All posts by tommi

About tommi

I am a community activist living in Accokeek, Maryland. I am a proud Democrat. But, for our democracy to work well, I believe good governance to be much more important than blind party loyalty.

Prince George’s County Politicians Need to Part with “Sample Ballot” Tradition

The June 2018 Democratic primary election in Prince George’s County was a lively entanglement with many candidates in various races, energetic campaigning, and at times heated rhetoric. As a candidate myself for the Maryland Senate, I had a front row seat to the campaigning and got to observe many candidates and their campaigns up close and personal.


To a casual voter or outside observer the Prince George’s primary seems like any other electoral contest. However, when one takes a closer look, our elections have one rather unique, and troubling, aspect: the role the “sample ballot” advertisements play in the Democratic primary elections. In many parts of Maryland sample ballot advertisements are considered inappropriate in primary elections. In other areas such ballots are used, but it seems that it is in Prince George’s County where sample ballots play a more central role than anywhere else. In fact, Prince George’s County Democratic voters have been conditioned to expect a sample ballot from their elected officials to tell them how to vote.


The most troubling aspect about the sample ballots is the fact that the ones provided by the political establishment are billed as the “official Democratic sample ballot.” For many less informed voters, this wording seems to indicate that the candidates checked on the ballot have been endorsed by the Democratic Party. Some voters think that the candidates not checked on the ballot are not even Democrats. Of course, the reality is that there is nothing “official” about the ballots, as the Democratic Party does not make endorsements in its own primary. These sample ballots are nothing but advertisements for certain candidates.


Some people may wonder what the issue with the sample ballots is. So what if candidate A gets elected instead of candidate B as a result of this practice?


There are a couple of fundamental and very serious problems with these ballots. First, the end result is that in many cases an inferior candidate—inferior when considering factors such as qualifications, prior community involvement, integrity, issue platform, and campaign effort—ends up winning a race over a superior candidate. When you have these inferior candidates in office, the quality of our political decision making suffers and we often end up with a public official who is an embarrassment to the community. (To be clear, my own race was not one of those where the sample ballots were decisive. Running against Senator Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, the nation’s longest-serving senate president, would have been a steep uphill battle even without any sample ballots.)


The second problem is that these sample ballots form the foundation that our Democratic “political machine” is built on. By heavily tilting the playing field through the use of sample ballots our political establishment is able to dictate to a large extent who gets elected to what office. Thus, in Prince George’s County, most of our new elected officials owe their election to these sample ballots and those incumbent politicians who placed them on the ballots. As a result, even well-meaning new elected officials easily become co-opted by the political machine and end up working more for the people who helped them get elected rather than the voters.


In order to restore fairness in Prince George’s County elections and improve the quality of our political decision making, the role of sample ballot advertisements must be diminished. The use of highly deceptive “official Democratic sample ballot” language needs to be banned either through Democratic Party rules or legislation. We also must work toward changing our political culture so that it will be considered inappropriate for our incumbent politicians to try to unduly influence the results of other local races. We need to have elections where all candidates compete on their own merits.

Latest PGCPS Debacle Symptomatic of Broader Political Dysfunction in Prince George’s

Recent incidents at Oxon Hill and Potomac High School graduations involving Prince George’s County Public Schools top administrators and Board of Education Member Edward Burroughs have received lots of media attention. What happened was unfortunate and does not reflect well on the school system.

My own child attends Oxon Hill High School and he was present at the graduation. However, what interests me most is not the details of exactly what happened and who I think was at fault. Rather, I find the series of events very reflective of the political culture in Prince George’s County.

Some background for those who do not closely follow the political happenings around PGCPS and our BOE. It is important to know that Edward Burroughs has long been at odds with the CEO of the school system, Dr. Kevin Maxwell. Under the new PGCPS governance structure, the school CEO is appointed by the County Executive, not the BOE. Thus, the CEO is accountable to the County Executive, even though he naturally works closely with the BOE. Mr. Burroughs’ vocal opposition to Dr. Maxwell—including his call for the school CEO to resign during the Head Start controversy last year—has labeled him a “troublemaker” in the eyes of the political establishment in our county.

