congressional office when he's in Washington, D.C.
"It's a lot more comfortbale than the beds I slept on while with the Society of Jesus," Cao says with a smile, recalling his work with the poor in Mexico. "I remember that summer in Villa Hermosa--no air conditioning, sitting at the table, sweat dripping down my face. This is a luxury."
Cao’s unlikely odyssey to Washington began in an Army barracks at Fort Chaffee, Ark., in 1975. At the refugee camp, he and his siblings and uncle began to learn the English language. Several months later, a Goshen, Ind., family sponsored the Caos, welcoming them into their home.
After earning a B.S. in physics at Baylor University, Cao entered the Society of Jesus. He came to Fordham in 1993, in the second phase of his Jesuit training, to deepen his knowledge of philosophy and theology. A year into the third phase of formation, he decided that he could do more to promote social justice in the political arena. So he earned a law degree at Loyola University New Orleans and volunteered at Boat People SOS, helping recent immigrants through the snares of bureaucratic red tape.
At Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, he developed a close relationship with the Reverend Dominic Luong, now auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange, in southern California. “After he decided to leave the Jesuits, I told him what a good asset he would be to the community if he became a lawyer,” Bishop Luong says of Cao. “Our community needs lawyers like him.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the city of New Orleans allowed Waste Management to open a dump in Cao’s Venetian Isles neighborhood to deposit debris from the disaster. Residents objected, and Cao provided legal advice and served as the spokesman. The issue vaulted Cao into the public eye. He was elected to Congress in 2008, eking out a narrow victory over nine-term incumbent William Jefferson.
Since taking office, he has stepped up his criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has overseen the rebuilding effort of New Orleans. He has advocated for increased federal aid, with more than $2 billion coming to the 2nd Congressional District in 2009.
As the first Vietnamese American in Congress, he’s also worked to promote human rights in his homeland. “The government now allows people to worship freely, as long as they don’t speak out against the government,” Cao says. “But those who worship are not allowed to get involved in the promotion of justice. For me, the practice of faith and the promotion of justice go hand in hand.”
This article originally appeard in the Spring 2010 issue of FORDHAM magazine. On November 2, 2010, Joseph Cao lost his bid for re-election.