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A tough crowd for Joseph Cao

NEW ORLEANS -- The Southern Republican Leadership Conference is happening inside the district of first-term Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), who won a supremely safe Democratic seat in a December 2008 runoff against the indicted incumbent, then-Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.). At the time, conservatives celebrated the upset victory, a possible sign of things to come; after Cao cast some votes with Democrats, the enthusiasm cooled -- along, I'm told, with his fundraising.

Yesterday, I talked briefly to Cao but stepped aside as one of those no-longer-happy Republicans read him the riot act over his initial vote for health-care reform. (He voted against the final bill last month.)

"I supported you," said Kim Hasney, a photographer from Jefferson Parish. "I can't support you anymore."

"You have to understand," said Cao, "that I represent a district that's 70 percent Democrat."

Cao thanked Hasney for her honesty, but after she sparred a bit with other Republicans about what it was fair to expect from Cao, she told me of her disappointment with how he was using his vote.

"He had fundraisers, he had meetings, all in the suburbs -- the white suburbs," said Hasney, who attended one of those events. "He had nothing in the district. We got him elected. Then, he goes and says 'but I have to represent my district,' which is all liberal, giveaway, spread-the-wealth, welfare, black. We thought he would try to change the demographics of that district by supporting things that were not giveaway things. You know, supporting things that would get them out of the ghetto."

Hasney made it clear that she opposed Cao's votes because she thought they were the wrong way to lift poor blacks in New Orleans out of poverty. "I'm not just talking about black people," she said. "The Vietnamese people flourish in that area because they're workers."

Cao, she said, should have focused on free market solutions that could help other residents lift themselves up by their bootstraps.

"I thought that was what he was going to do," she said. "As a conservative Republican, bring a work ethic, bring a non-welfare ethic."

After that encounter, from the SRLC stage, Newt Gingrich argued that the Republican Party needed to make a stand against supporting any earmarks -- Cao, in the room, has not taken such a stand.

By David Weigel  |  April 9, 2010; 9:12 AM ET
Categories:  SRLC  
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