When those aligned with the Prince George’s County political establishment talk about Mr. Burroughs and other troublemakers, the language I often here is that “we need to work together.” On its face this sounds constructive and reasonable. However, what the establishment really means by this sentiment is that our political leadership obviously knows what they are doing and everyone else needs to just follow their lead without questioning anything.

I will give an example of how this works. Mr. Burroughs has long been complaining that under Dr. Maxwell’s leadership the top PGCPS administrative staff and their salaries have ballooned. There is plenty of objective evidence to back up Mr. Burroughs’ concerns, including data gathered by the Washington Area Boards of Education. My own knowledgeable contacts within PGCPS also confirm that under Dr. Maxwell the school system has become top-heavy and more centralized. So, when Mr. Burroughs expresses such concerns that seem to be backed up by objective evidence and knowledgeable people, a school board that is truly working together would surely take these concerns seriously and start looking into it. But no, this is obviously not the kind of “working together” our political establishment wants. Instead, the majority of the board—which is closely aligned with the County Executive and the rest of the political establishment—acts as a rubber stamp on the CEO’s budget proposals and demands no serious explanations or reprioritization from him. This is the kind of “working together” our political establishment wants. Good cooperative elected officials that go along to get along. No complaints, not a lot of noise.

In the short term, this type of “working together” may be easy and get more positive headlines. However, this kind of establishment-dominated political culture—or machine politics—is a fertile breeding ground for all types of unethical and illegal behavior. And, sadly, we have seen plenty of negative headlines resulting from our establishment’s preferred method of operation.

What we need are more people like Edward Burroughs in office. Elected officials who will do what is right, not what the party bosses tell them to do.

What “Taking Over the Democratic Party” Means in Prince George’s

As I have noted before, Michael Moore got it right when, in the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat against Donald Trump, he declared that we need to “take over the Democratic Party and return it to the people.” Numerous other commentators have expressed the same sentiment.

But what exactly does “taking over the Democratic Party” mean?

First, the change must start at the local grassroots level – in the counties and state parties. A new head of the Democratic National Committee will not suffice.

Second, what kind of change is needed at the local level is not the same everywhere. In a local Democratic Party where there are truly competitive primary elections, the fight may be over the type of candidates and party leaders we have – progressives, centrists, or whatever else. In other parts of the country, like in my home in Prince George’s County in Maryland, the fight needs to be about actually having competitive primary elections. Currently we have a system that is fully dominated by the Democratic political machine. Our incumbent politicians control all of our lower ballot races through their candidate slates and “sample ballots.” And, since we are a county dominated by one party, we don’t have any real competition in the general election either.

When you have this kind of machine politics, “taking over the Democratic Party” must focus on breaking the political machine. This can only happen by providing a strong and credible citizen-focused alternative to the establishment slates and sample ballots in our primary elections. Once we elect our local politicians in real competitive elections, then we can start worrying if our elected officials are too liberal/progressive/centrist/moderate/conservative to our taste.

Way Forward for Prince George’s Democrats

After the shocking Trump victory, what is next for us Democrats?

In his day after the election post Michael Moore nailed it: “Take over the Democratic Party and return it to the people. They have failed us miserably.”

There is no other place where Moore’s advice is more needed than in Prince George’s County. Our Democratic Party establishment practices total machine politics and actively ignores the needs and opinions of the people.

Take this 2016 election season as an example. Our Democratic establishment quietly added Question D to the ballot to create two new at large seats to the County Council. The only reason for this proposal was for the incumbent County Council members to be able circumvent voter-approved term limits and stay in office. The issue was buried among the bond questions on the ballot, and voters’ mail boxes were saturated with fake “Democratic sample ballots” advocating for passage of Question D. Not surprisingly, this tactic worked like a charm and the two at large seats were approved.

Our Democratic establishment also pushed relentlessly for its preferred candidates in the school board elections through the same “Democratic sample ballots” that were used to promote Question D. This was done despite the fact that school board elections are supposed to be nonpartisan contests and the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee had not made endorsements in the races.

