BRIGHTON, Mich. — Melissa Gilbert is being a bit flippant. In her latest role, that of a real-life Democratic candidate for the U.S. House from central Michigan, the veteran TV actress has filled her campaign coffers with fat checks from a nearly bottomless list of celebrity friends. You can just imagine the attack ad her opponent, first-term Republican Rep. Mike Bishop, could launch: This carpetbagging dilettante and the liberal Hollywood elite want to buy your wholesome Midwestern seat in Congress.
Gilbert, at 51, has a thick skin when it comes to scrutiny — she dated Rob Lowe in the ’80s, sued the National Enquirer in the ’90s, waged a scrappy public battle for control of the Screen Actors Guild in the ’00s — and she doesn’t blink at such questions. She’s “really glad that George Clooney’s been a friend of mine for 30 years,” she says earnestly. And “it’s great that Rosie O’Donnell is taking an interest in the 8th Congressional District in Michigan.” A hint of defensiveness creeps in, though, as she notes that 80 percent of her donors are small-dollar locals and that one of her first big donors was a Republican.
“But,” she sniffs, “you won’t care about him because he’s not famous.”
True, perhaps — but a funny moral high ground for Gilbert to claim. Were it not for her own fame, it’s hard to imagine she could have moved to Michigan from out of state and launched a credible, well-funded congressional bid within two years. Her indelible performances as young Laura Ingalls Wilder in the 1970s TV hit “Little House on the Prairie” are what put her on an unlikely path that could, possibly, bring her to Washington.
The California native relocated to this rural area about an hour west of Detroit in 2013, after marrying her third husband, Timothy Busfield, the Emmy-winning actor best known for “Thirtysomething,” who grew up down the road in East Lansing.
During their courtship, she had fallen in love with Michigan’s scenery and quieter lifestyle, and, meanwhile, her acting career had slowed. Gilbert has spoken out about a paucity of good roles for middle-aged women: Most of her recent projects — a guest spot on NBC’s “The Night Shift,” a recurring part in the first season of ABC’s “Secrets and Lies” — have come about in part because Busfield, too, was involved.
They first rented a 115-year-old Victorian in quaint downtown Howell, population 9,500, where Gilbert got involved in the failed 2014 Michigan gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Mark Schauer, and local people began confiding in Gilbert about their problems, Busfield says.
“People were knocking on our doors and she was taking the time to deal with them,” he recalls. “People were saying, ‘My mom is dying.’ And I would be like, ‘Where are you going?’ and she’d be, ‘I’m going to their house. Their mom wants to meet me.’ I kept seeing somebody who belonged in service. . . . It seemed natural from there that [people] would come to her and say, ‘Can you represent us, and are you interested in doing it?’ ”
Last summer, they moved to a secluded country home (“our own Little House in the Big Woods,” she tweeted) in nearby Brighton, population 7,500, and she announced her candidacy. The state party cleared the field for Gilbert, who currently faces no competition in the Aug. 2 primary. “I’m so impressed with her,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who represented the district in the 1990s and encouraged her to run. “She’s been involved in a number of different issues around health care and children and families, and she’s very, very bright, very astute. She’d be a terrific congresswoman.”
Gilbert faces an uphill climb. It’s a nominally swingy, heavily gerrymandered district that stretches 100 miles from the state capital of Lansing to the upscale suburbs of Detroit with a mighty plain of farmland in between. It went for George W. Bush twice, then for Barack Obama in 2008 before switching to Mitt Romney in 2012, and these voters haven’t sent a Democrat to the House since the 1990s. Her opponent spent years representing the area in the state House and Senate.
Still, on the power of her fame and her prodigious fundraising — her disclosure reads like an issue of Entertainment Weekly with donations from Alec Baldwin, Michael Douglas, Jane Kaczmarek, Elizabeth Perkins, Sam Raimi and Aaron Sorkin, among other showbiz luminaries — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee listed “MI-08” as one of its “emerging” new opportunities to flip a seat. (Bishop’s camp mocks the designation, noting that the DCCC lost all of its 16 “emerging” races in 2014.)
In most ways, the Gilbert campaign is a by-the-numbers modern effort: the usual hyperventilating fundraising emails, the expected appearances at local businesses and cultural events, the standard Facebook posts holding forth on gun violence and other topics du jour. Her main slam on Bishop — like many incumbent challengers, she dubs her rival a “career politician” — is his stance on feminist issues such as pay equity and abortion rights, which she supports and Bishop opposes.
“His voting record is decidedly anti-women,” she says, reciting his votes to defund Planned Parenthood and against the Paycheck Fairness Act. “All different kinds of people from all different walks of life, they tell me they believe Planned Parenthood should not be defunded.” Stu Sandler, a spokesman for Bishop, retorts that “Gilbert is playing games with procedural votes instead of recognizing [equal pay] is already federal law. This isn’t surprising because she demonstrates a lack of understanding on issues.”
