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Meet Louisiana's newest Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, a Republican from Richland Parish

Greg Hilburn
Monroe News-Star
Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, R-Start, his wife Julia and their two children Jeremiah, 3, and Jacqueline, 11 months, are pictured outside their Richland Parish home on Monday, December 7, 2020.

UPDATE: Louisiana Congressman-elect Luke Letlow has died at Ochsner LSU Health in Shreveport with COVID-19

Louisiana's newest Congressman-elect Luke Letlow seems as if he's been preparing for the job since he was was president of the College Republicans at Louisiana Tech University.

He interned for former Louisiana Republican 5th District Congressman John Cooksey of Monroe and returned home to be Cooksey's driver in 2001 while still attending Tech. "I basically went to night school after that," Letlow said.

Letlow later joined with Republican phenom Bobby Jindal, first working for Jindal's unsuccessful 2003 governor's campaign, then following Jindal to Congress and finally as a senior staffer for the young governor during his first term.

He connected Jindal to rural voters, bringing him to Protestant churches, volunteer fire stations and convenience stores at country crossroads in northern and central Louisiana.

"In his first campaign Bobby had trouble connecting with rural voters; we changed that in 2007," said Letlow, who at 40 will be the youngest member of Louisiana's congressional delegation.

"Those were exciting times," he said. "Bobby was young and brilliant and energetic. It was an electric atmosphere."

But two years into Jindal's first term as governor Letlow left abruptly. Letlow said he sensed Jindal's focus was shifting to national politics even then, pointing toward an eventual presidential bid. Jindal did run unsuccessfully for president in 2015 during the final months of his second term.

"There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it wasn't a path I wanted to take even though I thought he might win," he said.

Letlow said he was burned out and faintly disenchanted by the time he left the Jindal administration. 

He and his wife Julia, now an accomplished administrator for the University of Louisiana at Monroe who was a finalist for the president's job there earlier this year, left the state, moving to Denver where he worked as an oil and gas lobbyist.

"I thought that was it for me and politics; I really did," he said.

But seven years ago his friend Dr. Ralph Abraham asked Letlow to return to Louisiana and run Abraham's first 5th Congressional District campaign.

They won the race and the popular Abraham coasted to reelection twice with Letlow serving as his chief of staff, but Abraham honored a pledge to serve only three terms, leaving the door open for Letlow.

"When Ralph decided not to run, I knew my experience could be valuable and important to represent the 5th District from elective service rather than behind the scenes as I had for my entire career," Letlow said.

He did so with Abraham's backing. "Luke played a vital and integral part of every decision I've made in Congress," Abraham said.

Both Abraham and Letlow have rural Richland Parish roots, which Letlow said largely align with the 24-parish 5th District that has Monroe and Alexandria as the population hubs but meanders into Acadiana in Opelousas and all the way to Bogalusa in the Florida parishes.

Letlow's father Johnny noted as much on election night when talking to Scott Franklin, one of Letlow's best friends who was also his volunteer campaign finance chair.

"His dad said both are from places that barely have a stop light between the two of them," said Franklin, a fourth generation farmer and agribusiness man in Richland Parish.

Both live in unincorporated communities — Abraham in Alto and Letlow in Start.

"It's proof that no matter where you come from you can make a difference, and that's what's great about America," said Franklin, who spearheaded a campaign finance drive that lapped Letlow's opponents with nearly $1.4 million, a total Franklin believes is a record in the 5th District.

Letlow finished first in the nine-candidate Nov. 3 primary election with 33% followed by fellow Republican state Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria second at 17%.

He doubled the margin of victory in Saturday's runoff, beating Harris 62% to 38% and winning every parish except for Harris' native Rapides.

Letlow is a staunch Republican in his conservative district, but avoids bombastic rhetoric that he believes can be divisive and alienate those with alternate political views that he still wants to represent.

"American politics is dominated by people who are always seeking attention; Luke doesn't care who gets the credit," Franklin said. "That's the mark of a true leader; a true servant."

Letlow said he wants to work with Republicans and Democrats to elevate his poverty-stricken district and courted Democrats' votes during his campaign.

Democratic New Orleans U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is leaving Congress to work as a senior adviser for President-elect Joe Biden, recorded a robocall supporting Letlow's campaign.

"(Letlow) has the experience we need in Washington to get the job done," Richmond said in the call. "Your next congressman must be an advocate for everyone."

"I represent everybody in the 5th District whether they voted for me or not," Letlow said. "I want to move everybody forward by focusing on policy and projects that can do that."

He said his style most resembles that of Baton Rouge Republican Congressman Garret Graves, a friend with whom Letlow worked under Jindal, "though I'll have my own brand," Letlow said.

Graves endorsed Letlow in the race, which was Graves' first public endorsement of any candidate. "Garret has treated me like a little brother," Letlow said.

Now the two are again colleagues in Congress, part of a group Letlow describes as the "new generation of conservatives."

But Letlow said he's taking the best of previous generations with him — Cooksey's relationship building, Jindal's focus and ability to manage crises and Abraham's authenticity.

All called him with congratulations, Letlow said.

"I've learned from some of the best and I want to apply that knowledge to leverage the best for the 5th District," Letlow said. "I want to make a difference. I'm going to make a difference."

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.