Host: Brian Lamb
Guests: Reps. Larry Kissell (D-N) & Ahn ”Joseph” Cao (R-LA)
January 11, 2009
BRIAN LAMB, Q&A: Larry Kissell, what was your first thought when somebody said to you, ”You have won your campaign to be a Congressman?”
LARRY KISSELL, DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSMAN, NORTH CAROLINA: The thrill that I had for the people that had worked so hard to make this happen mine was literally a grassroots campaign from the very beginning. So many people invested so much of themselves and their time and their belief in me, it was just a very humbling experience.
So to know that we you know I always referred to it as a great big we campaign that we had won, I felt so excited for those people.
LAMB: What’s the district? What are some of the communities in the district?
KISSELL: Well, it’s a very diverse district. It’s South Central part of North Carolina. We have Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in the Western part, and we have just a small part of that a pretty big percentage of our overall population.
Cabarrus County, Concord, Kannapolis, which is a metropolitan type area transcending to rural areas into the middle part of the state which is very rural and very hard hit with the loss of textile jobs moving into the Eastern part of the district, very much an agricultural district and what you might think of as an Eastern North Carolina, large farms, flat lands, and we finish up in the Eastern part of the district in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Cumberland County, which is a we’re proud to say is home of Fort Bragg. So we have a very strong military presence there. And the military is growing there because Fort Bragg is expanding. It’s going to become much more important to us than what it has been.
So we’re excited about that.
LAMB: Who did you beat?
KISSELL: I beat a gentleman named Robin Hayes.
LAMB: Now, you two have something in common: textiles.
LAMB: Explain the difference then. Who was he? And who are you?
KISSELL: Well, his family was the Cannon family, very important, very influential. He helped central part of North Carolina in the Cabarrus County area for many years with Cannon Mills. And that was his family.
So he was in the ownership. Myself, I worked in the mills at administration, different jobs, whether it be in the office area for a while and I finished up in the manufacturing area. So I was it was a large mill. We had as many as 1,200 people working there at one time. And so I had many different jobs there. But I was at the working end and never did not own the mill.
LAMB: What town was the mill in?
KISSELL: The mill was in a little town called Star, North Carolina.
LAMB: And what did it make?
KISSELL: We made socks, many, many different types of socks. And at one time we were making as many as 200,000 dozen a week, which is a lot of socks.
LAMB: Were there brand labels on the socks?
KISSELL: You know it’s interesting that in the sock business, the brand name really never took hold like in maybe, say, underwear we have you know a couple major companies. And eventually one of those two major companies bought us. And we worked with them for 10 years as they did put a brand name to the sock business.
LAMB: But you used to be Fruit of the Loom?
KISSELL: It was Fruit of the Loom. I wasn’t sure I could say that or not.
LAMB: Go ahead and say anything.
KISSELL: I worked 10 years with Fruit of the Loom.
LAMB: What year were you born and what town? And what was your family like?
KISSELL: I was born in 1951 in a little town called Biscoe, which in Montgomery County, North Carolina, which is 3 miles away from that textile town of Star, so it was all home.
My mom was a school teacher. My dad she was from Western Tennessee and came to Montgomery County during the depression days and got a job there teaching. My dad grew up in Biscoe, a decorated World War II veteran, worked in the post office until he retired.
So I grew up there and went to Wake Forest University and got an economics degree, actually came back to Montgomery County, worked a year with Union Carbide then I switched to the textiles where I worked for 27 years. I worked for three different companies but it was all in the same plant as we were sold a couple times. And I still live in Montgomery County just outside that town of Biscoe.
LAMB: Why did you decide to leave the textile company and go into teaching? And where do you teach or where did you teach and how long were you there and what years?
KISSELL: Well, I’m a believer in that you have callings. And I had worked in textiles for 27 years. And one of the aspects of my life that I enjoy considerably is bicycle riding. And I had been taking weeklong bicycle trips in different places.
And in the summer of 2000, I happened to be in Colorado. And we were camping at schools. And it was just something and sometimes if you’re not in education maybe this sounds a little strange but it’s something about the smell of a school. And we were camping there and I got to thinking about teaching. It’s something I had wanted to do later in my life, maybe as a second career.
And we were we had not lost our job and we were not in danger of being shut down in the plant I was working with, but we were you know it just wasn’t the same being in textiles. So I came back, made a decision I wanted to see what was available in teaching. It was a week before school started. I said, ”If they’re going to need somebody, they’re going to need somebody now.”
It turns out that they needed a high school social studies teacher, which is my love. And I said, ”Well, that’s my sign. That’s something I’m supposed to do.” So I literally quit my job on a Monday, started teaching on Tuesday and once again, this was the early fall of 2001 and I stayed in teaching all the way through this past school year in June of 2008, and I took a leave of absence in the fall for the campaign.
LAMB: Depending on how you look at the job of a Congressman, you’ve gone from what I understand is a $32,000 a year job to $169,300 job a year.
KISSELL: That’s what they tell me. I know where I was. And I actually was a little bit more than that but you know I hadn’t really thought too much about where I’m going.
You know when I went into teaching, I didn’t think about what the pay for a starting teacher would be. It was, as I mentioned, a calling. It was something I wanted to do. And I wanted to contribute back to young people as high school teachers had contributed to me. And much like the calling to run for Congress you know the financial end of it is just something, it is what it is. The motivation for doing that was you know something very different.
LAMB: You lost the first time around in 2006 by a little over 300 votes to Robin Hayes.
