Reporting from New Orleans — Joseph Cao -- the most politically endangered member of Congress, the one and only Republican who voted for President Obama's healthcare plan, a target of Democrats and a source of frustration to many in his own party -- is facing a hometown crowd.
"Oftentimes I'm pretty sure that decisions I make might not be the decisions you would make," the lawmaker tells about 125 people lured by free beer and jambalaya to a smoky tavern near downtown.
"You might want to scream and bang your head against the wall" or "reach out and strangle me," he continues, but one constant, his one guiding principle, is "a focus on service . . . how I could better serve the people of my district."
The response -- no applause, just the low buzz of conversation -- speaks loudly to the political difficulty Cao faces.
He is a Vietnamese American representing a district that is overwhelmingly black and Democratic. His victory in December 2008 against a criminally indicted incumbent resulted from one of those star-sun-moon convergences that will never be repeated. He is neither a dynamic speaker nor, a mere wisp at 5 feet 2, much of a physical presence.
Yet Cao, 42 and a political novice, says he can -- and will -- win a second term in November by ignoring party labels, acting independently, voting his conscience and working hard for the people of this hard-pressed, Katrina-battered city.
It is the sort of thing politicians are supposed to say, and they often do, usually accompanied by an obligatory swipe at Washington and the mindless partisanship of the place. But for Cao -- whose name is pronounced "Gow" -- that idealistic vow may be his best, and perhaps only, shot at winning reelection, even if it seems quixotic in an age when the gap between parties is widening, the campaign rhetoric is growing uglier and voters, as a result, have become angrier and even more cynical.
The thing is, Cao seems to actually believe what he says.
His speeches are homilies about caring and community, compassion and reflecting on how we can all work together to build a better, more just society. (The message was politely received at a charter school honors assembly, but seemed a bit lost on the drinking crowd at the Bridge Lounge.)
It is, Cao says later, the Jesuit in him. He is a man of deep religious faith, who spent more than five years training for the priesthood until a spiritual crisis led him to seek other ways to save the world.
It is also incredibly naive, some say, to believe that good intentions and an inspiring life story -- Cao was a war refugee who arrived in America at age 8, alone and destitute -- can surmount party loyalties and the deeply ingrained politics of race. (Besides, people wanting the best for New Orleans may have completely different ideas what that entails.)
"He may be a nice enough guy. I can't say anything bad about him," said Blair Boutte, a veteran Democratic strategist. "But when you represent a district that has a majority of voters aligning a certain way, they want your conscience to line up with theirs."
Instead, Cao upset both Democrats and Republicans when confronted with the two biggest issues facing Congress in the last year.
He was part of the unanimous House GOP opposition to Obama's economic stimulus plan, calling it wasteful and a bad deal for constituents who, Cao said, would end up paying more to Washington than they received in benefits. (Cao's district finished last, out of 435, when the White House projected the number of jobs created.)
Democrats took the vote as a slap at Obama, who remains popular here, and said it was inexplicable as the region continues to struggle nearly 4 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina. "There's a sense we need all the help we can get," said Edward Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political scientist.
The national Democratic Party, which has made Cao its No. 1 target, attacked him in radio ads, calling him a job killer and accusing him of "putting politics ahead of families." There was talk of a recall, but it fizzled when state officials declared the move unconstitutional.
Then came healthcare. Cao infuriated Republicans by supporting the Democratic bill, ignoring the No. 2 GOP House leader who sat at his right elbow throughout the cliff-hanging vote, urging solidarity. The bill squeaked through on a tally of 219 Democrats and Cao.
The result was a flood of angry phone calls and e-mails, a roasting on talk radio and an unusual statement of reproval from the Louisiana Republican Party. Two of Cao's fundraisers were canceled, and a few contributors asked for their money back. A New Orleans neighbor, who had been friendly, stuck an angry letter in Cao's mailbox. "Very nasty," Cao says, "using words that I have to bleep out, every other word."