Aruna Miller at first resisted elective office when a resignation opened a seat in the Maryland state legislature.
She worried. “Nobody looks like me that’s elected,” Miller, now 58, recalled in an interview. “No one’s going to vote for me.” Then she thought of what good she could do, she said.
So was launched a journey Miller describes as improbable and will culminate next week with her swearing in alongside Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore as part of a history-making ticket.
Miller’s new post, lieutenant governor, has long been relegated to the tedium of diplomacy: attending ribbon cuttings, filling in at events the boss can’t make. But Miller — and Moore — see the job differently.
The career transportation engineer has an expansive view of a role long relegated to junior status with policy responsibilities in areas that align with her expertise and personal experience.
While she never expected to be here, Miller plans to make the most of it — a defining quality for a woman who immigrated to the United States as a child and has reached the top echelon of state government.
As an engineer, as her father was, Miller saw her career in the public sector working on transportation projects as her own way of giving back to her adoptive country.
Candidates for Md. lieutenant governor emphasize their immigrant pasts
“There was nothing in my horizon ever to be in elected office,” she said. “As I often say, sometimes … we have plans for life, and other times, life has plans for us.”
When Miller takes the oath of office Wednesday, she will break a barrier that no other immigrant or woman of color has breached before her. She was part of a historic Democratic ticket that sailed to victory in November and also gives Maryland its first Black governor, its first Black attorney general and its first female comptroller.
Moore, who is a political newcomer, has promised that Miller, a former state lawmaker who served two terms in the House of Delegates before an unsuccessful run in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District against then-business executive David Trone in 2018, will be “the most consequential lieutenant governor” in the country.
He often describes Miller as a seasoned legislator whom he sees as his partner in working to close Maryland’s wealth gap. He has joked that when he asked her to be his running mate, he had no apprehension, much like on his wedding day. “I was so ready because I knew it was right,” he said at a fundraiser last year.
Under the state constitution, Miller has no expressly defined duties other than assuming the role of governor if Moore is incapacitated. Her role is otherwise delegated by Moore, according to the constitution.
The Maryland legislature abolished the role of lieutenant governor in 1867 and didn’t bring it back until more than a century later, when Gov. Spiro Agnew became Richard M. Nixon’s presidential running mate in 1968. Most recently, outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan (R) turned to his lieutenant governor, Boyd K. Rutherford, for help while Hogan was undergoing cancer treatments.
Miller said her portfolio will include a broad focus on equity and specifically will include transportation, mental health and STEM education, areas for which she will draw from personal and professional experience. Her father, who is deceased, suffered from bipolar disorder when she was growing up, Miller said, and she plans to make improved mental health support a priority “for so many people who have been suffering.”
Miller has risen to high office in Maryland as the state has become the most diverse on the East Coast, largely because of an influx of immigrants of color. About 1 million of the state’s roughly 6.2 million residents were born in other countries.
An elevated profile has brought challenges for Miller, who is among several Indian Americans across the country who have been accused by the Indian American Muslim Council of receiving funds from supporters with ties to Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist movement. India is under scrutiny by the nongovernmental organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for issues that include the treatment of its Muslim minority.
Last month, the council urged U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) to disinvite Miller as a special guest to his birthday fundraiser (Miller did not attend, because her father-in-law had died).
Moore’s campaign has said that other campaigns in Maryland and across the country have accepted donations from wealthy Indian Americans and that Miller’s record includes fighting for religious freedom and supporting Muslim communities.
“I think it’s an effort to divide communities. And that’s not what we’re about. Maybe in the old country, those divisions existed, but I’m an American,” Miller said, adding that she has attended events where she has been called “an awful person” and that the criticism is hurtful not just to the campaign, but also to her family.
Miller came to the United States when she was 7. Her father, who migrated after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed racial and national-origin quotas to allow a new generation of immigrants to enter the United States, returned to India in 1972 to tell Aruna’s grandmother, with whom Aruna had lived since she was about 1 year old, that it was time for his daughter to join him, her mother and two siblings in the United States.
“My dad was a stranger to me. My siblings were strangers to me, my mom, all of it,” said Miller, who also said she doesn’t remember any of her time in India as a child because of the trauma she said she experienced leaving her grandmother. “So I came to this country, you know, like they say, a stranger in a strange land, with a strange family.”
When she stepped off the plane, with her father by her side, she thought the crowd at the airport was there to welcome her. She thought the snow was white confetti, part of a celebration in her honor.
She learned English while attending public school. She graduated from Missouri University of Science and Technology, thanks in part to the Pell grants she received after her father lost his job because of his illness.
“When you have that kind of opportunity, you know, you have a responsibility to do what you can to give back,” she said of her decision to work in the public sector, initially with Los Angeles County Public Works, and later, after joining her then-fiance, David Miller, on the East Coast, in a job with Montgomery County. The two have three adult daughters.
Friends and former colleagues call Miller, a politician who conquered a fear of public speaking by taking an improv stand-up comedy class, as hilariously funny and one of the most genuine people they know.
After a state delegate resigned to run for county council, local officials urged Miller, then a member of Montgomery County’s Democratic Party Central Committee, to run for the seat. She initially declined but entered the race after her husband suggested she give it more thought.
During her eight years in Annapolis, Miller pushed legislation requiring universities to update their sexual assault policies and a measure requiring additional protections for victims of domestic violence.
Friends recall Miller’s opposition to a 2016 bill that would exclude nail salon technicians from receiving unemployment insurance. “Aruna Miller is the politician who does the right thing when no one’s looking,” said Joe Gebhardt, a personal friend and political supporter.
She fought against the bill, arguing on the floor that the measure was unfair, particularly to minority women.
“As frightening as it was for me to step out of that comfort zone and do things I’d never had done before, canvassing and knocking on doors for myself … it was worth the risk,” she said.