Louisiana Republican Julia Letlow was sworn into the House on Wednesday, claiming the seat her late husband was elected to but never filled after dying of COVID-19 in late December, days before taking office.
Letlow easily won a special election last month to represent the heavily Republican district in northeastern Louisiana. A university administrator making her first run for public office, she won the backing of former President Donald Trump and decisively outraised her opponents.
Luke Letlow, 41, died on Dec. 29, five days before the new Congress convened. He was a top aide to Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., who had retired and whose seat he’d won. The Letlows have two children.
"I want to thank him for paving the way for me," Julia Letlow said on the House floor after taking the oath of office from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"Too many families like mine have experienced tragedy because of this pandemic," Letlow said. "To those families: I see you, I hear you. And most importantly, I pray with you."
She earned a Ph.D. after writing a dissertation on coping with the sudden death of family members. She dedicated it to her younger brother, Jeremy, who died in an auto accident as a teenager.
Letlow, 40, is the first female Republican elected to Congress from Louisiana. She will be on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee.
Her arrival trims the Democrats’ House majority to 218-212, with five vacant seats. That slim margin has helped fan GOP hopes of capturing control of the chamber in next year’s elections.
The narrow House majority and the 50-50 Senate, which Democrats control with Vice-President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote, have forced leaders to attain near-unanimous support from the party’s lawmakers to advance legislation.
A second vacant Louisiana seat will be filled soon by one of two Democrats in an April 24 runoff election. That New Orleans district was represented by Democrat Cedric Richmond, now a senior White House adviser to President Joe Biden.
Three of the remaining vacant seats had been held by Democrats and one by a Republican. No party turnover is expected when special elections are held to fill those vacancies.
Letlow is the 48th woman to be elected or appointed to fill congressional vacancies after their husbands died, according to figures from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
One of the best known of those was Democratic Rep. Corinne Boggs, known as Lindy, also from Louisiana.
Boggs was elected to replace her husband, House Majority Leader Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., who died when the airplane he was aboard disappeared over Alaska in 1972. Lindy Boggs, long her husband’s political adviser, served 18 years in the House and was known as a champion of women’s issues. She died in 2013.
Alan Fram, The Associated Press