KISSELL: Yes, sir.
LAMB: Why’d you lose?
KISSELL: You know it was when I decided to run you know the wheels of North Carolina politics didn’t stop and say, ”OK, Larry Kissell decided to run for Congress.” To say that I was unknown is an injustice to the use of the word unknown. People had obviously no idea who I was.
But for reasons that were important to me, I felt we needed to have somebody who’d advocate these positions. And nobody was doing it. So I said, ”I’m going to run for Congress.”
Well, the miracle of that coming close and we didn’t win but the miracle of that even coming close was that people in the district listened. They listened to a school teacher. They listened to this ex textile worker from a small part, rural part, of the state. It’d been just so easy to say, ”Hey, this guy hasn’t got a chance.”
But they listened, and we ran that grassroots campaign I talked about before. And we hung around. And people kept saying, ”No, he hasn’t got a chance. No, he hasn’t got a chance.” And we came within 329 votes.
LAMB: Let me ask you a small thing. I don’t think I’ve asked anybody this. I noticed that people go from being ”I” when they are in a normal job somewhere to being ”we” once they’ve been elected to Congress. And then every time they talk about the campaign it’s we. Why is it that you’ve adopted that?
KISSELL: I won’t even say I adopted it. That was the way in when I worked in textiles, it was always we. Matter of fact, sometimes my campaign team has said, ”Larry, you can’t say ”we”. You’ve got to say, ”I”. And I said, ”No. It’s not ”I”. It is ”we.” I looked at that when I worked in the mills. It was always what we did together. I looked at that in high school. It was always what we did together. And it’s always been in the campaign what we did together.
LAMB: Now, you worked in a textile company and you were a manager. And Robin Hayes comes from a Cannon family, that famous name in textiles. One’s a Republican and one’s a Democrat. You lost to him last time. You won this time. What was the difference?
KISSELL: Well, the issues that we talked about in 2006 just got worse in 2008. We had created a lot of momentum in 2006 as people listened to what we had to say. And we got out and spread the message. That message resonated even more loudly in terms of 2008.
The 8th District I’m sure like a lot of districts in the 8th District which I know, you’ve got to get out and meet the people. You’ve got to talk to them. They were comfortable with I knew what their lives were like. I had worked in the mills. I was a school teacher. I was and still am a working family. And I could relate to their lives and talk about the issues of their lives in a way that they thought connected.
And so that was the difference. And we just had a little more time and we just continued with the messages that we were talking about.
LAMB: Give me something that you’ve said during the campaign or even the last time around that you’re not going to do as a Congressman that you saw either your predecessor do or other members of Congress.
KISSELL: Well, I think the bond that you have between an elected representative and I’ve been told this always remember your job description and job title are one in the same. You’re a representative. And to you know you’ve got to remember the people you represent that you’re there to speak for them and their interest and not the interest of the political party.
So that’s one thing I will not do to in the terms of words you were using, I will not do. I will not put the political party ahead of the interest of people. I want to very much be a person who raises the issues of working people because I know the suffering that has been taking place.
So many of our people in our district had been hurting a long time before the economy of the, say, the whole country got bad this past year. We’ve been hurting for some time. So I wanted to I wanted to make sure I’m speaking with that voice consistently. And to I want to put meaning to working in a bipartisan way, to find some common ground where we can move this nation forward and start to solve the issues.
LAMB: Is it true that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over here in Congress, the ones that help guide people running for election out there, all the part of the House of Representatives, gave you support in the range of $2.4 million for this last campaign?
KISSELL: That is true, as compared to the year 2006 when we came within 329 votes when we had no support.
LAMB: Did they tell you they weren’t going to even support you?
KISSELL: They I think they kept they liked what we did. They liked who we were. But their polls showed we had no chance. Now, they’re I think even within a week of the election, their polls were showing us double digits down, and we came within 329 votes.
That gets a lot of attention. And so this time around they knew we could win. This was a targeted district and so they gave us the support that we didn’t have the last time. And we won.
LAMB: And you spent over a million dollars yourself?
LAMB: So the total amount of money, $3.5 million spent on your behalf in this campaign.
LAMB: What could you spend it on in a community some of these small communities like yours?
KISSELL: Well you know we have the same population base that any other congressional district has. And it’s about getting the message out, telling people what and I’ll use the word ”I” this time what I believe and creating those that bond of trust, letting people know that I understand their lives. I’ve been there. I’ve lived in the district. I know what it’s like to have a budget at work, to have a family, the concerns about you know how are we going to pay all these bills? You know when gas is going up, when healthcare is going up you know all the concerns of the people of the district.
I’m there. We were able to convey that.
LAMB: What happens now that you’re in Washington and you’re becoming a member of Congress, what happens when that Democratic Party comes to you and says, ”$2.4 million, vote this way or else next time we’re not going to do it.”
KISSELL: Well, if it’s going against the interest of the district, if it’s going against what I believe then it’s certainly going to be the what else because, once again, I represent the people of the district. That’s my job title. That’s my job description.
LAMB: So what had?
KISSELL: I had never run for an office before in my life. I ran because of the need to change. And we went against all odds of winning. I’m not going to get up here and do the things that caused me to run in the first place. It just won’t happen.
so when you were a teacher, what were your classes like? How many did you teach a day, how many classes, how many students in them, and what was the subject matter?
KISSELL: Well, once again, I was a high school studies teacher. I taught anything from world geography. I actually taught an earth science course a couple semesters, which I really enjoyed. But my two basic courses were world history and civics, and civics being inclusion of economics also.
