First Vietnamese American congressman on how to fight political apathy

Editor’s note: This story was chosen as one of our top 12 in 2010. Joseph Cao has one of those amazing life stories that draw people in. He was a Vietnamese refugee who came to the United States and earned degrees in physics and philosophy. He originally wanted to be a priest, but politics called to him. He was elected to Congress running on a Republican platform in an overwhelmingly Democrat district. We had hopes that his upward momentum would continue, but in 2010, he was defeated in his re-election bid. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Cao.

By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly

Joseph Cao at Tea Palace Restaurant on July 30 (Photo by Ninette Cheng/NWAW)

Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), the country’s first Vietnamese American member of Congress, paid a visit to Seattle on July 30. At Renton’s Tea Palace, Cao spoke about youth activism, the Vietnamese American political landmark, and the American–Vietnamese relationship.

Cao represents Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, a traditionally democratic and almost 60 percent Black district. He is a freshman representative up for re-election this year. Notably, he is the only Republican to vote in favor of health care reform.

Trong Pham, president of the Washington Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, organized the dim sum luncheon at Tea Palace. An intimate group of approximately 60 guests came to hear Cao, Pham, and a number of Vietnamese professionals in the community speak.

Rep. Cao’s theme of the afternoon was political activism amongst the Vietnamese American community. He explained that there is a problem with political apathy in the community. Cao stated that Asians make up 4 percent of the U.S. population, but only 2 percent of Congress.

“Several months back, I visited a Vietnamese American Catholic church in northwest Georgia,” Cao said.

“While I was there, they took me exactly 10 yards over and showed me the future location of a waste transfer station. The city of Norcross voted to rezone that area to allow a waste transfer station to be rebuilt there. The Vietnamese community had only cast 40 votes. Our lack of political activism can literally lead to people dumping trash on our heads.”

Cao, who lost his own home during Hurricane Katrina, also cites Katrina’s effect on the Vietnamese community of Versailles in New Orleans. After Katrina, the residents rebuilt the community faster than many other areas in the city, but they were threatened by a toxic landfill being built two miles away.

Versailles’ residents fought back and made Vietnamese presence felt in New Orleans.

Cao believes that there is no better time than now to become active and that the future of the Vietnamese American community lies in the youth.

“My primary purpose [here] is to ask our young people to be involved because our young people will be the future of our community,” he said.

Tea Palace Restaurant owner Duc Tran (left) with Congressman Joseph Cao (Photo by Ninette Cheng/NWAW)

When asked how, Cao said the youth must return to the basics to truly understand the issues.

“I believe the first step is to get more involved at the grassroots level,” he said. “Know and understand the issues that the community is facing. Obviously, with many minorities, there are various issues that affect them, and it’s important that the young people know what they are to advocate for them.”

On Aug. 1, Cao went to the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) to speak to Vietnamese American youth.

Thao Tran, a City of Seattle mayoral assistant, spoke at the event and may just be the type of young person Cao is looking for.

After Tran heard about the BP oil spill, he canceled his vacation and headed to Louisiana to volunteer.

“I immediately thought about the Vietnamese community because we were victims in Katrina, so I changed my plans,” Tran said. “I looked on the website; Catholic churches were looking for Vietnamese interpreters, and I was the only one that called them. They were so happy.”

Tran met a man who worked on a shrimp boat and raised 10 children.

“I was so moved by his story,” Tran said. “All that hard work, and he raised 10 children. They all went to college. But because of this BP oil spill, he does not know where his future lies. I hear these stories, and I’m wondering, ‘Where are we?’ I can’t stand to see that our history and our heritage are attacked all the time. We allow ourselves to be second-class citizens.”

Cao said Vietnamese Americans need to stand up for themselves.

“We do not have enough people to represent the Asian American communities in this country,” Cao said.

“My challenge here for many of us is to say, ‘What can I do to improve my community?’ I’m here to encourage you to take hold of that future and to make sure that we have a pathway to get there. Often times, we do these things because it is the need that calls, it is the commitment, it is a duty. I, as a Vietnamese American, see that it is my duty to represent the Vietnamese American community here.”

Cao also campaigned in favor of Dino Rossi (R), a Washington U.S. senatorial candidate who also attended the event.

When asked what the two could accomplish in Washington, Cao said the first step was to actually see where Rossi stands.

“We have to sit down and discuss the issues and see where he stands on the issue of human rights, and  we have to look at some of the other issues that affect the Vietnamese community such as immigration, possibly issues of health care.”

Tom Truong attended the event to connect with the Vietnamese community.

“I was invited to celebrate, promote, and support Congressman Joe Cao,” he said. “It’s just an honor to meet him and to be inspired.”

Cao stressed a message of urgency at the event.

“Our voices have to begin right now,” he said. “If we do not speak out for our own people, then who will speak out for them?” ♦

Ninette Cheng can be reached at

5 Responses to “First Vietnamese American congressman on how to fight political apathy”

  1. Cindy Ryu says:

    The best political advice I ever heard is from Lloyd Hara – shortly before I was elected to my first office, he said “Cindy, do a good job while you’re in office.” Like former Congressman Cao, I’ve won & lost before and worked hard to be heard, I know the best way to be at the table is to be in office and be one of the policy makers.

    Since politicians make all the policy decisions, I hope more of our smart, young people consider this sometimes thankless job as a way of serving our communities.


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