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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 7:37 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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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Former child actor Melissa Gilbert is running for Congress. NPR's Sam Sanders reports she's the latest in a long line of celebrities turned politicians.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Gilbert's running as a Democrat in Michigan's 8th Congressional District against first-term Republican Mike Bishop. It's a competitive seat. President Obama won it in '08, but Republican Mitt Romney did in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You might know Gilbert as Laura Ingalls on "Little House On The Prairie." Little Laura grew up on America's TV screens in the '70s and '80s, from childhood to parenthood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE")

DEAN BUTLER: (As Almanzo Wilder) Laura, what are you doing?

MELISSA GILBERT: (As Laura Ingalls Wilder) You're not going to believe it.

BUTLER: (As Almanzo Wilder) What?

GILBERT: (As Laura Ingalls Wilder) I'm going to have a baby.

BUTLER: (As Almanzo Wilder) A baby?

GILBERT: (As Laura Ingalls Wilder, laughter).

BUTLER: (Yelling) Woo hoo.

SANDERS: Gilbert could join a long list. There's Cooter "The Dukes Of Hazzard."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD")

BEN JONES: (As Cooter) Crazy Cooter coming at you. Anybody home on the Hazzard net?

SANDERS: Real name Ben Jones. He served two terms in Congress from Georgia's 4th District. And there's this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT YOU BABE")

SONNY AND CHER: (Singing) I got you, babe. I got you, babe.

SANDERS: Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher fame. Bono was mayor of Palm Springs, Calif. and a longtime House member. Nathan Gonzales is the editor of The Rothenberg And Gonzales Political Report. And he says Gilbert might have a tough time.

NATHAN GONZALES: 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.

SANDERS: Yeah, Gilbert isn't actually from Michigan, but her husband is. And she does owe more than $360,000 in back taxes. Once you run, the political scrutiny can be tough. And Gonzales says Gilbert's star power isn't all that.

GONZALES: "Little House On The Prairie," it's been decades since the show has been on.

SANDERS: But Lara Bergthold says it can be done. She works for an advocacy firm called RALLY and has helped a lot of celebrities working in politics.

LARA BERGTHOLD: Good politicians are good communicators. And maybe a leg up that actors have is the ability to communicate to the voters.

SANDERS: Bergthold admits it's a different type of communication.

BERGTHOLD: It's a different thing to communicate your policy proposals than it is to read a script.

SANDERS: Melissa Gilbert wouldn't talk to us. But we did hear from Matt Thornton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

To those who say actors have no business running for office...

MATT THORNTON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: What do you say to that?

THORNTON: Ask Ronald Reagan how that worked out.

SANDERS: Before he was president, one of Reagan's first forays into politics was his stint as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Melissa Gilbert, as it turns out, has served as SAG president as well. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.