- Luke Letlow, Congressman-elect from Louisiana, died Tuesday from COVID-19 complications.
- The 41-year-old Republican was otherwise healthy and set to be inaugurated next month.
- Friends say Letlow was beyond partisan politics and instead was a champion for rural America, like the community where he grew up.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Luke Letlow, a Republican from one of the poorest districts in the US, launched his campaign for congress on the day the first COVID-19 case was reported in Louisiana.
He ran to replace Congressman Ralph Abraham - his former boss and good friend - in the middle of a pandemic when fundraising events and meet-and-greets were a challenge.
He also had to campaign without access to high-speed internet at his rural Richland Parish home.
Letlow still won in a landslide and was to be inaugurated next month.
"He was very uncommon when you compare him to modern-day politicians, especially the younger politicians. He was very rural rooted and he loved being from a rural community," Letlow's best friend and campaign chairman Scott Franklin told Insider. "He fully understood the struggle that rural America is going through."
Letlow, 41, died Tuesday night from complications related to COVID-19. He had tested positive for the coronavirus on Dec. 18. and suffered a heart attack following surgery at Ochsner LSU Health in Shreveport, the Monroe News-Star first reported.
He had no preexisting conditions.
By Tuesday, more than 247,000 Louisiana residents had been infected, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Franklin told Insider that Letlow was a history buff who loved to learn as much as he could about their agrarian community and share it with the world. He started the blog Richlandroots.com and filled it with facts about his community.
"He did that all himself. He would go to estate sales all over the state to find information about people who were from our home," Franklin said. "What was going to make him great is that he didn't care about the credit. I know when people die, they make people out to be saints when they weren't, but I'm telling you, he didn't care about accolades."
Letlow worked briefly in the private sector in Colorado and came back to Louisiana to help Abraham, a local doctor turned politician, run for Congress. When Abraham was elected, Letlow worked as his chief of staff. He had also worked for former Governor Bobby Jindal.
While they grew up in the same community and knew each other by name, Letlow and Franklin didn't become friends until about seven years ago. That was when Letlow joined Franklin's local effort to create the first-ever chamber of commerce for Richland parish - an all-volunteer organization.
"Here's a guy who's destined for big things and I was the chairman. You'd think he'd not be used to playing follower. You'd think a politician would be like 'who are you to tell me?'" Franklin, a rice farmer, said. "He said 'I believe in it. I believe the causes. He was one of the founders, and we became best friends because we shared an interest in doing better for Richland."
'A rural champion'
Louisiana's fifth congressional district, for which Letlow was elected to serve, runs up the center of the state to the Arkansas border.
Letlow looked forward to fighting for policies that would help serve the poorest in his district, including those in Richland, Franklin said.
One of his highest priorities was securing widespread access to broadband internet, which is still inaccessible to many rural residents.
"He didn't have high speed internet at his house. Luke just notices, with the pandemic kids are having to learn remotely, how are you going to do that if you don't have high speed internet?" Franklin said.
Broadband infrastructure isn't necessarily a partisan issue, Franklin said, but it was expensive, and because it serves primarily those who live in communities with few voters it tends to be overlooked.
Letlow was somewhat unusual in modern day politics as he occasionally strayed from the party line, Franklin said.
He cared deeply about protecting the Mississippi River from flooding.
"Luke saw the Mississippi River as a gift from God. It can give to us and it can take away from us," Franklin said.
He was also a proponent of leaning into growth opportunities in the agriculture sector.
"What Luke really harped on is that there are opportunities in agriculture," Franklin said. "Not everyone is a farmer, but everyone eats. We're so good at growing food, we have a diverse crop make-up, why not capitalize on the things we know best?"
Letlow could have made a good salary working in the private sector, Franklin said, but was propelled into state politics because he was sick of watching his community get left out.
"Over the last 20 years, politicians don't really care about places with only one stoplight because that's not where voters are. We matter," Franklin said. "We work hard, we pay our taxes, we have a great community, but unfortunately politicians on both sides of the aisle have ignored rural people of all backgrounds and races. That's what really disgusted Luke."
