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Making an Impact

Mar/07/2023 / by Abhijit Masih

Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller became the first immigrant and Indian-American woman to become lieutenant governor of Maryland. 

History was made on this January when Aruna Miller took oath as the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. The newly elected LG was chosen as running mate by Governor Wes Moore, who made history of his own, being the first Black person to be elected to the post in Maryland and only the third in the 246-year history of the country. Miller finds it serendipitous for her to be in the role of public service as an elected official. “This was never in my horizon to ever run for public office. But so it happens,” she says. “Sometimes you have plans for life. And other times, life has plans for you.”

Starting as a volunteer for the Democratic Party, she was soon asked to run for the Maryland State delegate, which she won and served for two terms. 

The mother of three adult daughters shared with SEEMA the story of her life and her ascension in politics—coming to the United States when she was just 7, becoming a citizen in 2000 and her lifelong work of social service that she loves and which has been the main reason for her to run for office. 

Everyday People

In her new role, Miller recognizes how much impact she can make on the lives of her constituents. After becoming a Maryland State delegate,” she says, “I realized just how powerful policy making is to the lives of so many people. It can liberate communities and empower them, or it can oppress them for generation after generation. As a representative, my role is to make people’s lives easier and not create more obstacles when people are trying to get services they deserve and can pursue their dreams.” 

She has had impact on individual lives just being herself. It is believable through the warmth she exudes and her personal resolve to help others. A heartening story is about a constituent from Annapolis, who would serve her vegetarian meals everyday when she was attending the sessions as a Delegate. During their frequent conversations, Miller had such a positive impact on him that he named his daughter Penelope Aruna. “I asked him if he knew what Aruna means. He said, ‘No, I just had such a positive reaction from you and loved your name.’ So, I told him Aruna means the rising sun. It’s profound when a person decides to name their child after you,” she says. 

Reflecting on her political career, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor considers being engaged in public service to be the most gratifying achievement thus far. As the first woman of color, a South Asian to be in this position, she hopes that it will encourage others who look like her and are normally not seen in public office, for them to seek a life in public service. “When they see people who look like them, then they feel, ‘Wow, maybe I can have representation in these other areas and paths that I never thought that I would have an opportunity yet.’”

Every candidate, regardless of race, faces their own set of obstacles and challenges when they run for office, Miller explains. “In the case, of someone like me, a woman of color, the obstacles are probably a little different than that of a Caucasian male. Both of us face our obstacles.” While there are increasing number of South Asians that are being elected and come from diverse backgrounds, with unique and non-traditional western names, Aruna Miller is a candidate that embodies both. Dave Miller, her husband proudly co-hosted the inauguration ceremony last month and has been the ever-supportive spouse. It was in fact he who encouraged her to run for office. “I think as individuals, we tend to be your own worst critics. And it takes a loving spouse to realize your strengths that you may not ordinarily see,” she says.

Miller did have doubts about being elected as she had not seen anyone that looked like her ever getting elected in her state. It was hard for her to not make assumptions about the voters She realized she was wrong. She acknowledges, “Yes, my name is Aruna, and yes, my name is Miller. But they still voted for me. I’ll say no, your name has nothing to do with it.” 

During the campaign, Governor Wes Moore and Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller made it a point to even visit traditionally Republican districts in Maryland, ignoring the suggestions of many who indicated to the futility of the exercise. “To that we would say, but there’s a lot of Marylanders there. They are just as important to us as those who are going to support us. With that belief of optimism, talking about what we can do for them, even if they disagree with us, I think can really bring that temperature down.” Miller firmly believes that the current divisions in the society can be healed.

“I think it was President Clinton that said, there’s nothing wrong in America that cannot be fixed with what’s right in America. What’s right is that there are so many people that care about our country and our democracy and want to see what’s best for all of us. I think how we decrease this polarization is to talk about the good that we can do together,” Miller prescribes the panacea for a kinder and gentler America.

Plotting Her Course

Even before the term began for Miller, she had laid down the road map for her tenure which promises to stay true to their campaign promise of not leaving anyone behind. The overarching theme for her is to make sure the state has an economy that works for all with special focus on education, public safety, transportation, and environment. She would have the portfolio that includes public transit, STEM education and mental health. “All of these are important for people to have the best opportunities in our economy. You need public transit for those individuals who don’t have cars. You need to make sure that we have a workforce that’s ready for the 21st century jobs. 

“The solution to many of the challenges that we have right now are going to be through STEM education. We want to get more women and people of color in STEM jobs,” Miller explains. “And mental health, from the moment we wake up till we exit this world, it’s going to play a part in how we can be the best. So we need to make sure the state of Maryland provides the services to be able to meet people’s needs when they’re having a mental health crisis.” 

