Actress Melissa Gilbert is best remembered as the freckle-faced child star in the 1970s and ’80s TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” America watched her grow up on set — where she had her first kiss, learned to ride a horse and survived her first bee sting, she once told the Archive of American Television.
The show undoubtedly gave her a name in the industry — and it’s that name that may now give her a boost in the battle for political success.
Gilbert, 51, announced Monday that she’s running for Congress in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District. Gilbert lives with her husband, fellow actor Timothy Busfield, in Livingston County, where she is seeking the Democratic nomination in the hopes of challenging the district’s Republican incumbent.
“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,” she said in a statement on her campaign site. “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.”
It marks the first time Gilbert has sought political office — joining a long line of celebrities turned politicians. The most notable, perhaps, is Ronald Reagan (R), who earned his celebrity as a film actor in the late 1930s, appearing in dozens of films, including “Dark Victory” alongside Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. But it was the 1942 “Kings Row” that he said “made me a star.” No doubt. He was later elected governor of California and then president of the United States.
“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 at Los Angeles told The Washington Post. “So when celebrities enter politics, they have an advantage early on of name recognition. Depending on their current finances, they may also have a bit of money they can spend to further increase their name recognition. Not to mention that the media, for whatever the reason, love to devote extra attention to celebrity politicians, which further increases their profile and recognition among voters.”
Celebrities — big or small — have always been involved in politics.
Once a performing act alongside Shirley Temple, Broadway actor and Hollywood star George Murphy (R) served as a U.S. Senator in California from 1965 to 1971.
About the same time, Temple (R), the once curly-headed song-and-dance sensation, served in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations from 1969 to 1974, according to CNN. In 1974, President Gerald Ford appointed her as ambassador to Ghana and, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed her as the first and only female ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
In 1986, Clint Eastwood, an outspoken actor who seemed to struggle over the years choosing a political party, ran for mayor in his hometown of Carmel, Calif. He was upset over an attempt by a local planning board to keep him from renovating an office building near a restaurant he owned, according to Time magazine. His Oscar-winning smile helped him defeat his opponent, 2,166 to 799. Then he fired the naysayers on the planning board.
Sonny Bono (R) served as Palm Springs mayor from 1988 to 1992 and as a California congressman from 1995 until his death in 1998. Fred Grandy (R) won a House of Representatives seat in Iowa in 1986. Fred Thompson (R) represented Tennessee in the Senate from 1994 to 2003 and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2008 cycle. And Jesse “The Body” Ventura (I) served as Minnesota governor from 1999 to 2003.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), the Austrian muscleman turned action movie star, used his “Terminator” shtick to help him snag the governorship in California in 2003 in a recall election. During his campaign, he called his opponents “girlie-men” and told voters to “terminate” them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time. When he won, the media dubbed him the “Governator.”
Al Franken (D), who was known as a comedy writer and occasional actor on “Saturday Night Live,” shocked fans when he ran for a Senate seat in Minnesota in 2008 — and won.
“He used his celebrity in Minnesota,” Matt Rexroad, with Republican political consulting group Meridian, told The Post. “That was a year when Republicans didn’t do well and he squeaked it out.”
Gilbert isn’t the only celebrity candidate during the current political season.
Last month, actor and comedian Steven Michael Quezada, better known as Drug Enforcement Agency employee Steve Gomez on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” announced his bid for county commissioner in Albuquerque, N.M.
And it’s impossible to forget billionaire and reality TV star Donald Trump (R).
But Barreto cautioned that name recognition alone won’t be enough to sustain a candidate or an elected official.
“Name recognition can help early on, but eventually a celebrity politician will still have to run on a well-articulated agenda and set of policy beliefs, and this is where most end up falling short,” Barreto said. “However, some have been able to crack into the political arena, and once they do, they face the reality that nobody can govern alone. They have to meet, negotiate and make compromises with the other members of the legislature.”
And Tom Ross, a political consultant with Meridian, told The Post that he thinks being a celebrity politician presents its own unique set of challenges.
“It’s easy to send money and speak out, but it’s not easy to put your name on the line,” he said. “Public policy gets messy — you don’t get your way. You can’t just tell somebody that you’re a celebrity and you want to do something. It often has the opposite effect.”
“It’s a wake-up call for them, absolutely,” Ross said, “when they have to work with other policymakers who are equal to them.
“But once they figure out what they’re doing after a year or two, they’re just like everybody else. They get in the groove.”
Gilbert has already started facing challenges at the beginning of her political career. The Internal Revenue Service said this summer that the actress owed more than $360,000 in federal income taxes, according to the Associated Press, “a point,” the Detroit Free Press said, “Michigan Republicans were quick to point out as she announced her campaign.”