During his brief but groundbreaking stint representing Louisiana's majority African-American and Democratic 2nd Congressional District, Anh "Joseph" Cao was described as an "accidental" congressman so often that the word might as well have been part of his title.
Although California filmmaker Leo S. Chiang doesn't clue viewers in to his protagonist's fate until the waning frames of his new documentary Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, Cao's former constituents know just how his story ends: Cao, the unknown Vietnamese-American Republican and political newcomer who had finished off now-convicted African-American Democrat William Jefferson in 2008, lost the seat two years later to another black Democrat, Cedric Richmond.
For many of us who watched in real time, the election itself didn't carry much suspense either. Although Cao embraced a president who was beloved by his constituents but demonized by his fellow Republicans — and although he sometimes, but not always, broke party ranks to back Barack Obama's agenda — the outcome of his re-election effort felt predetermined. The names on the ballot may have been Cao and Richmond, but the practical choice was between Obama and the Tea Party-driven GOP, between gratitude for and virulent opposition to initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." In this district and with this electorate, Richmond held all the cards.
None of which makes Cao's rise and fall any less fascinating. And it doesn't make Chiang's documentary any less thought-provoking. The film won the 2012 New Orleans Film Festival's Audience Award for documentary feature after an October screening at the Prytania Theater, and it makes its national broadcast debut at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3, on WYES-TV.
While there's an election at stake in the film, the real tension in this narrative is the deeper question of whether someone like Cao can exist in today's Washington at all.
Chiang's story is a classic fish-out-of-water tale.
That's not because Cao arrived in Washington with no political experience. Nor is it that he was the first Vietnamese-American politician to win a seat in Congress, an accomplishment that shocked national Asian-American groups as much as it stunned many local voters. While Chiang takes his audience inside eastern New Orleans' Vietnamese-American enclave (his earlier film, A Village Called Versailles, chronicled the community's comeback after Hurricane Katrina), and while the film has been widely featured on the Asian-American festival circuit, it's not really about Cao's ethnic identity at all.
What sets Cao apart is the fact that he could stand in for pretty much anyone who doesn't fit the narrow mold — and doesn't want to. An earnest one-time seminarian who skipped the priesthood for politics because he thought he could do more to bring about change, he became a Republican mainly because the GOP recruited him first. Like the idealistic Mr. Smith, the iconic Jimmy Stewart character in the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington who inspired the documentary's title, Cao was an outsider to Washington's ways, in this case to the culture of professional, hyper-partisan politics.
Cao's attempts to do things his way often led to deep frustration. Exhibit A was his very public struggle with perhaps the most divisive issue of Obama's first term: the battle to enact health care reform. Cao liked much of the bill's intent to expand access to coverage, and he knew that it would benefit many of his constituents. But he also faced pressure from the Republican caucus to be part of a united front. During an initial vote, he broke ranks, made headlines and earned Obama's gratitude by casting the only GOP vote for the measure. During the final and decisive vote, though, he flipped and voted "no" because, he said, he feared the Senate-passed version didn't do enough to prevent federal money from paying for abortion.
In the end, he didn't make anyone happy. Not the voters, to whom he mass-mailed a copy of the explanation he'd written to the president, in the hopes they'd understand. Not Republican supporters, many of whom had expected him to vote like one of them. Not Democrats, who gave him no credit for his willingness to at least consider crossing lines. And not Obama, who cut a television commercial for Richmond, knowing the Democrat would be a reliable vote for both his agenda and for Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker.
Cao, whose two daughters are shown sharing some warm moments with both Obama and his wife Michelle, seems genuinely shocked and crushed that the president he liked so much would back his opponent — a reaction that highlights, as much as anything, his innocence.
Winnie Brown, his fundraising consultant, all but rolls her eyes at the notion that Obama would do anything else under the circumstances. Cao really did embody the whole Mr. Smith idea, she says, and "that's a blessing and a curse at the same time."
Larger themes aside, the film also serves as an entertaining slice of New Orleans political life. The city looks great, as does the ex-congressman's proud, charming family. Cao himself is endearing and thoughtful, if often befuddled or visibly uncomfortable with what's going on around him. The film captures his wonder as well as his impatience. It also shares his sense of gallows humor at the less lofty aspects of his new life. Interviewed as he was preparing to learn his fate, Cao likens the experience to "waiting to see the dentist before you get your teeth pulled out."
Chiang gets the dynamics of the re-election contest, and places them in near-perfect context. He may not quite fully explain just how much of a fluke his subject's initial victory was. Cao didn't just beat Jefferson; he won in a low-turnout December election that, after the Democratic primary, many voters considered a formality — but that's an insider quibble.
The filmmaker also captures Cao's supporters' palpable affection for their candidate.
One of those diehards is Brown, who comes off as something of a political life coach, taking Cao under her wing and guiding him through the unpleasant task of dialing for dollars (Brown is one of several Cao supporters who also openly wishes for rain on election day in order to minimize turnout). Another is former New Orleans City Councilman Bryan Wagner, as physically imposing and seasoned as Cao is slight and green. Wagner signed Cao up as a Republican and helped launch his Congressional bid; on election night 2010, he's shown offering a sweet pep talk while delivering the bad news.
In the opposite corner, of course, is the congressman-in-waiting, a longtime state representative who Cao says he found too tainted to serve. Keying in on police records of a bar fight, the temporary suspension of Richmond's law license after he claimed two different domiciles in election qualifying papers — and unconfirmed rumors of worse — Cao describes his opponent as a "bad person" with a "very questionable character." He also insists that voters should consider such things as much or more than party identification.
Ironically, Cao's harsh judgment of his opponent probably hurt Cao as well. By Louisiana standards, the allegations against Richmond were "penny ante" stuff, former Times-Picayune reporter Jonathan Tilove says, while Cao's negative attacks tarnished his own "good guy image."
While it's outside the scope of the film, the same could be said of a surprising interview Cao gave Tilove after his election loss, when he briefly considered running for statewide office as a Republican. After the fact, Cao all but renounced some of the seemingly sincere votes he cast in Congress, including one for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which he dismissed as simply voting his district. The interview came off as a clunky and cynical attempt to reposition himself to appeal to a more conservative electorate, and it raised an intriguing question:
Clearly Cao didn't change Washington, as he'd set out to do. But in the end, did Washington change him?
— Mr. Cao Goes to Washington airs nationally on PBS Jan. 3. In New Orleans, it can be seen at 8 p.m. on WYES-TV. For more information, visit www.mrcaofilm.com.