When I received the tragic news Tuesday night that Luke Letlow had died from complications of COVID-19, my mind flashed back to the last time I had seen the congressman-elect.
It was at the Florida Parishes Skeet and Conservation Association on Dec. 2, where Letlow was making one of his last campaign stops before the election three days later.
Letlow was facing state Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, to determine which Republican would replace Letlow’s former boss, retiring U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, to represent the sprawling, 24-parish 5th Congressional District.
Letlow, 41, was from rural Start, east of Monroe, but he had campaigned repeatedly in Tangipahoa Parish, in the far southern reaches of the district.
I arrived before Letlow to the skeet club – which proudly calls itself “the most beautiful gun club in America” and which meets in a rustic clubhouse in the woods outside of Amite. I noticed that none of the 15 people there for their monthly Wednesday night gathering was wearing a mask.
I was wearing one, and so was Advocate photographer Morgan Werther – and so was Letlow, to my surprise, when he showed up 10 minutes later.
That morning, I had attended a breakfast gathering of politically engaged voters in Ruston where no one, other than me, was wearing a mask, and no one seemed worried about catching the coronavirus.
I had gone to Ruston to cover a meet-and-greet the night before with Harris at the Courtyard Marriott. There, my photographer and I were the only people wearing masks. Harris told me that whether he wore one depended on the crowd. On this night, he didn’t.
At the skeet club, Letlow made the rounds, shaking hands and exchanging small talk, until it was time for everyone to pay $8 for the potluck dinner of turkey, stuffing, cornbread and pie.
This was Letlow’s first run for office, but he had spent years working for Gov. Bobby Jindal and then Abraham. So he knew he should only hit the high points for his conservative audience. He said he wanted to go to Washington to defend Second Amendment gun rights, to protect “our values” and to vote the pro-life position 100% of the time.
Letlow said he was the only candidate who drove a dirt road to get home, and he looked the part, wearing blue jeans and ostrich boots.
“I’ll get you results,” he promised before sitting down to speak with me, several feet away, at one of the folding tables.
I didn’t know Letlow well. I had interviewed him a year earlier for a long article that offered a behind-the-scenes account of how Gov. John Bel Edwards had won re-election three days before. Letlow had left his position as chief of staff to Abraham to manage Abraham’s campaign. The congressman had finished third in the primary. Letlow provided the insider’s account of the Abraham gubernatorial campaign that I needed.
At the skeet club, Letlow skipped dinner – he had already eaten at a Chick-fil-A – he told me, but he grabbed a piece of pie, and said it was his weakness.
I asked him what it had been like campaigning during the pandemic.
“It’s been very different than any campaign I’ve been part of,” he said. “We’ve had to evolve. We’ve had to use different means to get in front of people – like Zoom and conference calls.”
He said he usually wore a mask on the trail. However, on occasion he didn't wear a mask.
I turned to the substance of my article. Letlow filled in the blanks of his bio and toed the Republican line on the November election, refusing to say that President-elect Joe Biden had won.
Harris had been attacking Letlow as a political insider who had done nothing more than claim paychecks paid by taxpayers.
Letlow tried to turn the accusations into an asset, saying that his experience with Jindal and Abraham had given him the background to be an effective congressman for what he described as the second-poorest congressional district in the country. “I’ve been behind the scenes, just like a police officer. There’s no difference,” he told me.
Letlow trounced Harris with 62% of the vote on Dec. 5.
On Dec. 18, Letlow’s top aide, Andrew Bautsch, announced Letlow had tested positive for COVID-19.
I wrote a story but didn’t attach great significance to the news. After state Rep. Reggie Bagala, R-Cut Off, had died from the coronavirus in April, I had gotten used to reporting that politicians in Louisiana had fallen ill without any lasting effects. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, Attorney General Jeff Landry, Treasurer John Schroder, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, state Senate President Page Cortez and former Senate President John Alario had all recovered. All are Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a Republican, also fell ill in December but are recovering.
Letlow was scheduled to take office on Sunday. I had every expectation that he would do a good job and serve his constituents for years. "The world was his oyster," Louis Gurvich, the chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party told me Tuesday night.
But now he has passed. His death was unusual for his relative youth among Louisiana’s COVID victims: Less than 5% of those to die from the virus here have been younger than 50. He is also the first person in Congress or about to be sworn in to Congress to die from the virus.
Letlow leaves behind his wife Julia and two small children.
I was struck in Ruston and Amite at the refusal of people to wear masks or worry about COVID-19. They should know now about Letlow’s shocking death. Will they now take the virus seriously?