I had mostly freshman, ninth graders. In my civics classes it would be mostly sophomores, 10th graders. Anywhere from 15, 20, up to 30 students. We had four classes a day. We’re North Carolina, at least where we are, is what is is on what is called a block system where each class is an hour and a half long and you have four classes a day. And you finish that course in a semester. You have two semesters. You’re in high school.
So it was you know you’re there a long time. So you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to change what you’re doing around a little bit because the attention span of young people is not the longest. And so that could be a part of the fun but also part of the challenge is to keep their interest.
LAMB: What did you notice in the students in the classroom when they knew you were going to run for Congress?
KISSELL: Well, one of the reasons for running is when I looked into the eyes of my students and started thinking about what my generation was doing to their generation and making their future so uncertain is versus, say, the greatest generation the World War II generation the great things they did for myself and my generation. You know it’s just we need people that are going to start say what we’ve got to change things. We’ve got to do things differently because we’re for our benefit in the short term, we are short-changing this generation.
So when I looked into the eyes of the students, I said, ”Somebody’s got to do something.” But my kids, when they heard I was running, I’m not sure they realized just what a long shot it would be. So they were just thrilled when they started putting the connection together that what we were studying is what I was doing. They would be remotely engaged in campaigning and knowing I was out doing things. But I never talked about the campaign and never talked about issues other than what was in the lessons.
You know so what they knew about they just knew about. And I had two daughters at the high school, so you know just the friends of the friends you know it kind of they got involved, too. So there was excitement there.
LAMB: So you ran in 2006 and lost and you ran in 2008 and won, 55% of the votes, 30,000 more votes than your opponent. If you were to go back in that classroom today and teach civics, what would you tell them differently about the system since you’ve been involved in it?
KISSELL: Well, I one of the reasons I ran and there are many reasons I ran but I feel this is the greatest nation you know ever. And people are becoming so cynical about our government because they felt government was no longer looking after the interest of them. And the great impression that I got from 2006 and I told my fellow social study teachers is that there are people out there trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. And we should never become so cynical that we disengage from the process.
I think one of the most exciting things about 2008, whether it’s my election or the national election, is how young people and people that have never been involved in politics appreciably got engaged in the process.
So if I was back in the classroom, that’s what I would emphasize to the young people that you have a responsibility and you can affect your future, but you’ve got to be engaged and knowledgeable.
LAMB: Well, let me suggest to you that one of the reasons that some people are cynical is that people like you come to Washington and never leave it. You come and spend 10 years, 20 years, as a member of Congress, then you go down to K Street, set up a lobbying firm and move from $169,000 a year to four times that and never go home. And the people that you say you care about so much never see you again.
What do you say to that?
KISSELL: I’m a very different person.
LAMB: Explain that.
KISSELL: I love where I came from. I had a great life prior to. My wife is going to be she’s a working person. She’s going to be staying in North Carolina. That’s where my home is. And I came to Washington to make a difference, not to make a home.
LAMB: So does that mean that you we’ll never see you stay here and lobby?
KISSELL: I think that is as close to a certain statement as you can make.
LAMB: Why do you think so?
KISSELL: It’s not why that’s not what motivates me. I had never run for office before. I was not I did not know the financial rewards in terms of what you would be paid. That’s not what motivates me.
When I went to teaching, I took a huge pay cut. I’m motivated by that calling. And my calling is not to go to a lobbyist.
LAMB: So what’s the calling? What do you personally want to change here?
KISSELL: I want to make a difference in terms of a voice for the people of the 8th District. It represents the people of the 8th District.
LAMB: But give us more concrete examples.
KISSELL: The working the working people because that feeling that government has disengaged from the interest of working people, that the middle class working poor or whatever you want to call them, is second, third, fourth priority with the mechanisms of government. We want to elevate that to the top and so that we restore that American dream, which is a term we talked about you know a lot throughout the nation, but it’s true.
So many people that have that have that idea that they’re working to make the lives for their children and opportunities for the children better, they’re losing that idea. We want to restore that idea that you know you can create a better life for your children. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the rural part of North Carolina or metropolitan part that you are important and this government is working for you.
LAMB: Have you gotten your committee assignment yet?
KISSELL: Not yet. We I think we’re supposed to in the next couple days find out at least maybe one committee assignment that we, as rookies, will be placed on.
LAMB: What would you prefer?
KISSELL: Well you know they always tell us, don’t tell anybody. Therefore if you don’t get what you want then you don’t have to explain why you didn’t get it. But I’m a school teacher. You know teachers take anything they’re given and make something good out of it.
So I have my preferences, but whatever we’re offered, we’ll be glad to have and we’ll go to work quickly.
LAMB: So far, in preparation for taking this seat, what have you done?
KISSELL: Well, beyond the campaign you know for what happened on November 5, we’re placing a great emphasis on the district. I’m doing something a little bit different. My chief of staff is going to be based in North Carolina in the 8th District and will come to Washington on a needs basis instead of being up here and go to the district on a needs basis.
We’ve added a district office over in the eastern part of the district, over where I talked about where Federal and Fort Bragg are, Cumberland County, Hoke County. We set up a constituency services office there. So they didn’t have one in that area.
So we’re going to go with three district offices because we’re so wide. That way we can serve the people. So our emphasis is going to be upon the district. So we’ve been working hard to get staff hired so we can be ready to go tomorrow in terms of serving the people.
