June 8 2016 12:15 AM

Bishop’s seat was vulnerable with a strong challenger

It may have been news — national news, in fact — that Melissa Gilbert was ending her bid for Congress. But was she was ever serious, ever willing to undertake the grueling campaign, needed to unseat first-term Republican Rep. Mike Bishop?

For all of the talk about tapping into big Hollywood money to help fund her run, the television actress, best known as Laura Ingalls in the 1970s television series “Little House on the Prairie,” did very little to generate interest or excitement about her candidacy.

A recognizable name is good, but working the district, comprising Ingham, Livingston and part of Oakland counties, is what really delivers votes, especially for a challenger in a race where the district has been gerrymandered for Republican candidates. Apparently retail politics wasn't her thing.

Withdrawing from the race, Gilbert said she was suffering from chronic and worsening head and neck injuries from an accident in 2012. Her doctors, she said, advised her against running for Congress. Celebrity aside, she was dogged by a $400,000 back taxes bill, which she says she's resolving. In past elections this sort of baggage might have hurt her, but probably not this year. Presidential candidates Trump and Clinton have dulled voter sensibilities.

For a while it seemed possible that Democrats might actually field a candidate with some chance of competing in the district formerly owned by Mike Rogers. Gilbert's proclamation that she was running for Congress was national news, well, sort of, and she quickly won endorsements from the United Auto Workers and AFL-CIO. She raised about $400,000 with support from celebrities like Alec Baldwin, George Clooney, Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Garner, according to the Detroit Free Press, but Bishop had about twice as much cash on hand. Gilbert had been head of the 100,000-member Screen Actors Guild but has never held a public office.

Where the Democrats go now with the 8th District race is, really, nowhere. There is no viable candidate stepping up to replace Gilbert, who will remain on the August Democratic primary ballot. With Gilbert's campaign collapse, what remained was a long-shot bid by Linda Keefe, deposed in 2012 as elected town clerk by the Windsor Township board, and who has since moved to Lansing.

A fringe candidate at best, she had petitioned the State Board of Canvassers to approve her candidacy, which it didn't, ruling that she lacked a sufficient number of signatures on her nominating petition to qualify for the Aug. 2 primary. The Democratic Party says it will find someone for the November general election, but the race for Congress is over before it even begins.

The episode illustrates the sorry state of the Democratic Party, certainly in mid Michigan. There is no bench.

Only former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer — soon to be interim Ingham County prosecutor — and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero have any real political capital. Whitmer is planning a run for gover nor in 2018 to succeed Rick Snyder. Bernero, who ran against Snyder in 2010, is expected to seek an unprecedented fourth term in Lansing next year. Actually, the populist uprising roiling both parties plays well to Bernero's strengths, his “Angriest Mayor in America” shtick, and certainly he'd pick up Gilbert's union backing. And a change of scenery might be good for him and the city.

For a mid-size city in Michigan, a low bar indeed, Lansing is doing well. It has a budget surplus, the population is up slightly, the business district is expanding, developers are building and planning more housing.

Though the district is Republican, Bernero, with adequate funding from the Democrats, might have a shot at Mike Bishop's seat. His first term in Congress, to put it generously, has been underwhelming.

The former state Senate majority leader, whose tenure was marked by cuts to K-12, Michigan's colleges and universities, the state police, and who with generous campaign contributions from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun tried to prevent construction of a new bridge across the Detroit River, has sponsored just one bill that became law, a one-year extension allowing higher education institutions to make loans under the Federal Perkins Loan program. (HR3594). Four other bills he sponsored were referred to committees, where they languished.

Essentially a back-bencher, the Rochester Republican's voting record aligns with the leadership positions of the party. In a presidential election year this was the Democrats chance, and they blew it.


Two weeks ago, Texas and 10 other states sued the Obama administration over its directive to U.S.public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Surprisingly, Michigan wasn't among them.

Attorney General Bill Schuette has often colluded with other Republican attorneys general to challenge presidential directives. The attorney general, using taxpayer resources, stumbled in legal campaigns to oppose same-sex marriage, overturn the Affordable Care Act, and retain what the Supreme Court called cruel and unusual punishment for minors convicted of murder.

In this case, no new is news. Even better, good news.

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