There is nothing new in the Democratic political machine trying to manipulate our local elections. Every time there is a primary election—the only races that usually matter in our overwhelmingly Democratic county—our incumbent politicians pool their resources by forming slates and using sample ballot advertisements. Because it is nearly impossible for challengers to match the pooled resources of the incumbent politicians, these slates and sample ballots provide nearly foolproof incumbency protection. The sample ballots also enable the establishment to decide who wins any lower ballot open races, as the candidates chosen to be on the incumbent sample ballot almost always win. Thus, our incumbent politicians are gatekeepers to elected office, and the slates and sample ballots are the glue that keeps the political machine together.

In order for us to return the Prince George’s County Democratic Party to the people, we must break this political machine. At this time, I see only one strategy to achieve this: We must fight fire with fire, starting in the 2018 primary election. We must recruit good independent-minded candidates for many, if not all, political offices in the county. These candidates must collaborate, pool their resources, and run relentless grassroots campaigns. Defeating the Prince George’s political machine won’t be easy, but we must do the right thing and fight for the people.

The 2018 primary election is still some ways off. In the meantime, it is important for Prince George’s county grassroots activists to work on high priority local issues, such as giving power back to the people by returning to an all-elected school board. However, I see no meaningful change happening in Prince George’s County until we oust the establishment politicians who control the political machine and ignore the will of the people.

Two More Council Members Is Not What We Need

In 2014, once again, Prince George’s County voters rejected a term limit extension for our County Council members. Apparently the desire of current Council members to stay on is very strong, as the County Council is considering to place a referendum item on the November ballot to create two new, at-large Council seats. Information on the proposal can be found in a recent Washington Post article. Resident response to the proposal was not very positive, as is reflected in a Sentinel article about a July 11 public hearing on the matter.

In my view, more Council members is not what we need. My testimony at the July 11 hearing outlines my thoughts on the kind of electoral reform we do need:

Good evening,

My name is Tommi Makila. I live in Accokeek. I am a community activist, past PTA president, and current HOA president, but I am speaking as an individual tonight.

I am strongly opposed to the current proposal to add two at-large members to the Council. Knowing this Council’s history of pushing for extension of term limits, this is another obvious attempt to give some of you additional time on the Council. The self-serving nature of the proposal is so glaring that I don’t need to dwell on the issue. If the Council really feels that there is some merit in creating at-large council seats, those seats should be created by reducing the number of district council seats so as to make the proposal budget neutral.

I can see the reason why you all feel that you deserve more time on the Council. I believe the county has been moving in the right direction over the last few years, and the Council has played a role in these positive developments. I want to thank you all for that.

I even agree with you that our electoral system is holding our county back. However, my diagnosis of our problems differs greatly from yours. From where I am sitting, I don’t think our main problem is that you all only get to serve two terms on the Council. From my perspective, the real problem is that our local, down ballot elections are decided by a small circle of our establishment politicians well before any votes are cast. What I’m talking about are the slates and their sample ballots. You all know how that system works. While I don’t know the electoral history of you all, I am fairly certain that most of you can thank an incumbent slate for your seat on the Council. If you are honest, you should be able to admit that the slate was much more likely to be decisive in the race that first put you on the Council than your superior ideas or skills as a candidate when compared to your rivals. No offense to any of you, but this is the sad reality in our county.

What the system of slates and their sample ballots amounts to is machine politics – machine politics at its worst. The stench of backroom dealing to decide our important local elections is bad for us as a county. We residents suffer when our politicians are more accountable to the political establishment than us voters.

So, instead of spending your time and energy trying to find ways to extend your time on the Council, I urge you all to join the fight to change our culture of machine politics. Instead of fighting for this amendment, launch a campaign to unseat a lackluster legislator or other incumbent politician. Since you are current officeholders, you are the ones with the name recognition and track record to successfully challenge other politicians. And, as you wage future political campaigns, take a pledge not to join establishment slates and sample ballots. Instead, be politicians who are accountable only to the voters – not the political machine. Let’s have some real, exciting and competitive elections! That would be very good for our county.