We’ve been out walking you know just like the campaign and talking to the people and finding out what their concerns are, interest in meeting with the groups like economic developers, chamber of commerce, local government. The economy is priority number one, and we want to hit the ground running.
LAMB: Have you gotten calls from people outside of your district since you’ve been elected who are in the business lobbying and want your attention and want your support for issues?
KISSELL: Not so much. You know not yet. I know that will come, but not yet. You know we’ve had calls from outside the district, of course, and people that can we had great amount of support from outside the district because people looked at this campaign as refreshing, something different, where somebody does stand up against the odds and say, ”We can do better and won.”
So we’ve had a lot of support, a network of support, from outside the district. So we’ve had a lot of calls from outside the district. But the lobbying efforts, no. No. We haven’t seen that.
LAMB: Who has supported you outside the district? And how did you feel about support, besides the $2.4 million that came out of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?
KISSELL: Well you know just individuals, educators. You’re looking at a teacher running for Congress. Working people, regular people. You know I don’t know who they are. That’s what’s so amazing about it. These are people that just you know supported the campaign, maybe some financially, maybe through just writing that note saying that you know that you know you are an inspiration. Your campaign’s an inspiration. It gives us hope just you know throughout the United States.
LAMB: Who did your district vote for president in 2004?
KISSELL: George Bush.
LAMB: Who did they vote for in 2008?
KISSELL: Mr. Obama.
LAMB: What changed?
KISSELL: Well, I think you know one difference was that we had been working hard since the end of the election 2006 and talking to people, the issues that we talked about, the empowering working people, the economy was a lot of the things that President-Elect Obama talked about.
We had been registering new voters when the Obama team came in. They registered new voters. We had a great, great field effort and get out the vote, put it all together. It changed.
And the issues. People had you know we tried something. People said it’s not working. We want to try something else.
LAMB: Did the national group want to send in people to run your campaign?
KISSELL: Well, they if they did, they never were heavy-handed about it. We had a great campaign team. They we brought some field people in through them, did a great job. So it was very much a team effort, but it’s very much a Larry Kissell campaign, too.
LAMB: What does your wife do for a living?
KISSELL: She’s in education. She’s a school psychologist by training. But she’s now a student services administrator in a neighboring county, so she’s over like social workers, counselors, school psychologists and different programs support the students of that neighboring county.
LAMB: And your daughters how old are they and where are they now?
KISSELL: My oldest daughter is a freshman in college. And she’s at Wake Forest University. And my youngest daughter’s a sophomore at East Montgomery High School, which is the high school where I went and where I was a teacher.
LAMB: So since you’ve been here in this town how long have you been here, by the way?
KISSELL: I came up last night.
LAMB: For the first time?
KISSELL: Well you know back and forth but you know we spent a week after election for kind of orientation week and getting to know some of the freshman Congress people and just finding out some of the details of what we’d be doing. But I officially moved up last night.
LAMB: So what would you say how would you profile the fellow members of Congress so far that you’ve met? What kind of people are they compared to you?
KISSELL: Well, I’m going to talk about my fellow freshman, the class of ’08. I have been so impressed with them that they truly seem to have the best interest of the nation at heart. They’re not talking about what they want to do. They’re talking about how they want to change things, how they want to work together with members of both parties to make an impact.
There’s 50-some members in this new class. And we feel that if we set out to work together then we can help change the business-as-usual atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
LAMB: Do you think that’s any different than any other freshman class that’s come to Washington in Congress?
KISSELL: Haven’t been there before. I don’t know. I can only address what I feel about this. And I just feel that there are people of high character. And they have many different backgrounds. A lot of people coming out of you know helping you know poor, being involved in overseas efforts to you know as NGOs to help people there.
I’m impressed with the backgrounds and knowledge. I’m impressed with the people.
LAMB: Let’s take the change and let’s take one issue: Iraq. When Barack Obama ran, he said that, ”I’ll have all those troops out of there in 16 months.” Did you support that idea? And do you think you will?
KISSELL: In 2006 I took the position that we had three missions in Iraq. It was, number one, look for weapons of mass destruction. Thank goodness there weren’t any. Number two, get rid of Saddam Hussein. We got rid of Saddam Hussein. Number three was to give the people of Iraq a democracy. They had a democracy.
I felt the problems that we had in Iraq was because we stayed beyond our missions. Our troops did an incredible job. They did everything they were asked. We stayed beyond the mission. I called for a phase-out of the troops even in 2006 because we had stayed beyond that mission.
So I was calling for this in the campaign of 2006. Obviously it didn’t happen. And so I’m we’re to the point where now it’s going to happen, and I’m glad about that. We’ve got to get ready for the next mission: Afghanistan. We know that issue’s there. But we’ve got to get ready for that next mission, wherever it might be.
Our troops will do whatever we ask them and do it in an incredible way. But we’ve got to make sure that we’re asking them for the right missions.
LAMB: Would you constituency be let down if we didn’t get out of Iraq in 16 months?
KISSELL: Well you know the 8th District, once again, we have Fort Bragg there. We’re very, very proud of our armed services, especially our soldiers there at Fort Bragg. They want to get out of Iraq overall. But they want to do it in a way that you know we phase out. We’re very careful in the way it’s going to happen. And it is going to happen. It’s going to happen.
LAMB: Why do you think people are so cynical about Congress?
KISSELL: Congress has become you know too partisan. The issues that they take on all to often don’t affect the and this term is way over used but the kitchen table issues. They didn’t realize how much our people were hurting.
