Embattled Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson lost his House seat to upstart Republican Anh Cao in the heavily Democratic Second Congressional District. Cao (pronounced “gow”) made history by becoming the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. He beat Jefferson, a nine-term incumbent, winning 50 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 47 percent. The loss by Jefferson reduces the Congressional Black Caucus by one vote in the 111th Congress.
For Jefferson it was the latest setback in what has been a fairly swift fall from grace. Once considered unbeatable, Jefferson faced a 16 count federal indictment in 2007 alleging money laundering and bribery after the F.B.I. found $90,000 in a freezer in his home. Still, he had significant support in New Orleans, a city not unaccustomed to scandal and flamboyant political figures.
Cao was a Vietnam refugee at age 8 and is a former Jesuit priest. He is a recent convert to the Republican Party and had been an independent with no expressed ideological preference. He left the priesthood, became a lawyer and community activist working on behalf of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. His home was one of the thousands that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Jefferson’s defeat is one of the year’s political shockers. Barack Obama won the district with 75 percent of the vote. The outcome of the election is all the more surprising given that Blacks comprise 60 percent of the district. Black voters, however, stayed away from the polls; an indication that they had grown tired with the scandals surrounding Jefferson. White voters turned out in force, voting overwhelmingly for Cao.
The loss of Jefferson may represent a turning point for Black politics as Black voters in the Second Congressional District abandoned any semblance of loyalty to the incumbent. Incumbents rarely are turned out of Congress, and Black voters tend to demonstrate fierce loyalty to elected officials who run into trouble. However, one outcome of Barack Obama’s success may be a new level of intolerance by Black voters for less than pristine behavior by their political leadership. The fact that Black voter turnout was estimated at only 12 percent, after turning out in droves for Obama last month, suggests voters made a conscious decision to not vote as a protest against Bill Jefferson.
Though he is a registered Republican, Cao will be hard pressed to represent the concerns of Black constituents in the district or face a challenge in two years. Since whites are a minority in the district he is going to have to build support in the Black community if a serious Black candidate emerges as a potential challenger. Given that he just recently switched to the GOP he may function more as an independent than a Republican which may allow him to gain the confidence of Black constituents.