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'Little House On The Prairie' Actress Runs For Congress. Can She Win?

Aug 12, 2015
Originally published on August 12, 2015 9:37 am

The list of celebrities-turned-politicians grows longer.

Former child actor Melissa Gilbert is running as a Democrat in Michigan's 8th congressional district against first-term Republican Mike Bishop.

The district covers Lansing and some northern Detroit suburbs, and it's a competitive one. President Obama won it in 2008, but Republican Mitt Romney carried it in 2012.

Gilbert is most well-known for the character she played on the popular series Little House on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls. Little Laura grew up on America's TV screens in the 1970s and 1980s, enjoying life as a pioneer girl.

Should she win, Gilbert would join a fairly large club of celebrities turned winning politicians. There's Ben Jones, who played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard. He served two terms in Congress, from Georgia's 4th district. And there's Sonny Bono, of course, of Sonny and Cher fame. Bono was mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and was a longtime member of the House of Representatives.

If you look outside of the House, the list is even longer: Al Franken, former Saturday Night Live actor, is currently a U.S. Senator from Minnesota; action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor of California; Fred Thompson went from TV to Congress and back; and, of course, there's the Gipper, Ronald Reagan, former B-list actor turned president.

Further down the political food chain, Breaking Bad star Steven Michael Quezada (DEA agent Steve Gomez on the show) is running for county commissioner in Albuquerque, N.M.

But Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, said Gilbert might have a tough time in her congressional bid.

"If we were to look at any candidate in the country and say, OK, this person just moved there two years ago, they have over $300,000 in tax problems, we would normally dismiss that type of candidate," Gonzales told NPR.

Gilbert isn't actually from Michigan, but her husband, fellow actor Timothy Busfield, is. And The Detroit News reports that the Internal Revenue Service has accused Gilbert of failing to pay more than $360,000 in federal income taxes. The paper reported that she blamed the tax debt "on a stalled acting career, the economy and divorce," but that Gilbert has set up a payment plan with the IRS.

Gonzales also says that Gilbert's star power — which could help her with the name recognition needed to mount a serious run — is waning.

"Little House on the Prairie — it's been decades since the show has been on," he said. "I wouldn't describe her as an immediately recognized figure. Maybe people recognize her from Dancing with the Stars a few years ago, but she's not someone like an Arnold Schwarzenegger, who you hear the name, and you immediately know who that is."

(For what's it's worth, Gilbert did not win her season of DWTS.)

But Lara Bergthold, with the advocacy firm RALLY, says Gilbert's got a shot, in part because of a skill many actors possess.

"History has proven that some of the best politicians have been actors, and you shouldn't be so easy to dismiss a celebrity who's interested in running for office," she said. "Good politicians are good communicators, and maybe a leg up that actors have is the ability to communicate to the voters."

But Bergthold admits it's a different type of communication.

"She needs to make sure that she's honing those skills," she said. "It's a different thing to communicate your policy proposal than it is to read a script."

Melissa Gilbert declined to be interviewed by NPR, but Matt Thornton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that anyone who would dismiss Gilbert because of her child actor past should look at Reagan.

Before he was president, one of Reagan's first forays into leadership was his stint as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a job Gilbert has held as well.

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