You know long time before Wall Street went down, our people were hurting, the working people between energy prices and healthcare, college tuition, prescription drugs and you know of course, that’s part of healthcare. Our people were struggling to make ends meet. And Congress you know was dealing with that. We were watching way too many jobs leave, good jobs leave, and not good jobs coming back in.
So I think that’s why people became cynical.
LAMB: By the way, when you left the textile company to go teach seven years ago, what happened to the textile company?
KISSELL: About a year later they shut down.
KISEELL: There was no indication to me. Now, obviously I knew we were never going to grow and expand and be as vibrant as what we were at one time when we were at 1,200 people.
And you know one thing about the textile is that is often overlooked is textile’s made a lot of changes toward modernization. We put in incredible efficiencies that in any other business it would have made us very, very successful. But because of policies that our government undertook, it became better. Our companies moved the jobs elsewhere, and they moved so quickly our people were just left without opportunity.
And that’s where we’ve got to change the formula. We’ve got to give those people an opportunity because they’re incredibly hardworking people, good people. All they want is that opportunity.
But it did happen real quick. There was no indication at the time when I left that it was going to shut down. I just knew it was time for me to move on.
LAMB: Larry Kissell, thank you very much.
KISSELL: Brian, thank you very much. We appreciate the opportunity, excited to be here, and it’s a great honor to be here. I came in and went to the Capitol last night. My wife and I were just walking around and we just went to the Capitol just to start getting a sense of it. And it’s just a great, humbling experience, but we’re proud to be here.
KISSELL: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Congressman Kissell was sworn in as a member of the 111th Congress Tuesday along with Republican Congressman Ahn Joseph Cao of Louisiana, who we spoke with next.
LAMB: Ahn Joseph Cao, representative from Louisiana’s 2nd District, what are you surprised that all of this is going on? Are you getting all this attention, all this publicity? What’s going on?
AHN JOSEPH CAO, REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN, LOUISIANA: Well, I’m very surprised at the attention and the publicity. Actually, I’m the first American Vietnamese Vietnamese-American to be elected to Congress. But still, I’m still kind of surprised at all the attention I’m getting.
LAMB: Why do you think you’re getting it?
CAO: I think on the one hand that I won in a district that is predominantly Democratic and also African-American. And then on the other hand, also being the first Vietnamese-American Congressmen elected to Congress.
LAMB: Politico Newspaper did the 10 biggest surprises of the last campaign. You’re on that list. And it says if you set out to find an unlikely or new member of Congress then Cao, you’d have to your work cut out for you. A Republican, he’s the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress representing a solidly Democratic district that’s a majority African-American. His New Orleans base seat is the only one in Louisiana that voted for Barack Obama.
CAO: That’s correct. And it’s also the seat that was held by a Democrat for at least 100 years. So it was it has been very difficult for a Republican to even get close to winning the seat. But fortunately for me there was change in the atmosphere. And the people were just ready to have a new face, to convey a new message because, as you know the incumbent, Mr. William Jefferson, has been indicted under 16 counts of federal bribery and corruption and corruption charges.
So the people were tired of the bad image of politics that we’d been having.
LAMB: As you well know that on December 30, this huge article which a lot of people would die for in the Washington Post style section, a dream house. This is all about you and your background. And I want to start by asking you about your background. Where does Kierkegaard, the philosopher, fit in your life?
CAO: Well, as you know after I graduated from Baylor University with a degree in Physics, I decided to join the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, in which I did. I spent 6 years in the Society of Jesus. And it’s when I was exposed to philosophy. I got my master’s in philosophy. And I was very much involved in the field of existentialism. That is a category of philosophical studies.
And that particular field basically asked a lot of questions about human existence, human life, what is the meaning of life, so on and so forth. And that’s and I was doing a lot of that during my six years in the Society of Jesus.
So that’s how Kierkegaard was involved in my life.
LAMB: Were you an ordained Jesuit priest?
CAO: No. I was in the process, in training, to become an ordained Jesuit priest. Usually the formation takes about 12 years. I left after 6 years.
LAMB: Let me just mention a number of places you’ve lived in your life. Saigon.
LAMB: Goshen, Indiana, Houston, Texas, Falls Church, Virginia, Montgomery, Alabama, New Orleans where you are now. You were a missionary in Hong Kong and in China.
LAMB: Let’s go back to the beginning. What year were you born?
CAO: I was born in 1967 in Saigon, Vietnam, and I spent 8 years my first 8 years in Vietnam. In 1975, my mother basically shoved my younger sister and my older brother to my aunt. And she took us on an airplane and flew out of Saigon about three days before the fall. And my mother had to stay back with five of my sisters to wait for my father. So they never got out.
LAMB: Where’s your father today?
CAO: He is living in New Orleans with my mother and with my youngest sister in New Orleans. But after the war, he spent seven close to seven years in the communist reeducation camps.
LAMB: Have you talked to him about that?
CAO: I tried to discuss with him. It’s an issue that he does not readily discuss with anyone, maybe because of the trauma that he experienced in the reeducation camps or the torture or what have you. But he spends a lot of time by himself, does not speak much to anyone.
So it has been a very hard part of his life, I guess, that he doesn’t want to bring back.
LAMB: And he was in the Army, in the Vietnamese Army?
CAO: He was. He was an officer in the Southern Vietnamese Army.
LAMB: Does your mother get him to talk anything about what happened in the reeducation camp?
CAO: I’m pretty sure that after he returned home, after almost seven years, I’m pretty sure that they spoke some. My mother also she does not tell me much about what transpired in the camps.
