Democrats might be nervous about losing ground in Congress, but one place where political observers predict Democrats will take back a U.S. House seat is in the New Orleans area.
Signs show the Big Easy could be just that for Louisiana state Rep. Cedric Richmond, an African-American Democrat looking to wrest a Congressional seat from Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao.
For one thing, President Obama chose to make his first political TV ad of the season with Richmond, 37, a New Orleans native and a lawyer. For another, the district is 70 percent Democratic, according to national Democratic strategist Anthony Coley, and is one of the majority-minority districts created in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Richmond also has drawn key endorsements from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the senator’s brother, and Lilly Ledbetter, the equal pay plaintiff who lent her name to President Obama’s bill expanding worker’s rights.
“In terms of the campaign, it seems to be going pretty much as expected,” said Silas Lee, a national political pollster based at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans.
Richmond graduated from Morehouse College, where he played baseball, and Tulane University Law School before becoming a state representative in Louisiana in 2000. He said he initially entered politics because he was coaching Little League and was frustrated at the lack of public funding for youth recreation.
While in office, he has pushed for programs to help people coming home from prison, and for efforts to help small businesses stay afloat.
“It’s helping the ones we have here and helping them expand because small business is the backbone for this country,” Richmond said in a telephone interview. “They will be the ones that will drive down unemployment.”
Richmond also created a tax credit program that spurred $250 million in investment after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and successfully pushed for funding for small business incubators and grant programs.
Obama chose Richmond as his first advertising collaborator of the campaign season because Cao has voted against major Obama initiatives such the final passage of health care reform, said Coley, who is based in Washington and whose has worked with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. “He’s looking for people to move his agenda forward,” Coley said of Obama.
Republican Cao won the seat in the historically Democratic 2nd district at a time when events unfolded in an atypical way. Former longtime Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat and an African-American, was under indictment for corruption during the campaign in 2008. Then, during a presidential election that drew record numbers of African-American voters who might have reelected Jefferson to his seat, Hurricane Gustav forced voting in two Congressional districts to be pushed back a month. Because of the move, an estimated 100,000 eligible voters did not take part in the congressional election, Lee estimated.
Cao, 43, hailed as the first Vietnamese-American in Congress, has said that if returned to his seat, he will work toward reining in spending and bringing in money for the district that has suffered economically since the 2005 storms. Cao also has criticized Richmond for having his law license suspended for 60 days in 2008 because he had not lived in a district for which he was running for the required amount of time. Cao has said Richmond will follow in the same footsteps as Jefferson.
Richmond attributed Cao’s comments to fear on the part of his campaign.
“I think they’re just grasping for straws because they’ll say and do anything to keep the seat,” Richmond said.
Coley also shrugged off the Cao comments.
“I think to be effective, attacks must be rooted in truth and it doesn’t seem as if those launched by Congressman Cao are,” Coley said.
“It’s hard to turn a community, certainly one that’s 70 percent Democratic, against somebody they know. Cedric is New Orleans, his roots are deep, they’ve seen him in the community when cameras and reporters aren’t there.”
Attacks aside, data shows Cao may have an uphill battle.
An Oct. 2 and 3 survey of 605 registered likely voters by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling showed Richmond ahead of Cao in the race by 11 points, with 49 percent to Cao’s 38 percent.
“I think (Richmond)’s the favorite,” said David Bositis, a specialist in national African-American electoral politics with the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
“It’s a majority black district and the only reason Cao was elected was because Jefferson was (indicted). Since the ‘30s, no black majority district has elected a Republican.”
Jefferson has since been convicted, but has not yet gone to prison.
Richmond has said that if he’s elected, he would focus on underlying reasons for the area’s economic troubles. He said he would continue to work toward boosting small businesses and toward helping ex-offenders get resettled back into their communities. Small businesses, he said, will take a chance and hire people who have spent time behind bars, he said.
“All of it helps to keep the family unit together, which is key in the recovery,” Richmond said.
If elected, he said, he would be happy if he could be named to the House Judiciary Committee and/or the House Appropriations Committee.
The powerful Ways and Means Committee, which creates tax laws, appeals to him too although, he said, he realizes it would be rare for a Congressional freshman to be named to the group.
With Judiciary, he would continue his focus on issues related to jail and prison. Richmond chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.
“I think criminal justice reform across this country is key to making sure we can reunite families and reduce what we’re spending on incarceration,” he said.
Political observers say that if Richmond wins the seat, he will be a thoughtful leader.
“I would say he’s more strategic, where he contemplates and thinks before he speaks and does his research,” Silas Lee said.
He added that a Richmond win would likely return the seat to its Democratic roots for the foreseeable future.
“Certainly, if he wins, he can hold onto that seat for decades,” Lee said.