Meet the David Running Against Goliath Mike Miller

On one of the last weeknights of the primary campaign, Tommi Makila pulls his car off Branch Avenue and parks in a quiet Clinton neighborhood.

It’s 7 p.m. The energy consultant has already put in a full day’s work at the office, in Columbia. And now he’s setting off — clipboard, voter records and campaign fliers in hand — to knock on doors. The neighborhood he’s chosen, in Maryland’s 27th legislative district, is predominantly African-American and solidly middle class. 

Makila, wearing a white T-shirt with his name across the chest, jeans and sneakers, has no volunteers and no staff to accompany him. He is alone, except for a reporter. 

The streets of the neighborhood are mostly flat. But as he is quick to acknowledge, his quest is uphill all the way.

For Makila, an immigrant from Finland and a first-time candidate, is running against the most entrenched member of the Maryland legislature, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D). Senate candidate Tommi Makila chats with voters Clotia White (left) and Joy White in Clinton earlier this week. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

For quite a while, Makila’s trek from house to house seems futile. Some folks aren’t home from work yet; others clearly are, but for whatever reason, refuse to come to the door.

“On some nights you wonder if it’s worth it,” he says, unprompted. (Makila estimates he’s knocked on more than 4,000 doors since December.)

As he turns a corner and enters a neighborhood with newer homes, nicer cars and manicured lawns, Makila‘s luck seems to change. Suddenly he’s finding people willing to come to the door and engage.

“I’m running against Mike Miller. He’s been in office nearly 50 years,” is his opener.

People tend to look up, eyebrows raised, as he says “50 years,” as if they have misheard this man with the vaguely Scandinavian accent at their door.

While he’s taking direct aim at the most second most powerful man in Annapolis — a legendary and charismatic figure who inspires both respect and resentment — Makila is more flashlight than blowtorch.

“It’s nothing personal against Mike Miller, I’m just thinking it may be time for someone with new ideas,” he offers gently. 

There is no talk of the Annapolis “machine.” (“That’s insider terminology,” he says later.)

One woman and her adult daughter talk with Makila for nearly 15 minutes. They complain that some neighbors don’t pay their homeowners’ association fees, that lottery monies don’t seem to reach the classroom and that many parents aren’t as active in the schools as they should be. 

Makila listens, and he talks about his own experience as a PTA president. 

“That’s what keeps you going,” Makila says as he walks to the next home. “Door-knocking is my favorite thing.”

At another home, a man asks, “When is the actual voting?” 

In a follow-up interview, the voter, Keith Merritt, offers the view that anyone in office five decades (Miller was elected in 1970, the year Makila was born) is likely “stagnant.”

At another home, a woman takes Makila’s literature and says, “I like Mike Miller” but adds that she’s drawn to the idea of “new blood.”

She then asks, “If you win, are you going to have barbecues and send Christmas cards like Mike Miller?” 

The candidate is non-committal on the barbecues.

One woman tells Makila earnestly, “We need someone with new energy and new ideas.” 

Whether she has read those words off his T-shirt, or it’s just a coincidence, is unclear.

As storm clouds roll in and daylight starts to dissipate, Makila heads back to the car, where he encounters another man, walking home from shooting hoops with his son, a boy about nine, and the family dog. The man is well aware of Mike Miller and he’s not a fan.

“The system is quite rigged,” he says, launching into a diatribe about how residents in other parts of Prince George’s have better services than this south county community. 

“Everywhere else is exactly as it should be,” he says. “This [area] is a joke.” 

The man, who gave his name as John Doe, tells Makila he will vote for him but he adds: “You know you’re not going to win. You don’t have a snowball’s chance. I’ll vote for you but it will be a protest vote.”

The man’s son, “David Doe,” tells the candidate: “I think you will win.” 

Makila likes this prediction better. (“David” asks a reporter how old you have to be to vote.)

‘Take a Hike, Mike’

Makila’s long-shot campaign began with a bang.

The prominent Service Employees International Union Local 500 held a rally on Lawyers Mall, just outside the State House, on the last day of this year’s legislative session. Speaker after speaker denounced Miller in harsh terms. Signs and banners announced the launch of the union-backed “Take a Hike, Mike” campaign – and there was lots of big talk about a primary effort to oust Miller and other incumbents seen as insufficiently progressive.

Also on hand, soaking in the Miller-bashing with a smile on his face, and drawing lots of media interest, was state Comptroller Peter V. R. Franchot (D), who has been engaged in a bitter feud with Miller for some time. 

In an interview this week, Franchot said, “Hats off to him for having the courage to run against the boss of bosses, Mike Miller. I think he’s done very well.  When I was door-knocking with him, he was very well received.”

Franchot, who has a large war chest but no Democratic primary opponent, took out full-page ads in Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland newspapers this week denouncing Miller. The ads say in part: “A major reason for our broken political system is Senate President Mike Miller … a man who goes to work every day in a cathedral-like building that bears his name – even as tens of thousands of Maryland children go to school in classrooms that lack heat and air conditioning.”

Miller had $1,009,321 in his campaign account as of June 10. 

And Mark McLaurin, political director for SEIU Local 500, acknowledges that Makila faces a “massive imbalance in terms of resources.”

But he remains optimistic, saying in an interview that, “In this environment, the Democratic primary electorate is looking for a more aggressive and energetic and progressive advocate … so I think Tommi’s got a real shot.”

McLaurin’s union has targeted 10 incumbent Democrats who it feels have been insufficiently supportive of an increase in the minimum wage, earned sick leave, union representation for community college personnel and other issues. 

He called Miller “the dictator of the Maryland Senate,” adding that, “if you’re at all progressive, you get marginalized.”

McLaurin said the union has “absolutely” backed up its big talk from that April rally in Annapolis, saying, “We have been very active in just about every one of those districts, be it mail, be it digital, or be it direct contributions and field operations. … Our effort is making a critical difference.” “I think you’re going to see five, six, seven or eight of our folks win.”

Whether Makila is going to be one of them — whether he can really knock off the longest-serving Senate president in history — will be decided in a matter of days. “I have no idea what’s going to happen,” he says. “It couldn’t be more David vs. Goliath. But I think Senator Miller is much more vulnerable than people realize. … Even people who think he’s done good things say he’s overstayed his welcome.” Photo by Bruce DePuyt

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.


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