LAMB: Have you personally been back to Vietnam since 1975?
CAO: I was I’ve been back twice. 1994, as a Jesuit seminarian, I was visiting Vietnam to see some of the work that the societies were doing in Vietnam. And also in 2001 when I took my new bride back to Vietnam on a honeymoon. So those were the two times that I went back.
LAMB: Where’d you go on your honeymoon?
CAO: We’d gone back to Saigon to visit some we visit some family members. I still have a sister back in Vietnam.
LAMB: And your mother had eight children?
CAO: Eight. One of my younger sisters, she was killed after the fall of Saigon. She was hit by a truck and was killed. So now I have six other siblings.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife?
CAO: I met my wife in New Orleans at a religious festival that the Vietnamese parish was having, Our Lady of Lavang. I met her in 1998 after returning to New Orleans and enroll myself in law school at Loyola University.
LAMB: Here’s another photograph that people like you are surprised when you get it. It’s on the front page of Roll Call. And this is from Tuesday’s opening of Congress. Who is this little person right here?
CAO: That is my oldest daughter. That is Sophia. And I’m carrying Betsy, who is my second daughter.
LAMB: Were you surprised that your picture ended up on the front page of Roll Call?
CAO: I was surprised since there are 434 other Congressman, I believe. So I was somewhat surprised.
LAMB: You left Vietnam in 1975. You went to Guam?
LAMB: How long did you stay in Guam?
CAO: We spent about 3 weeks in Guam. And then after that we were transferred to Fort Jeffrey, Arkansas where we waited for a sponsor. We I mean, my uncle and I, I met my uncle he was single then in Guam. And then my aunt, who already had about two or three children of her own, took in my brother. And then she left my uncle I left with my uncle and went with him to Fort Jeffrey (ph) Arkansas waiting for a sponsor.
And we were eventually sponsored by a Lutheran family, the Shrocks family in Goshen, Indiana, a quite wealthy family.
LAMB: And how long were you there with them?
CAO: We stayed we lived in Goshen for about 4 years, 4 years. My uncle got married in ’78 and then eventually we moved down to Mississippi, spent one year there from ’79 to ’80. And then subsequently, his family and I, we moved to Houston where I grew up attending middle school and high school years in Houston.
LAMB: When did you learn English?
CAO: At the age of eight when I first came over. They the school system there decided to put me back into the first grade to learn the basics of the English language. So I started to learn when I was eight years old.
LAMB: But if you look at the list of your education, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a BS in 1990; Fordham University in New York City, a masters in 1995 in the philosophical resources.
CAO: Correct. That’s a masters in philosophy.
LAMB: And then in 2000, a law degree from Loyola University there in New Orleans.
LAMB: Let’s go back. You left Goshen after four years. You went to Mississippi. Where does Falls Church, Virginia fit in to all this?
CAO: After six years in the Society of Jesus, I decided to leave because of several issues. One, because I wanted to be politically involved and one cannot be both a Catholic priest and a politician. That was pretty much explicit under Pope John Paul II.
And then also I wanted a family. I wanted a wife and I wanted children. So because of those two issues, I decided to leave the Society in 1996. When I left the Society of Jesus, they gave me a small sum of money, which I used mostly to buy a car. And I decided to go and live with my sister who left with me in 1975. And she was living in Falls Church, Virginia at that time with her husband and two children and also with my younger brother with whom I also left with in 1975.
So I decided to go to Virginia to live with her for one year just to reestablish myself and to restart my life over again.
LAMB: Why did the Jesuits give you money when you left?
CAO: Just to they give everyone who leaves the Society of Jesus a small amount of money to start over, because, as you know any kind of income that we made in the Society of Jesus we were not allowed to keep. They all go back to the Society. And we were given a small stipend every month to live on.
So once a person decides to leave, they would give a small amount of money just to help them rent an apartment or to buy a car, just to restart their that person’s life over.
LAMB: Where were you trained in the Society of Jesus?
CAO: I spent two years in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, which is about 20 minutes north of Lafayette. We spent two years in the what they call the first stage of the formation, the Novitiate. But during that time we pretty much sent all of the place to work. I went to Brownsville, to Tijuana, Mexico, to Montgomery, Alabama. We spent a few months here, a few months there, working in various apostolates that’s what they called some of the projects working with mainly the poor, with the elderly, with the handicapped.
So that’s done the first two years. And then afterwards I was sent to New Orleans. I studied philosophy for one year and then went to New York and studied philosophy at Fordham where I got my masters.
LAMB: Katrina, where were you in Katrina? What were you doing?
CAO: Well, the days right before Katrina, I was renovating my house. We bought a house in Venetian Isles in New Orleans East back in 2002. And I was renovating my house. And I the Sunday right before Katrina, I told my wife, ”Honey, we have to pack up and leave. There seems like a big storm is coming. We probably only have to leave for several days and then we come back.” That’s what I told her.
But as it turned out, we were about we spent about a good year and a half away from the house because our house was submerged under 8 feet of water because of Katrina. So it took a while for us to rebuild again.
LAMB: How did you afford to do all of this?
CAO: Well, we were fortunately left enough for it all to be insured. I bought flood insurance and also homeowner’s insurance. So we were insured. It was some time to battle the insurance company to get the necessary funding to rebuild everything that was damaged. But I was fortunate enough to be insured.
LAMB: What kind of law were you practicing?
