On any given day during House votes, Republican Reps. Don Young (Alaska) and Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.) can be seen sitting next to each other in the upper-right side of the chamber, chatting and laughing.
They are, by all accounts, an odd pair with seemingly little in common.
But Cao, a 43-year-old freshman from a Democratic district, and Young, a 76-year-old former chairman who has watched his influence fade, have forged a solid alliance as outsiders.
“We sit in that corner for a reason,” Young explained during a recent interview with Cao. “I started this many years ago. You actually find out a lot of things that are going on, where if you are roving you don’t get to see as much.”
Cao said, “We have a lot of fun on the floor. We speak about many things, we joke about many things. We just happen to click.”
“They are good friends,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who often visits the corner where the pair sit. “It’s an unusual friendship too — a senior Member who’s been here” and a Member who just arrived.
Cao is just more than a year into his brief House tenure, while Young is in his 19th term.
The friendship began early in Cao’s young House career: Just two months in office, Cao went to Young to ask for help with his re-election campaign.
[IMGCAP(1)]”I really pick and choose who I approach,” Cao said. “I guess there was an instinctual type of feeling, when you speak to a person and right away you know whether or not you click with that person.”
Young said he was immediately taken with Cao’s intellect.
“I’m not the brightest candle, so I try to get close to bright people so I learn a little bit,” Young said. “I mean, he’s an interesting man.”
Even after only a year in office together, their relationship seems to have transcended the mentor-student model that young lawmakers are encouraged to seek out and that many long-serving veterans take pride in nurturing.
Young said that after nearly four decades in the House, Cao is among one of the few Members he considers a friend.
“Joe and I have a good time, and for me it is a really unique thing,” Young said. “This is a very cold-blooded area.”
Cao said he looks to Young for his knowledge of the House and how it works from a political and process perspective.
“I see Don as a mentor,” Cao said. “I frequently come and ask him for advice … on issues that were very contentious such as the health care vote, cap-and-trade, the stimulus, and he would simply give me very unbiased, very open advice.”
Young’s counsel was particularly helpful on the day of the health care vote in November.
Cao originally planned to vote “no” on the House bill because it did not explicitly ban federal funding for abortion. But after an amendment was introduced to prohibit abortions from being covered under government-sponsored health care plans, Cao signaled he might change his mind.
Both sides of the aisle courted Cao heavily in the days leading up to the vote.
In fact, GOP aides at the time said the White House was in “almost constant contact” with Cao.
During the high-stakes vote on final passage, Young sat next to Cao and chatted with him, as one leader after the other approached the Louisiana Republican to try to persuade him to vote “no.” Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) even plopped down next to Cao as he cast his “yes” vote. It was the only Republican vote for the package.
Even though Cao stood alone in his Conference, Young said he made the right decision.
Cao “was elected to represent his district. That’s the most important thing you have to remember,” Young said. “And I realize the leadership is trying to garner votes and I understand that, but you always have to remember the Member’s challenge, and you can’t always vote the way they want you to vote.”
Cao added: Young “has always stressed, Joe you have to make the best decision for your people. If it’s on party lines, good. If it’s not along party lines, well, they will just have to live with it.'”
Young has followed his own advice. He told an Alaska newspaper on Friday that he would not take part in an earmark ban adopted last week by the GOP Conference.
“I am elected to serve my constituents, and as long as they continue to request federal funding for their projects of interest, then I will continue to do my best to accommodate them,” Young said in a statement.
Young may be Cao’s biggest defender, but the relationship isn’t just one way: Cao — who originally planned to become a priest — was similarly there for Young when Young’s wife, Lula, to whom he was married for 46 years, died last summer.
Young said Cao’s friendship since his wife died has been “very, very important.”
“It’s still tough. He’s a man of God, and that’s helpful,” Young said. “You know, every little bit helps in that case.”
“He’s invited me to dinner many times [to have] a good Vietnamese dinner,” Young said. “I have not done so because I very rarely go to dinner.”
“He came with me once to my sister’s house,” Cao reminded him. “But the offer is still on. And I’m still holding him to it.”
By any measure, it is a strange alliance.
Young, the seventh-most-senior House Member, has held positions of influence in the Conference and shepherded some of the House’s most significant legislation. When Republicans took back the House in 1994, Young served as chairman of the then-House Resources Committee, and in 2001, he took the helm of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It was as Transportation chairman that he ushered through the $286.5 billion transportation bill in 2005 known as SAFETEA-LU, named after his wife.
But in the years following that measure’s passage, Young watched his power slip away. Dogged by questions about dubious earmarks inserted into the bill as well as his connections to a federal corruption probe in Alaska, Young barely won the GOP primary for his seat in 2008.
Although Young has never been charged with any wrongdoing, he opted to relinquish his ranking member post on the Natural Resources Committee in 2009.
Cao, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam as a child, was never really supposed to be able to win his seat — he represents an overwhelmingly Democratic New Orleans district that President Barack Obama carried with 75 percent in 2008. Cao defeated scandal-plagued Rep. William Jefferson (D), who was indicted on federal corruption charges in 2007. Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison in November, although he hasn’t started serving as he appeals the conviction.
With Jefferson out of the picture, Cao is headed for another difficult bid this cycle. Likewise, Young is facing an uphill battle for a 20th term.
But Young said he is unfazed by the possibility of a challenging race.
“I am convinced, very honestly, that a lot of this is preordained, and secondly, if the public thinks they can find somebody to do a better job than I can do, then I think they should elect them,” Young said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Young added, “I was supposed to be gone the last time and Joe was never suppose to win.”
“That’s true,” Cao added.
Young said of Cao: “He wants to win very badly because he does a good job. And he’s running hard and I’m running hard. People get locked in to, you know, We are going to sacrifice everything to win the election,’ and they lose sight of why they are elected.”