Rep._Ralph_Abraham (copy)

The Southern Republican Leadership Conference could lend support to U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham's challenge to Democratic incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, especially since the conference won't be focused on finding a candidate for president.  

Running for Congress in 2014 as a political outsider, Dr. Ralph Abraham made a pledge that resonated with voters in his conservative northeast Louisiana district: He would not collect his salary if he went to Washington.

“It Should Be An Honor And A Privilege To Serve Your Country And NOT A Paid Position,” Abraham said on his campaign website. “YOU Should Not Pay A Penny For Representation.” He said he would donate his salary to charity.

Abraham won the race, but it turns out that voters in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District are indeed paying for his representation, at a cost of $174,000 per year.

His pledge not to accept his salary lasted only during his first two-year term, spokesman Cole Avery disclosed this week in an interview.

Now a candidate for governor, Abraham learned after his 2014 election that congressional rules limit how much he is allowed to earn from his medical practice, Avery said.

“Because of the loss of income, it was not a pledge he could continue beyond the first term,” Avery said. “There’s the belief that something should be one way, and then there’s the reality.”

Congressional rules limit physicians to earning no more than their “actual and necessary expenses,” meaning essentially that they can’t earn a profit from their practice.

Abraham did not extend his no-salary pledge to his 2016 re-election campaign. But his campaign website continued to include it as part of his campaign platform.

Avery said he doesn’t think Abraham ever publicly announced that he had begun collecting his congressional pay.

Technically, members of Congress are prohibited from refusing their pay. However, they may donate it to charity. Abraham pledged during the 2014 campaign to donate his salary to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and to the Independence Fund, a nonprofit based in Charlotte that assists catastrophically wounded or injured veterans.

“He kept his commitment,” Avery said. He did not respond to two subsequent requests to detail how much Abraham gave to each entity.

A spokesman for St. Jude’s said he could not discuss an individual donor. The Independence Fund did not return phone calls.

Abraham’s decision to quietly accept his salary could reverberate outside of his district — which includes Monroe, Alexandria and the rural parishes in between — because he announced earlier this month that he is running for governor. He and businessman Eddie Rispone are the two Republican candidates challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

The question of whether Abraham is taking his salary arose after The Advocate queried each member of Louisiana’s congressional delegation on whether they were collecting their pay during the partial government shutdown. Abraham was one of several members who said he had asked to have his salary withheld until the government fully reopens.

His changed position might come as a surprise to some given his 2014 pledge, but it isn’t to Vance McAllister, who was seeking a second term in Congress that year but finished fourth in the race.

“I thought it was a campaign ploy, a vote-getting pledge,” McAllister said. “Maybe it’s just politics as usual by not defining it exactly as one term.”

A farmer, physician and veterinarian from Richland Parish, Abraham listed the pledge prominently on his campaign website in 2014, and it was part of his regular stump speech.

He also railed against “career politicians” and called for term limits on members of Congress.

Abraham finished only 750 votes ahead of Zach Dasher, another Republican, to win a spot in the runoff, where he crushed the No. 1 finisher, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Democrat.

Joshua Stockley, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, said Abraham may be vulnerable to criticism for his decision to begin taking his salary. But he added: “I don’t think Rep. Abraham’s reneging of his no-salary promise is necessarily either hypocritical or something that voters should hold against him. I interpret it to naivete. It was a naïve thing to have done in the first place.”

Roll Call, a Washington newspaper that covers Congress, estimated a year ago that Abraham had a net worth of $4.8 million, making him the 65th wealthiest member of Congress.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.