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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Big Easy's Big Decision

Air Date: Week of

Republican incumbent Ahn "Joseph" Cao (left) faces tough competition in a majority Democratic district from Cedric Richmond.

This fall, as New Orleans continues to pick up the pieces after Katrina and the BP oil spill, voters will be deciding who can best lead them to a brighter future. The Vietnamese-American Republican who now represents Louisiana's majority Democratic and black second congressional district, is a self-described environmentalist. But he’s struggling to hold on to his seat amidst criticism that he's cast too many Republican votes. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on the incumbent, his challengers, and the city's post-disaster electoral priorities.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. New Orleans was still on the road to recovery from Hurricane Katrina when BP spilled its oil. And, now that it’s election season, the city’s residents are looking back at their problems, ahead to where they need to go— and who should lead them.

New Orleans is in the state’s Second congressional district where Ahn “Joseph” Cao won office in 2008. He was the first Vietnamese-American in Congress-- a Republican representing a majority black and Democratic district. This year, the self-described environmentalist Cao faces a serious challenge. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj tells us the storm and the spill pose tough decisions for voters in the Big Easy.


TAJ: When David Fountain came home after Katrina, he decided to turn his house in the upper ninth ward into an informal museum.

FOUNTAIN: Now, come on, come on, come on, come on!


TAJ: It’s a folk art celebration of New Orleans, and a place to reflect on the city’s losses to Hurricane Katrina. A bright yellow Mardi Gras costume rests in a corner, a voodoo priestess’s coffin juts out of a wall, and news clippings of the devastation are everywhere.


TAJ: Katrina changed pretty much everything in New Orleans, but five years on, it’s still unclear what kind of mark it will end up leaving on politics. New priorities have emerged, and who votes for who could also be changing.

Congressman Cao (in yellow shirt) speaks to the crowd at the landfill protest in front of New Orleans City Halll. (Photo: Huu Nguyen)

FOUNTAIN: Since Katrina, we see so much corruption going on, you know, you don’t know whether or not you’re voting for the right person or not. I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.

TAJ: The second congressional district used to be a safe seat for Democrats, and for one Democrat in particular: Bill Jefferson, Louisiana’s first black representative. He served nine terms before being indicted on corruption charges. Now David Fountain, a black Democrat, says he’s going to vote for the man that won the 2008 election against Jefferson: Joseph Cao, a Vietnamese-American Republican.

FOUNTAIN: I think he doing a beautiful job. I think he doing a very good job.

TAJ: Fountain said he first met Cao in 2006, when he helped fight a 100-acre-wide landfill proposed in New Orleans East.


TAJ: The landfill was going to absorb the city’s post-Katrina ruins. And it was sited just upstream from New Orleans’ Vietnamese-American community, one of the first neighborhoods to come back after the storm.

NGUYEN: I think what happened was the powers that be didn’t realize that we had returned. They thought they could do it before, you know, without us being there opposing it. They didn’t realize that we were already there.

TAJ: Father Vien Nyugen was a priest at the Mary Queen of Vietnam church. He now teaches at New Orleans’ Notre Dam seminary. He says back then Joseph Cao had recently scratched his plans to become a priest in order to practice law. Cao’s career path would change course again when Japanese-American Congressman Mike Honda of California, visited the activists at church. Father Nguyen…

NGUYEN: And I remember it was a Sunday, and there was one member of the community who stood up and said, ‘My parents fought a landfill in 1990, I fought a landfill in 1997, now 2006 my children are having to fight this landfill. It’s a shame, how can we stop this?’ And I remember Mike Honda’s response saying, ‘You need to be involved in the political process, you need to have someone in office so that that person can stop it at the beginning.’ And that’s when Joseph Cao, that day he said ‘I will do it.’

TAJ: On Capitol Hill, Cao led FEMA reforms and pushed out a billion dollars for rebuilding in New Orleans. And when BP spilled oil in the Gulf, he famously told BP America president Lamar McKay that he wasn’t thinking about asking him to resign.

CAO: In the Asian culture we do things differently. During the Samurai days we just give you a knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri.

TAJ: But Cao’s improbable rise to national politics could be brief; unlike the last election, this year he faces tough competition.

ANNOUNCER: Please, a loud round of applause, for none other than Cedric Richmond, our soon-to-be Congressman!


TAJ: After winning the Democratic primary, Cedric Richmond, a young black state legislator, celebrated with supporters at a hotel downtown.

RICHMOND: It’s not going to be easy road. We’re going to go up against the Republican Tea Party extremists who will do and say anything. They think that this seat belongs to them, but what we know is that this seat belongs to the people.


TAJ: Richmond’s opponent Joseph Cao is far from a Tea Party Republican. He voted for the Democrats’ financial reform package and boasts how much federal money he delivered the district. But he voted against health care reform, and against the president’s economic stimulus, which funneled about $80 billion to green projects.

