GOP Uses Melissa Gilbert’s Tax Troubles Against Her in Michigan Congressional Race

Melissa Gilbert

--Image Credit: Associated Press

From a log cabin somewhere in the woods of Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, Melissa Gilbert is plotting her campaign to unseat freshman Republican Congressman Mike Bishop.

According to a statement on her website, Gilbert’s campaign is going to be all about helping people like herself -- people who are still trying to get their heads above water after Michigan’s economic collapse in the first decade of the 21st century.

“Here in Michigan, I know people are doing their best to make a good life for themselves and their families. When it comes down to it, I think that’s what we all really want,” Gilbert said in a statement on her website.

“I’m running for Congress to make life a little easier for all the families who feel they have fallen through the cracks in today’s economy. I believe building a new economy is a team effort, and we need to bring fresh voices to the table to get the job done.”

Coincidentally or not, her opponent in November, assuming she survives a primary battle if there is one, will be one of the politicians who was at the helm of Michigan during what Time magazine dubbed a “Decade from Hell.”

Bishop served first in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1999-2003 and then in the Michigan Senate until 2010, where he served as majority leader and had some epic battles with Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

Michigan’s auto industry collapsed during those years, Detroit disintegrated, and the state’s unemployment rate was nearly twice as high as the national average.

Bishop’s campaign manager was quick to lay out his strategy against Gilbert, who is best known for her childhood role as Laura on the TV show Little House on the Prairie.

Stu Sandler didn’t hesitate to label Gilbert an “IRS Tax Cheat” minutes after her campaign website went live.

“Hollywood Actress and IRS Tax Cheat Melissa Gilbert owes hundreds of thousands to the IRS and wants to get a government paycheck,” Sandler said in a statement released by the Bishop campaign. “Melissa Gilbert can afford to have a stylist for her dog, but cannot pay her taxes. Her values are out of whack with the district.”

The Michigan GOP was even more forceful in its email sent out after Gilbert announced her intention to run as a Democrat against Bishop.

“You can take the actress out of Hollywood, but you can’t take the Hollywood out of the actress,” said Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. “Those Hollywood values are not Michigan values. Gilbert needs to understand that the hardworking people of Michigan don’t live the cushy life of a Hollywood celebrity.”

“One thing is certain, Gilbert’s free spending and irresponsible financial management would fit right in with Nancy Pelosi and Washington Democrats who have driven our national debt to $19 trillion,” Romney McDaniel added. “The people of the 8th District will not place their trust in a candidate for Congress who has done such a poor job of balancing her own checkbook at a time when it is imperative that we get our fiscal house in order.”

Gilbert does not dispute the fact that she and her husband and fellow actor Tim Busfield owe more than $360,000 in federal income taxes. She said they have set up a payment plan with the IRS.

"Like so many people across the nation, the recession hit me hard," Gilbert said in a statement. "That, plus a divorce and a dearth of acting opportunities the last few years, created a perfect storm of financial difficulty for me."

Gilbert and Busfield, who grew up in Michigan, moved their family from California to Michigan two years ago. Both said that was unrelated to their tax problems with the IRS.

But it is also true California tax officials are after the couple, too. State officials in California have filed $112,527 worth of tax liens against her since 2013.

This is Gilbert’s first campaign for political office. But, it is not like Gilbert doesn’t have any political experience. She served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 2001 to 2005.

That’s where Ronald Reagan started, right?

And Gilbert was active in the campaign of Democrat Mark Schauer, who failed to unseat Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in 2014.

During a campaign event for Schauer in Grand Rapids, Mich., Gilbert told PJM it was an epiphany on a treadmill that led her to the Schauer campaign.

“I was walking on the treadmill at the gym and was going on and on and on about the state of Michigan, and how I thought this governor (Snyder) was not doing what I thought he should be doing, and I did a search to find out who was running against him,” she said.

Bishop, even though he is the incumbent in the 8th Congressional District, might be a little bit worried. He is the newest addition to the Republican Party’s Patriot Program, an online program to help raise money for GOP members of Congress who could face a tougher than anticipated race in the 2016 election.

And maybe he and the GOP should be concerned.

“One of the biggest hurdles for newcomers to politics is name recognition. It’s one of the big reasons incumbents have such an advantage, because they are more well-known to the average voter in the district,” Matt A. Barreto, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Washington Post. “So when celebrities enter politics, they have an advantage early on of name recognition.”

More than 4,000 people have “liked” Gilbert’s Facebook campaign page. One of her most recent Facebook followers urged Gilbert to “Never be as mean as the Republicans and win anyways!”