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GOP: Gilbert physically fit enough to run for Congress

The Detroit News

The Michigan Republican Party is asking the Michigan Board of State Canvassers to review and reverse a Secretary of State Office’s decision to let Democrats replace actress Melissa Gilbert on the Nov. 8 congressional ballot as “physically unfit” to run.

In a Monday letter to Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon, State Director of Elections Christopher Thomas agreed to replace Gilbert in the 8th Congressional District race with Macomb County Assistant Prosecutor Suzanna Shkreli of Clarkston. She would face U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, in the general election.

Gilbert abruptly ended her campaign in late May, citing unspecified debilitating health problems. The Michigan Democratic Party said then that Gilbert was scheduled to undergo spinal surgery and an Ann Arbor neurosurgeon deemed her “medically disabled.”

But attorneys for the Republican Party argued in a letter dated Thursday that the Board of State Canvassers should review the matter at its Monday meeting, where the issue is not on the agenda, and demonstrate “conclusive evidence” that Gilbert couldn’t physically serve in Congress if elected. Tuesday was the deadline to change names on the November ballot.

The Secretary of State’s move not only disenfranchises more than 27,000 voters who elected Gilbert in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, the GOP’s lawyers argued, but was done without a “transparent review” indicating by what criteria state officials deemed the Livingston County actress “physically unfit.”

Gilbert’s withdrawal letter, medical insurance records and a letter from her doctor about her physical inabilities were submitted to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office.

Thomas said in his Monday letter that under a 1950 attorney general’s opinion a political party’s county committee “determines the facts ... under which withdrawal is permitted to exist.” The state or “filing official has no authority to independently assess the dufficiency of the party’s nomination process,” he wrote.

“The role of secretary of state and the county election commissions is limited to receiving the party’s certification of its new nominee,” Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said Friday.

In July, Democrats recruited Shkreli to run for the congressional seat, which includes Ingham, Livingston and parts of northern Oakland County. Bishop previously warned a “dangerous precedent” would be set if Gilbert’s name were removed from the November ballot for vague health problems.

The Republican Party’s attorneys argued in an Aug. 11 letter to the Secretary of State’s Office that Gilbert is physically fit enough to remain on the ballot.

“Members of Congress often have illnesses or injuries that require hospitalization or time away from their official duties,” wrote Jason Hanselman and Gary Gordon of the Dykema Gossett law firm. “Such illnesses or injuries do not necessarily render a Member of Congress physically unfit to serve.

The lawyers cited the examples of U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., continuing to serve after having a massive stroke and often being wheelchair-bound; quadriplegic U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-Rhode Island; and three others serving while battling cancer. By contrast, they wrote, one of the few instances when the state’s unfit law was used in a 1950s case “of mental illness so severe that the nominee for county treasurer was placed in an insane asylum in a different county....”

In arguing for the state canvassers’s review, the Republican Party said Gilbert’s medical issues need to be aired publicly to ensure they meet a strict standard of physical unfitness.

“The threshold question here ... is whether the Legislature intended to allow party bosses to ignore the will of the people by allowing a select few to replace a democratically elected nominee,” Hanselman and Gordon wrote in the Aug. 11 letter. “...Allowing the Democratic Party to manipulate the election process opens the door to shenanigans in future elections.”

The state board consists of two Democratic and two Republican members.