CAO: I was doing a lot of immigration law and also some personal injury. But I was one of the few Vietnamese attorneys in the City of New Orleans. So I’m basically a general practitioner. People call me with all sorts of questions. A lot of my clients were Vietnamese and they call me with all kinds of issues. So I have to learn a little bit of everything in order to help them.
LAMB: What’s your specific district from which you were elected?
CAO: The district is the 2nd Congressional District in Louisiana, which comprises of most of Orleans parish except for a part of uptown New Orleans, which is predominantly white, and also the Lakeview area, which is also predominantly white. And then it extends into Jefferson parish comprises of Marrero, part of Harvey, Westwego, Waggaman, and it goes into south Kenner.
So that is the 2nd Congressional District. It is about 64% African-American.
LAMB: The Republican Party has, I believe, besides you, three minorities in the entire House of Representatives, all, I think, Cuban-Americans based and from Florida. I may have missed one on that. But why would you, as a minority, pick the Republican Party?
CAO: Well, as you know I’m also a Roman Catholic. And as a Roman Catholic, I’m very much a pro life, and also being a father, having two children, I also espouse the family values that the Republican Party stresses. So based on those basically two ideologies or beliefs that is why I chose the Republican Party.
But then I also chose the Republican Party because they were the first ones that extended their hands out to help me actually. When I was running for state rep in 2007, that was my first run for political office. I was running as an Independent. And Mr. Bryan Wagner, who was a New Orleans City Councilman, also a Republican member, called me and said, ”You know whether you win or lose the race, I would like to talk to you about joining the Republican Party and help with the John McCain campaign,” which I decided to do because, as you know Vietnam owes a great debt to John McCain.
LAMB: So if you look at the numbers, a couple of things. You were not elected on the same day that everybody else was. You were on November 6.
CAO: December 6.
LAMB: I mean, December 6. I’m sorry. That’s a month afterwards.
LAMB: You only got 33,000 votes
to Mr. Jefferson’s 32,000 votes?
LAMB: Roughly, overall. You were unopposed in the Republican primary.
CAO: That is correct.
LAMB: But on Election Day when Mr. Obama was elected, you weren’t running.
CAO: I was not running.
LAMB: Explain all this.
CAO: Well, what happened was that Hurricane Gustav moved most races with primaries back one month because based on Louisiana law, the politicals the political election laws changed from an open primary to a closed primary. And this was the first year that the closed primary system was reinstituted after 30-some odd years of open primaries.
So those races that had challengers requires basically two primary elections. One, to decide the two that would go to run off if no one give 50% plus one vote, which no one did in the Democratic primaries. So because of Hurricane Gustav, the primary was moved from September 6 Hurricane Gustav hit New Orleans on September 1 or 2. And because the state was very much devastated by that, we were we had no power. We were having a hard time finding commissioners, so we had to move the first primary back one-month. Then that subsequently moved everything else back one month.
LAMB: Our previous guest, Democratic Congressman from North Carolina Larry Kissell, a school teacher, first elected this time around, received in that election, both candidates received 282,000 votes. The total in your election on December 6 was 66,482 or something like that, close. You got 33,000. Mr. Jefferson got 31,000. I misstated earlier.
Does that make you anymore less legitimate than the others because you got so few votes? And why did so few vote, do you think, in the election?
CAO: I don’t think that because of the number of votes, I don’t think that really affects the legitimacy of a congressional person or a congressional seat. A congressional seat is a congressional seat whether or not you receive 10 votes or whether or not one receives 100,000 votes.
And I believe that the reason why there was such a low turnout, first and foremost, it was on December 6. People are busy with Christmas shopping. And I guess there was election fatigue with the election of the president and all the primaries right before that. So people were just tired about coming out and vote.
And also, it was also our strategy, really, to target only people that we wanted to come out to vote.
LAMB: What’s the racial mix in your district?
CAO: The racial mix, we have about 64% African-American, 30% white, and about 6% other, which is Asian and Hispanics.
LAMB: How many Vietnamese Americans live around the New Orleans area?
CAO: The New Orleans area, about 18,000, but of the 18,000, we probably have between, I would guess, 3,000 and 5,000 registered voters. And of that, I can’t remember how many came out to vote, but around 30 or 40% of that number came out to vote.
LAMB: Again, these are not precise figures, but when Larry Kissell ran, about $3.5 million was spent on his behalf in winning that district seat in North Carolina, the 8th District. When you ran, if the numbers I have are correct, it’s $113,000.
CAO: No, we spent a little bit more than that. We spent a total of approximately, I would say, about $250,000. Most of that came from local donors who believe in my message and they believe in change. So if you were to read the FEC reports, all of our fundraising were very much local.
LAMB: Now, the report on Mr. Kissell’s side was it was something like $2.5 million was spent by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. How much money did the Republican Party spend to get you elected?
CAO: They spent $42,000. That is the maximum allowed by is it coordinated funds is what they call it, $42,000 in coordinated funds. And then the state party matched the $42,000. So the state party spent approximately $42,000 on the race, which we actually raised for the state party.
And then the national party spent $42,000 in coordinated funds to help with the race.
LAMB: So what do you say and I’m sure you’ve read it 50 times already you are a one-termer. You can’t possibly get reelected.
CAO: Well, they told us that when I first ran that you do not really have a chance of winning this race. We’ve heard that repeatedly. But then again you know people of the 2nd District, they do not vote on party affiliations or really on racial lines. The people of the 2nd District just want a person there who is able to get the job done. So my philosophy is to work very hard and everything else will take care of itself. If the people see that we are working hard, that we are getting things done, that we are addressing the needs of the 2nd District, I believe then the people will vote me back in.
