State board lets Dems select new Rep. Bishop challenger

Michael Gerstein Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Board of State Canvassers declined Monday to investigate a Republican challenge and allowed Democrats to select a new candidate to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop in November after actress Melissa Gilbert withdrew for medical reasons.

The board of two Republicans and two Democrats heard arguments from a lawyer hired by the Republican Party, but left in place a decision by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office to permit Democrats to replace Gilbert in the 8th Congressional District race with Macomb County Assistant Prosecutor Suzanna Shkreli of Clarkston.

Attorneys for the Republican Party argued in a letter dated Aug. 11 that the Board of State Canvassers should review and demonstrate “conclusive evidence” that Gilbert couldn’t physically serve in Congress if elected.

Chris Thomas, Michigan’s elections director, said the law clearly leaves it to political parties to pick a replacement nominee in the rare situation that someone must remove himself or herself from a political race because of a health condition.

So neither the Board of State Canvassers nor the state’s Bureau of Elections will review the veracity of the documents Gilbert provided as evidence of her being physically unfit to serve in office as she recovers from a surgery.

Gilbert abruptly ended her campaign in late May, citing unspecified debilitating health problems, but an Ann Arbor neurosurgeon deemed her “medically disabled.” The former “Little House on the Prairie” actress dropped out after winning the August primary because of pain and a follow-up surgery after 2012 head and neck injuries suffered in two accidents.

The Michigan GOP’s lawyers argued the Secretary of State’s move disenfranchised more than 27,000 voters who elected Gilbert in the Aug. 2 primary and was done without a “transparent review” indicating by what criteria state officials deemed the Livingston County actress “physically unfit.”

Thomas said the Republican Party’s request to review a party’s nomination is “an open invitation to block a party from providing a nominee” because of the possibility of a 2-2 stalemate vote.

“I mean, it’s their nominee,” he said. “If they can’t campaign because they’re physically unfit, it’s hard to argue that the party ought to be stuck with that person if that person wants off.”

Norman Shinkle, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers, made much the same argument a Monday board meeting.

Shinkle said the last time an issue like this was presented to the Secretary of State’s office was in the 1950s, when a candidate was committed to a mental institution. Nothing in state statute gives the Board of State Canvassers the power to make the decision asked by Republicans.

Shinkle said that perhaps the Legislature should consider whether there should be a nonpartisan board to review such determinations.

“This should be in the bucket list,” Shinkle said. “We just have never dealt with this before.”

The Michigan Republican Party commissioned Dykema lawyers Jason Hanselman and Gary Gordon to write another letter sent Monday to the Board of State Canvassers and Thomas that renewed the call to have the board review the issue.

“Ms. Gilbert has not adequately proved that she would physically unfit to serve in Congress,” the letter said.

Democrats later released a statement praising the Board of Canvassers’ decision.

“The law is clear, the law has been affirmed, and dragging this out any further is simply playing politics and a disservice to the people of Michigan’s 8th District,” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon said in a statement.

In another development, Republican petitioner Joe Kent of Lake Orion lost his primary recount in Oakland County’s 46th State House District to Oakland Township businessman John Reilly by 29 votes — the same margin as on the Aug. 2 election night.