Bishop, meanwhile, returns again and again to Gilbert’s own key vulnerability: Last year she disclosed that she owes the IRS and the state of California nearly $500,000 in back taxes. Although she has arranged payment plans to resolve it, Bishop’s news releases refer to the candidate as “tax delinquent Melissa Gilbert.” The actress blamed her financial troubles on a coincidence of calamities including recession-era investment losses, a costly divorce from actor Bruce Boxleitner and a broken back that left her unable to work.
“It screams excessive, I know, but it is relative to what I was earning at the time,” Gilbert says firmly, seated besides her husband in their kitchen as snow sprinkles onto a back deck overlooking rolling hills, trees and a lake.
“You have to bear in mind that I was coming from a place of working really hard as a performer and single mom and earning a great deal of money that then just went kaboom. However, when that happened, I contacted the IRS and I took responsibility for it. I speak to a lot of people who said to me, ‘I had the same problem.’ ”
But as Bishop raises the issue again and again, the criticism could stick. Her politics are already a little more liberal on social issues than the district’s, though they do help with her fundraising appeal, said Susan Demas, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. Demas added that Gilbert’s tax problems, while not fatal, “are an issue. I’m surprised she didn’t try to clear this up before declaring. A lot of people probably don’t look very kindly on a Hollywood actress who doesn’t pay her taxes.”
Gilbert seems mentally ready for this rough-and-tumble. She’s hardly a political neophyte, having served two terms as SAG president — a job Ronald Reagan once held — at a time of great turmoil for the movie industry. Her initial 2001 election was challenged by her bitter rival, actress Valerie Harper, in a bit of castle intrigue that resulted in a 2002 redo vote in which Gilbert prevailed. That role brought her a seat on the executive board of the AFL-CIO. And in 2006, Gilbert testified before the California legislature and lobbied successfully for a measure to provide for “comfort care” as well as potentially life-saving treatments for chronically ill children.
(Busfield, who played a White House correspondent on “The West Wing,” insists he’s no help to her in this department: “I know nothing about politics, I’m not a well-read political person. I’m a carny. And I play roles.”)
Still, it’s tough taking the Hollywood out of the actress. Early in her Michigan residency, she likened her new hometown to “ ‘Green Acres’ without the farm and glamour.” When asked whether she hunts or shoots — popular sports around here, and a frequent question for heartland politicians — she cites her gun training for a role as a cop: “And I shot rifles on ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ It’s a little different.”
Gilbert accepts that the race is a challenge. Few actors have managed to get elected — and in recent times most, intriguingly, have been Republicans — but she does believe a fellow TV personality could indirectly help her: “If I were Mike Bishop, I would be very nervous and very worried if the Republican nominee is [Donald] Trump,” she says.
As any good politician or actor would, she casts her efforts in the context of a broader narrative, that of the prospect of being elected to Congress at the same time that the country could elect its first female president, Hillary Clinton.
“I would love to be a part of that,” Gilbert says. “My granddaughter is turning 1, and I’d like for her to say, ‘Look at what my granny did. My granny got to be a part of these incredible women and now I can be anything I want. And get paid the same for the same job. ’ ”
Melissa Gilbert’s campaign disclosure reads like an issue of Entertainment Weekly, with contributions coming from a wide array of show business names. Here’s a sampling:
Clay Aiken, $1,000
Alec Baldwin, $1,000
Tom Bergeron, $1,000
Gabrielle Carteris, $500
Sara Gilbert (her sister), $1,363
Quinn Cummings, $250
Michael Douglas, $3,500
Polly Draper, $2,000
Shelley Fabares, $303
Jennifer Garner, $5,400
Seth Green, $2,000
Arlo Guthrie, $500
Florence Henderson, $550
Marshall Herskovitz, $1,500
Peter Horton, $1,625
Laura Innes, $1,000
Jane Kaczmarek, $1,000
Jeffrey Katzenberg, $2,700
Juliette Lewis, $500
Bryan Lourd, $2,700
Seth MacFarlane, $5,400
Rosie O’Donnell, $5,400
Ken Olin, $1,500
Daniel Palladino, $2,700
Amy Sherman-Palladino, $2,700
Sarah Paulson, $1,000
Elizabeth Perkins, $1,000
Linda Perry, $2,000
Matthew Perry, $5,400
Sam Raimi, $1,500
Jeremy Ratchford, $500
Melissa Rivers, $1,500
Katey Sagal, $500
Sherri Shepherd, $1,050
John Slattery, $2,700
Aaron Sorkin, $1,000
Daniel Stern, $500
Kiefer Sutherland, $5,400
Steve Zahn, $250