Even when working in state office, Letlow had the phone nearly "glued to his ear" fielding calls from residents who had issues with their roads, taxes, or other inconveniences, Franklin said. Letlow would do what he could to help from behind the scenes.
"Luke was going to be the rural champion," he said.
Letlow surrounded himself with people who he felt were also community-minded. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who he would be elected to replace, and Rep. Garret Graves, of the state's sixth congressional district, were among people he respected, even when their thoughts on policy differed.
"There is a divide in politics: there are real people and then the people who are in show business," Franklin said. "Garrett and Dr. Ralph Abraham, they're real. They're not looking for a spot on the news station. They're not looking to tweet out gibberish to get attention. They're there to go to work."
Abraham released a statement on Facebook which read in part, "There was no one like Luke Letlow, and there was no one who loved this state and its people more. Luke was a part of our family, and we are so incredibly proud of the man he was."
Franklin said he is reeling from the loss of his friend and heartbroken for Letlow's wife Julia and their two young children, 3-year-old Jeremiah, and 11-month-old Jacqueline.
Since Tuesday, politicians across the state have been sharing their reactions to Letlow's death online. But Franklin said not all of the comments have felt authentic because some have come from people who didn't even reach out when Letlow was sick.
"The political world is just encapsulating themselves in the story, even if they didn't know Luke," Franklin said. "Julia and their two children are going through an extremely difficult time. When the smoke clears and the story isn't warm anymore, are people just going to forget about them?"
Letlow's wife, Julia Barnhill, is declining media requests for the time being, Franklin said.
Through a spokesperson, the family told the News-Star that memorial plans will be released in the future.
"The family appreciates the numerous prayers and support over the past days but asks for privacy during this difficult and unexpected time," spokesman Andrew Bautsch said in the statement to the local paper. "A statement from the family along with funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time."
In rural America, learning to be socially distant is an adjustment
Getting to know your constituents is important no matter where you're campaigning, but in rural Louisiana, it is the only way to succeed, Franklin said.
For the first few months of Letlow's campaign, he didn't host any fundraising events and avoided in-person meet and greets as much as possible, Franklin said.
After a while, they started to host events, but at a limited capacity, Franklin said.
"I know people are sifting through social media to find photos of him not wearing a mask, but I am telling you, he made an effort to do the best he could while still reaching the people," Franklin said. "Despite coronavirus, these people needed a hero. And in this district, to do that you have to meet people. They have to look you in the eye and understand they can trust you."
"It wasn't perfect, but I think he did the best he could," he added.
Franklin said that Letlow's last days alive were difficult, as he was quarantined alone without visitors.
"When we talked on the phone, he was bored to tears. He was pretty depressed," he said.
Franklin said he tried to explain to Letlow that if he had fallen ill or had been injured during normal times, there would be a line around the block of visitors wishing him well.
"That's the sad part of the coronavirus, it just takes all the love out of the world," Franklin said, adding that social distancing proved difficult for small, tight-knit communities.
"It's hard in small-town Louisiana because we're just not used to that. We're a very friendly community. The community is all we have. And we just had a really hard time adjusting to that, especially around the holidays," he said. "It's not because we're stupid or we don't know there is a virus in our world. It's just because it's just not in our nature to be socially distant."
Letlow's death came as a shock to the state, and to those who loved him. Being only 41 and otherwise healthy, he was not at an elevated risk of complications from the deadly virus.
"Their son and my son are the same age," Franklin said. "I just thought there would be so much time for us to enjoy raising children in the same community. That's gone now."
LSU Health Shreveport Chancellor G.E. Ghali said Wednesday that Letlow's death was devastating to the entire medical team, the News-Star reported.
"He had no underlying conditions," Ghali said. "It was just COVID."
While the fifth district might have lost their incoming hero, Franklin doesn't think that his legacy will end here.
"I think Letlow is going to be the benchmark for anyone who comes in in the future. The story is so sad it's going to linger in this community for a long time."