The role demands a 24/7/365 schedule of the politician who is also a wife, daughter and mother and has to trapeze a balance between the life of a politician and her family. Has it become easier for women to have a career in politics than it was before? “I think it’s getting better with better opportunities for women and people of color. The landscape of our nation is changing. You are beginning to see elected officials that that you wouldn’t ordinarily see maybe 10 years ago. So progress is slow, but I think it is getting better for women,” she says. 

Miller admits that it was not easy to devote herself entirely into active politics. When she did take the proverbial dive, she had her eldest daughter in college and the younger two in school. It was an individual decision that required a collective sacrifice, which the family had to endure. “When any individual in a family decides to seek elected office, everybody pitches in, and everyone is part of that movement,” Miller says. “I’m lucky to have a loving husband and a mom, who’s always been there. I think that has made all the difference, not just for me, but for the kids as well to have their grandmother and their father to play a big role in their life just as much as their mom did. And when I couldn’t be there, they were there to fill in that gap.”  

Experiencing a political high now, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor is mindful that political life is full of peaks and depths and that she would ultimately have to ride through. She is aware that it’s not about what you say in front of the media it is about the implementation of promises and execution of policies that were promised to the constituents during the campaign trail. “These peaks are just temporary. Ultimately, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and implementing exactly what we said that we were going to do. And our mission was to leave no one behind. That’s where the hard work begins. But that’s where the best work lies in helping your constituents and making the state a better place.” 

The free-flowing conversation with the Lieutenant Governor was interspersed with instructions and anecdotes from her mother who sat by the window in her spacious office. Adoring instructions during the photo shoot—don’t show too much teeth, arrange the hair and do a namaste pose. The highpoint for her at the inauguration ceremony was of course the swearing in of her youngest daughter, but there was something more at the event that left her starry eyed—meeting Oprah Winfrey. That was something that has lifted her stature as the favorite child in the eyes of her mother—a feat her siblings can’t beat.

SIDEBAR 1

To young South Asians who want to enter politics:

Absolutely do it. But do it with the intention of helping others. It may lead to you running for higher office—absolutely. But that shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal is to be a representative. This is public service. So your goal is to remove obstacles for your constituents who you represent. To know their values and remember that they trusted in you when they voted for you. To always have an open dialogue with your constituents every step of the way, have that engagement with them as often as you can, and to always fight for those that have been left behind. That’s what it’s all about. I would encourage them to consider this absolutely as it has been the most profound experience in my life. And I hope it is for every individual that runs.

So there was Dr. Sudhir Sekhsaria, and then I’ve had many other individuals that supported me, including Guatham Amarneni in Northern Virginia, Jay Chala, Dr. Rahul Puri, Preet Thaker, and Ram Mohan. I would say all of them were big supporters.

SIDEBAR 2

Aruna Miller’s Favorites

Food—I love vegetarian Biryani and Pizza. 

Mom’s favorite—My favorite Biryani is Amma’s Biryani and Sambar. She also makes my favorite eggplant chutney.

Festival celebrations—Of course we celebrate Diwali and Sakrant. We celebrate July 4th, India’s Independence and Republic Day, Christmas, and all the traditional Western holidays.

Article of clothing—Definitely a pair of socks because I always tend to be cold. Even in the summertime, I wear socks. Other than that—easygoing outfits. A pair of loose pants and a sweatshirt, that’s my favorite.

Holiday destination—Hawaii. I worked in Hawaii for three months when I was in college. I’ve been to many places in the world, by far that’s the most beautiful place. I love the tropical feel of it, the fresh fruits, vegetables and the water in the beach. It’s just gorgeous.

Holiday destination in India—Rajasthan is one of my favorite places. I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was when I went there. What struck me most about the place is that it’s almost frozen in time. 

Aruna Miller

PQ Suggestions:

“As a representative, my role is to make people’s lives easier and not create more obstacles when people are trying to get services they deserve and can pursue their dreams.” 

“In the case, of someone like me, a woman of color, the obstacles are probably a little different than that of a Caucasian male. Both of us face our obstacles.”

“It takes a loving spouse to realize your strengths that you may not ordinarily see.”

“Yes, my name is Aruna, and yes, my name is Miller. But that didn’t detract them and they still voted for me. I’ll say no, your name has nothing to do with it.” 

“You are beginning to see elected officials that that you wouldn’t ordinarily see maybe 10 years ago. So progress is slow, but I think it is getting better for women.”

“The best work lies in helping your constituents and making the state a better place.”