Democrats gun for Republican lawmaker who is friendly with President Obama

NEW ORLEANS – Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.) has a friendly relationship with President Obama, but that won’t stop Democrats from trying to oust him in November.

Cedric Richmond, Cao’s Democratic challenger, said he plans to focus on the Cao-Obama relationship this fall. But Richmond has a different take on their bond than the freshman Republican.

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Occupying one of the most Democratic districts in the country, Cao frequently expresses his “love” for Obama.

Earlier this year, the president invited Cao to watch the Super Bowl at the White House, though Cao could not make it because of a snowstorm. Cao says he has visited the Obama White House 10 times.

Cao’s affection for the commander in chief, however, didn’t lead him to vote “yes” on healthcare reform or the stimulus package.

“I think that support of the president is going to be an issue,” said Richmond, an African-American state lawmaker.

Cao also rejected the House climate change bill in 2009 while backing the Wall Street reform measure that was signed into law this summer.

After pointing to Cao’s votes with the GOP minority on major Democratic bills, Richmond cited the loss of the Avondale Shipyard, which is set to close in 2013 at the cost of some 5,000 jobs. Northrop Grumman is moving its operations to Mississippi despite lobbying pressure from the Louisiana delegation on the secretary of the Navy and the Pentagon to intervene.

“If you had a working relationship with the president, things like those wouldn’t happen,” Richmond told The Hill.

Richmond has been trying to forge his own relationship with Obama, having asked the White House for an endorsement from the president.

The endorsement didn’t come during the president’s visit to New Orleans last week, but Richmond said it’s in the works and should come shortly.

“I’ve told his staff it would be a tremendous help,” Richmond said.  

Three out of every four voters in Cao’s district supported Obama in 2008. Some political analysts have said the key to a Richmond victory will be turnout in the heavily African-American district.

Democrats have made it clear they want to capitalize on one of the few pick-up opportunities they have this cycle. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved almost $500,000 in broadcast airtime in New Orleans, sources said. And party leadership, such as Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), are campaigning for Richmond.

But outside support only goes so far in New Orleans, where personal relationships are key.

Former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who held the seat for nine terms, came close to winning a 10th despite facing bribery charges. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He's appealing the verdict. 

Richmond said he thought Jefferson would have defeated Cao had the vote not been delayed until December because of Hurricane Gustav. “He still had his relationships in the community,” Richmond said, who ran against Jefferson in the primary in 2008, finishing third. 

Richmond has since worked hard to forge the kinds of relationships that Jefferson had in the community.

After clinching the Democratic nomination with 60 percent of the vote last Saturday, he was up at dawn the next morning doing television interviews. By 7:30 a.m. he was visiting church services to thank his supporters.

During a stop at First Emanuel Baptist Church, Richmond sat through several rancorous hymns before Pastor Charles Southall, whom he calls a mentor, entered the sanctuary and invited him to the pulpit.

“I just wanted to come and say thank you,” Richmond said, as many in the crowd nodded or called out in support. “I know whose shoulders I stand on after last night, and that this community wants and desires change.”

Southall, who is backing Richmond, said afterward that Cao had attended Sunday services in the past, though not recently.

“He attended once before, but during this campaign he has not called and he has not asked to attend,” Southall said. “For me one visit or two visits doesn’t build a relationship."

Southall said he would be happy to host Cao again, but “he’s acting like we don’t exist.”

He hadn’t heard if Cao was visiting other African-American churches in New Orleans.

“All I know is what he’s not doing," Southall said.

Richmond agreed.

“He’s nonexistent,” the Democrat said. “These are things he would go to – but he’s not making the community events. We’re going to outwork him.”

The Rev. Byron Clay, who supports Cao, said the congressman is courting African-American church goers on Sundays.

"As much as his schedule will allow him to, he takes the intiative to do that," Clay said. "He's making inroads because of who he is."

Cao, the first Vietnamese-American elected to the House, maintains a busy schedule of public events. In the week leading up to the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he attended a hurricane recovery congressional hearing in Chalmette, the announcement of a $20 million grant at the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans and a Hurricane Katrina remembrance ceremony in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Voters "will judge based on my record," Cao told The Hill, citing "the tremendous amount of money that we've brought down through the various entities — pushing money through [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and bringing money down through federal earmarks.

"The issues will be post-Katrina recovery, post-Katrina reconstruction and post-oil recovery," he said. "There's a lot of things that we still need to do."

Despite a House GOP Conference moratorium on earmarks, Cao – along with a couple other Republicans in the lower chamber – have continued to seek earmarks.

His supporters are confident the community will reelect him in November.

"He's going to win this race and he's going to win it with African-American support," Clay said.