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Melissa Gilbert today will win a prize she doesn't want

Aug 2, 2016

Today is primary election day across Michigan, and whenever there’s an election, there are always a number of bizarre things going on. The best one I can remember happened sixteen years ago not in Michigan, but in Missouri, where a Republican United States Senator named John Ashcroft lost his reelection battle to a Democrat named Mel Carnahan.

Losing your seat is always humiliating, and it was made more so by the fact that Ashcroft’s party’s nominee for President, George W. Bush, carried Missouri that year.

But that wasn’t what attracted national attention. What did was that the man who beat Ashcroft happened to be dead. He had died several weeks before in an airplane crash, and there was no time to take him off the ballot. In the end, his widow was appointed to serve in the senate.

The story has something of a happy ending for Ashcroft, however: President Bush appointed him attorney general, where one of the first things he did was cover up the naked Greek statues at the Department of Justice.

Well, so far as I can tell, there is very little chance Michigan voters will select anyone who is dead today. There are some bizarre races, however. The Democratic primary in the Eighth Congressional district is going to be won by a famous woman who turned out to be a lousy candidate who doesn’t want the job, and who wants her name off the November ballot.

Democrats want it off too. But Republicans want to keep it there. What happened is that a year ago, Democrats were excited because they’d managed to recruit Melissa Gilbert, best known as the star of the TV series Little House on the Prairie, to run for Congress against freshman Republican Mike Bishop in his Lansing-area district. They thought with her star power, he might just be vulnerable.

Unfortunately, they neglected to notice that Gilbert owed hundreds of thousands in back taxes to the IRS. She also seemed to object to things like showing up in the district and campaigning, or answering questions. Eventually, when it was too late for the state to take her name off the ballot, she announced she has back problems and didn’t want to run after all.

Now, there’s a battle over whether she can get her name off the November ballot. Republicans want to leave it on, figuring that will doom Democrats to certain defeat.

Democrats want to replace it with their designated hitter, a 29-year-old assistant Macomb prosecutor named Suzanna Shrekli. I’d tell you more about her, but she hasn’t responded to my requests for an interview. Somehow, I don’t think Mike Bishop has a whole lot to worry about this November.

Then there’s State Representative Brian Banks, another Democrat, who as I said yesterday, has been convicted of eight felonies and is now charged with three more. I forgot to mention that the state had to pay $85,000 earlier this year to defend him against charges that he sexually harassed a male staffer, a case that was settled out of court.

Not only did the state’s Democratic leadership refuse to denounce him, there seems to be an excellent chance he will be renominated today. I keep hearing that some people are cynical about politics. I certainly can’t imagine why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.