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‘Bullied, tailed home and run out of the state’: The dramatic path to power in Maryland

Troubling allegations of aggressive behaviour threaten to weigh down careers of rising Democratic stars, John Bowden reports

Wednesday 26 July 2023 11:55 BST
Maryland’s lieutenant governor, Aruna Miller, is the first South Asian woman to serve in such a role in the United States. But a trail of troubling allegations follows her path to victory alongside Governor Wes Moore last year.
Maryland’s lieutenant governor, Aruna Miller, is the first South Asian woman to serve in such a role in the United States. But a trail of troubling allegations follows her path to victory alongside Governor Wes Moore last year. (The Independent)

Last month’s visit from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the nation’s capital has highlighted an ugly mess of Maryland Democrats’ intra-party squabbles that threatens to blunt the political ambitions of the state’s popular first-term governor.

Over two months, The Independent spoke to more than two dozen individuals engaged in Democratic politics in the state, largely concentrated in Montgomery County — the wealthiest county in the state. Many were involved in the 2018 race to represent the state’s 6th congressional district, and described the primary for that seat as an all-out brawl where party insiders traded favours while treating their opponents with such toxicity that many felt strongly discouraged from further participation in the process — if they weren’t frozen out of it entirely.

To be clear, foul play isn’t exactly a new concept in Maryland. There’s still well-known bad blood between two of the state’s sitting members of the House over a 2016 primary which was the most expensive in the nation’s history and resulted in the election of Democrat star Rep Jamie Raskin. His opponent, now-Congressman David Trone, was meanwhile forced to fire three staffers who posed surreptitiously as members of Mr Raskin’s campaign.

But many of the more recent concerning allegations centre around Aruna Miller – the 58-year-old lieutenant governor who became the highest-ranking South Asian statewide elected official in the United States when she took office in January. She did so alongside Wes Moore, the first Black governor of Maryland. Ms Miller, who immigrated from India at the age of seven, has found herself accused of wide-reaching ties to donors affiliated with Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the broader Hindutva movement — a Hindu nationalist ideology regarded by its critics as being on the extreme far-right.

Ms Miller has worked to distance herself from the political baggage of those ties. The Moore-Miller campaign dedicated a page on their campaign website specifically to countering claims that Ms Miller was a supporter of Hindu nationalist ideologies, and more recently the lieutenant governor tweeted a statement in support of a letter drafted by Maryland Sen Chris Van Hollen to the president urging him to press Mr Modi on the issue of human rights during the Indian politician’s visit.

Contacted by The Independent about the specific allegations detailed in this report, the lieutenant governor’s office dismissed them as hearsay and claimed that critics of her fundraising ties were attempting to mischaracterise her political record.

“This unfounded gossip is completely false and beneath the Lieutenant Governor’s role in service to the people of Maryland. Throughout her entire career, Lt Gov Miller has taken the high road — she’s always advocated for freedom, inclusion, and respect across all faiths, races and identities, and would never condone anything else. Attempts to mischaracterise her character and her record are misguided at best, and sexist and discriminatory at worst,” spokeswoman Madeline Pawlak said in a statement.

A Mercedes in the mirror

When Andrew Messick climbed into his car last June in the parking lot of Kentlands Market Square in Gaithersburg, his mind wasn’t focused on the conversation he had just had with the woman who would make history later that year with her ascension to the state’s executive branch.

Mr Messick, a grad student and military veteran, was working for a local county councilman’s re-election bid, and was around that time also set to join up as a volunteer with the campaign to reelect Congressman David Trone. He was undecided in his choice for the state’s gubernatorial primary, at that time in full swing, when he says he ran into then-Delegate Aruna Miller and her husband David at the annual Kentlands Under the Lights event. Striking up a conversation, he questioned the pair about fundraising reports filed with the state board of elections tying her to Americans associated with the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) in the States. Mr Messick’s new boss, a self-funded candidate, had beaten Ms Miller four years prior in her bid for Congress.