Louisiana state legislator Cedric Richmond says if elected to he'll work to create green job opportunities for New Orleanians. (Courtesy of Cedric Richmond for Congress)

Cedric Richmond says Louisiana needed some of that money, and in his 11 years in the state legislature, he voted to pass Louisiana’s solar tax credit program, which offers the biggest incentives in the country. He also voted for minimum ethanol and bio-diesel standards for gasoline. Green jobs, Richmond says, could be the future for New Orleans.

RICHMOND: We don’t need to be stuck on tourism, so if we could diversify a little bit, with green jobs, with manufacturing, and some other things, I think we’re moving in the right direction.

TAJ: Both candidates are quick to emphasize job creation, but when it comes to how rising temperatures and sea levels could affect the district, their answers vary.

Richmond told me climate change isn’t really on his radar. Cao says it’s on his, but last year when the House passed a cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse gases emissions, he voted “no.”

CAO: I represent 750 thousand people. Many of that 750 thousand depends on the jobs that comes from oil and gas that comes from indirect jobs related to oil and gas. And with post-Katrina reconstruction, I could not force my people to pay higher fuel prices. And when I say “my” I’m implying the second district, because often times when people interpret the word “my” they’re thinking about Vietnamese-American.

TAJ: Race continues to be on people’s minds here. This is one of a couple dozen “majority-minority” districts, redrawn in the 1960s to encourage minority representation in Congress. Since Katrina, more whites than blacks have returned to New Orleans, but black registered voters are still thought to make up a majority in the district, and are still a powerful political force.


TAJ: On a recent evening in a house in the upper ninth ward, Gwen Johnson talked politics with one hand on the TV remote. She was waiting to watch her husband, percussionist Smokey Johnson, on a Katrina anniversary show.

JOHNSON: You see in the wheelchair? You see him, he’s playing the tambourine. You see, he’s a drummer but he plays percussion instruments now, so yeah, there he is.


TAJ: Smoky used to be Fats Domino’s drummer, so after Katrina the Johnsons’ were invited to live in the Musicians’ Village, a small cluster of homes built by Habitat for Humanity. She says if it weren’t for the project they wouldn’t have come home to New Orleans at all.

Johnson says she won’t vote for Cao because he’s a Republican, because he voted against health care, and because he’s not doing enough to bring recovery money into black neighborhoods.

JOHNSON: The uptown side of Canal Street is doing pretty good. They have three or four hospitals; they have shopping centers. We have nothing out here. Only thing we have are Dollar stores and Walgreens.

TAJ: Johnson says black representatives have tended to look out for black communities, and in November she says she’ll be voting for Cedric Richmond.

JOHNSON: But I don’t have to vote for a black person, but I will vote for a person I think that’s going to help us. He doesn’t have to be black. But it just so happen, the best man is black.

VILES: Cedric Richmond seems very committed to supporting President Obama’s agenda.

TAJ: Aaron Viles is the campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, based in New Orleans. The non-profit doesn’t endorse political candidates but Viles will be voting for Cedric Richmond. He says Richmond will support Obama’s plans to eventually address climate change, and Cao’s “no” vote on the House bill sent a strong message about his priorities.

VILES: The impacts of climate change are already being felt here, we’re seeing sea level rise that’s exacerbating our coastal wetlands crisis. We’re seeing stronger storms. I mean, the idea that it’s too expensive to start acting on climate change, the reality is that’s a very tired narrative.

TAJ: But other voters remain focused on the lingering challenge of recovery. Democrat David Fountain says Cao’s got a good start. He wants him to keep improving levee and hurricane preparedness systems, and to continue to find the funding so that everyone can come home.

FOUNTAIN: The main thing still to be done, we have a lot of people that want to come home, and they still can’t come home. That’s the saddest thing about where we at now, that a lot of people still cannot come home.

TAJ: On November 2nd, voters will decide who can best address the city’s post-Katrina priorities. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in New Orleans.

YOUNG: You can hear more of Mitra’s interviews at our website, L-O-E dot org.

[MUSIC: Dirty Dozen Brass Band “Right On” from What’s Goin On (Shout Factory 2006)]



**WEB EXTRA** Click here to listen to Mitra Taj's interview with Congressman Cao.

**WEB EXTRA** Cedric Richmond talks with Mitra Taj after his primary victory speech.

Like most Louisiana politicians, both candidates support lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling. Click here to read Cao's reasons why.

Click here to read an story about the candidates in a recent debate.

The League of Conservation Voters gave Congressman Cao a 43% rating on environmental issues. Click here to learn about key votes.

Cedric Richmond on the issues.

Joseph Cao on the issues.

Click here to learn more about New Orleans' Vietnamese-American community since Katrina and the BP oil spill.


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