So I don’t take that statement any more seriously than when they told me that I have no chance of winning this race before.
LAMB: Mr. Kissell tells us he’s not moving his family here. What about you?
CAO: We’re still contemplating that issue. As you know I have a five-year-old and a four-year-old daughter. And my daughters and I, we’ve been very, very close. And it’s been difficult to be away from them and they’re for me. So we’re still contemplating not moving them up here.
We’re still looking at some options, but any decision will not be made until they’re finished with the school year.
LAMB: What committee do you want to serve on?
CAO: I was I was lobbying for the transportation and car, the transportation committee and homeland security because those are some of the committees that will be very beneficial for the New Orleans metropolitan area because we have a port system. And also a lot of the stimulus package, the infrastructure that President-Elect Obama is proposing, involves a lot to do with transportation.
So I believe that those two committees will help my district tremendously.
LAMB: What’s your impression of President-Elect Obama?
CAO: Well, I admire President-Elect Obama. I believe that he’s an extremely talented man, a gifted man. And I believe that he can be the great president if he’s willing to work with everyone, including Republicans. I myself I voted for John McCain, but that doesn’t stop me from admiring a person like President-Elect Obama.
LAMB: What would you say is your number one goal while you’re here?
CAO: My number one goal really is to do whatever I can to serve the people of the 2nd District. To bring back the sufficient fund to rebuild the healthcare system down there in New Orleans, to rebuild the educational system, and to do to bring money for coastal restoration. As you know most of the district is still very much devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And parts of it or many parts of it have not yet been rebuilt.
So my main priority is to do whatever I can to work with whomever in order to bring the necessary funding to help revitalize the district.
LAMB: Have you figured out how you’re first going to go about that?
CAO: Well, actually we have some help with Mr. Pete Sessions, the Chairman of the NRCC. Right after the election we asked to for him to help us with pushing some federal grant money down to help the healthcare system down there in New Orleans. And on New Year’s Eve, he walked our grant request to the White House. And based on the information that I received yesterday, the White House approved $126 million $129 million grant for that specific request. I’m not sure whether or not it was something that we worked in conjunction with Pete Sessions or it was something that we all as the Louisiana delegation trying to push for. But we received a grant of $129 million.
LAMB: Who’s Pete Sessions?
CAO: Pete Sessions, he is the Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a Congressman from Texas.
LAMB: And you say was this your initiative? Or it was the entire Louisiana delegation?
CAO: That is something that we’re not very clear. The only part that I know is the part that my staff and I, we were trying to do. We worked closely with Congressman Sessions and also we contacted the White House to push that money through. And yesterday we received the news that it was done.
So we’re happy. I’m not sure what other Congressmen how they were involved in that. I’m not really sure myself. I’m pretty sure that other members of the Louisiana delegation had a work in that also.
LAMB: So your impressions. First couple of days in Congress, what do you think as you walk around and you have your little button on and, in your case, probably everybody knows who you are, you’ve gotten so much publicity.
CAO: Well, first of all, I’m still learning the ins and outs of Congress. So in that way, feeling a little bit insecure not knowing who the members are, not knowing their names even though they come up and say, ”Hi. Hi, Joseph. Welcome.” And then in return I don’t really know their names, which is somewhat a little bit embarrassing for me.
So feeling somewhat insecure, but also being very honored and being filled that and feeling very grateful to the people of the 2nd District to have voted me in to serve them.
LAMB: Where do you looking back over your life, I mean, all this education, all of these things you’ve done, where did you get that drive?
CAO: The drive to be involved in politics?
LAMB: No, the drive just to be educated and you know to do the things you’ve done.
CAO: First and foremost, I believe that it’s in my genes. My mother is an amazing woman. She raised five children single-handedly while my father was in the military and then subsequently spent seven close to seven years in reeducation camps. And my mother was the was basically the cornerstone of this family, had the drive a tremendous drive to survive.
And also the circumstance. You know if you if a person is put into a circumstance where you have to work hard in order to survive, in order to thrive, I believe that one has to do that. And I believe first, on the one hand, is genetics and on the other hand is a circumstance.
That’s why I got so much involved with the existentialism aspects of philosophy.
LAMB: What about your you have six other living siblings?
LAMB: Where what do they do? Are they all in the United States?
CAO: No. I still have one sister back in Vietnam. She lives about approximately 10 miles from Saigon. She’s basically a small business owner. She has a farm, raise pigs and chickens and so on. My other my oldest sister just came from Vietnam about three months ago, sponsored by my parents. And she presently lives in New Orleans.
I have a sister who lives in Falls Church. She her husband is a small business owner. I have a brother who lives in Pennsylvania. His wife is a pharmacist. He is disabled because of some kidney condition. And then I have a younger sister who is living with my parents, and an older sister who lives in Houston.
LAMB: Did any of them come to your swearing in?
CAO: They all did. They all came to my swearing in yesterday, except for my sister back in Vietnam.
LAMB: We’re out of time except to ask you one last question. Your father, after 7 years in reeducation camps, why did the communists let him out let him go?
CAO: I believe that they would keep the officers for a certain period of time, and I guess it was time for him to be let go. I’m not really sure what was calculated in order to be released. I don’t know the answer to that.
LAMB: Ahn Joseph Cao, Representative from the 2nd District of Louisiana. Thank you very much for joining us.
CAO: Well, thank you for having me on the show.