Thank you for your time.

Political Lessons from Hockey

I am a native of Finland, so hockey is my sport of choice.

Over the last 20 or 30 years, the United States has made impressive gains in international hockey. When the “Miracle on Ice” happened in the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. was far from a hockey powerhouse. That is one reason why the victory over the mighty Soviet team was such a big deal. Since 1980 things have changed significantly. The number of American-born players in the National Hockey League has risen significantly, and in today’s international hockey tournaments the U.S. is always considered one of the favorites.

So what happened to enable the rise of American hockey? While I am not the foremost expert on the topic, two factors jump out at me. First, the NHL has significantly expanded its presence in the U.S., from the traditional hockey areas in the Northeast and Upper Midwest to all over the country, including the not-so-wintry states of Florida (2 teams), California (3 teams), and Texas (1 team). The spread of hockey to these new areas has brought a greater number of youth to the game. Besides the geographic expansion, USA Hockey—the primary organization promoting youth and amateur hockey in the country—has focused on reaching out to non-traditional groups and areas.

Note that both of these factors relate to expanding the reach of hockey. As you grow the pool of potential hockey players, the available talent pool expands as well. As a result, American hockey teams in all age groups have become stronger and more competitive, and more American players reach the highest level of the game.

What is the political lesson in all this? – As with most things with me, it all comes back to the role the incumbent slates play in Maryland politics. When an election is rigged by an incumbent slate, fewer potential candidates are willing to throw their hat in the ring. Why bother with the significant effort when the election is decided by incumbent politicians behind closed doors?

As long as we let incumbent slates pick our elected officials, we are hurting ourselves by shutting out top talent from the system. If we want a top-notch political team, we need to expand the pool of potential candidates by providing truly competitive elections—especially in the lower ballot “entry-level” races.

Letting incumbent politicians decide our elections is like a youth hockey coach reaching out only to his closest friends to find kids for the team. It is no way to build a talented and successful team.

What If Maryland Played Decisive Role in Presidential Primary?

It is again that time when Iowa and New Hampshire loom large for us political junkies. Some of my best and most exciting political experiences are from the epic Iowa caucus season of 2007-2008.

When Barack Obama entered the Democratic primary field in early 2007, nobody gave him much of a chance. Most people—especially political insiders and “experts”—thought Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Luckily, both Iowa and New Hampshire voters are an independent-minded bunch who want to truly vet the candidates and give everyone a chance. Voters in the early states want to meet candidates in person and hear what they have to say before making up their minds. Without this level playing field, Obama would have had no chance to beat Clinton in 2008.

Just imagine if Maryland had been an early decisive state during the 2008 primary season. Well before the primary, all elected Maryland Democrats would have lined up behind the party establishment’s choice—Hillary Clinton. The substantial campaign resources of the Maryland Democratic machine would have ensured that no challenger had any chance of beating Clinton. Obama, Edwards and all the other candidates would have been crushed. Game over.

Thank you Iowa and New Hampshire for having real elections.

Search for Slate Busters Is On!

I have been ranting about the Democratic slates and their impact on Maryland elections for some time now. The bottom line is, I have yet to hear of a lower ballot candidate (state delegate, county council member, etc.) who beat a person endorsed by an incumbent slate in a Democratic primary. But hey, I have only lived in Maryland since 2009, so the fact that I haven’t heard of such a slate buster does not prove that he/she does not exist.

Thus, the search for slate busters is on! Please let me know if you know of a Maryland candidate who meets the following criteria:

  • Was a candidate in lower ballot race (delegate, county council member, etc.) in a Democratic primary election
  • Won the Democratic primary
  • Was NOT endorsed by the incumbent Democratic slate and was NOT included on the slate’s “sample ballot” advertisement
  • Had an opponent who was endorsed by the incumbent Democratic slate and included on the slate’s “sample ballot” advertisement

If you know of such a candidate, please email me at tommi at with details.