“I just on the fly kind of decided to ask, and she immediately went from … the fake, bubbly persona to immediately pissed,” Mr Messick recalled.

But he thought little of the talk, even, he says, after Ms Miller “started lecturing me basically … put a finger in my face, that whole thing.”

Mr Messick says that changed a few minutes later, when after leaving he noticed a white Mercedes with one functional headlight appear to change lanes to follow closely behind him as he drove down a multi-lane highway through the suburbs. His military training kicking in, Mr Messick described as the car appeared to get close behind him at one point, almost like a police officer just before pulling someone over.

“Every time I would change lanes, he would change lanes,” said Mr Messick.

The car, with its one shining front light, would follow Mr Messick to a parking lot a short distance away from his actual residence. There, he says, it came to a halt — right behind him. In his rearview mirror, much to Mr Messick’s surprise, his follower came into view.

“I pulled off and parked and I sat there. And he pulled in right behind me and stared right at my car,” recalled Mr Messick.

Explaining that he wasn’t thinking clearly, Mr Messick said he called a friend — wishing later that he had instead contacted the police.

“David Miller followed me home!” he exclaimed on the call.

“And so at this point, I am sitting there, I’m on the phone with [a friend]. I should have called the police. I should have taken a picture. But I didn’t,” Mr Messick said, explaining that he relayed the details of the incident as it transpired to his friend.

The Independent was provided contact info for the friend who Mr Messick called as the incident supposedly transpired. That individual verified the events as recounted by Mr Messick, and was independently able to provide the date on which the conversation took place — though they wished to remain unnamed. The friend also instructed Mr Messick at the time to recount his story, in detail, in a lengthy series of text messages to a group chat with colleagues from work, which Mr Messick’s friend provided to The Independent in an interview.

Mr Messick, who also detailed his experience that same June to a nonprofit news blog called Two Circles, said that this incident supposedly ended without serious escalation: After about 10 minutes, he claims, the lieutenant governor’s husband “blinks his lights at me. Kind of points at me and then drives away”. But the incident as a whole left him shocked and in disbelief at the conduct of Ms Miller’s inner circle.

David Miller, through his wife’s office, issued a blanket denial of the incident as described by Mr Messick when contacted by The Independent. The lieutenant governor’s office also provided images and documentation proving that the Millers own a black Mercedes sedan, and claimed that the couple have never owned a white Mercedes.

Mr Messick, in a second interview, maintained that he had seen a white Mercedes sedan during the incident, as the text messages sent immediately after his experience had originally described.

Run out of the state completely

For some, the cost of brushing up against the state political machine allegedly meant constant harassment from an army of online trolls whose actions had real-life consequences.

That was the description given by Barnaby Yeh, a Maryland-born activist of Taiwanese descent who told The Independent that his founding of a group that questioned Ms Miller about her BJP ties provoked a wave of backlash on social media that cost him and others their jobs and personal livelihoods.

“We asked her in a press release to clarify her stance [on Mr Modi’s party],” Mr Yeh, now living in Taiwan, said in an interview. This “unleashed a massive following of political insiders”, according to Mr Yeh, which saw activists’ social media pages flooded with negative comments.

“I lost my job, as did another one of my fellow activists. One activist was barred from local political events,” said Mr Yeh. “Another was suddenly stripped of being a party precinct official. Two others believed that they had to leave politics altogether because of how many people harassed them regularly on social media. As for myself, I was out of a stable job for years, driving me to move abroad.”

Only a fraction of Mr Yeh’s social media presence remains, but what does depicts both his longtime pro-Taiwanese activism as well as his participation in progressive Montgomery County politics throughout the 2018 race. The individual he claimed to have been “barred from local political events” confirmed Mr Yeh’s account of what they faced, speaking in an interview.

A shadow of the backlash remains as well: A post from the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC) from 2018 notes that Mr Yeh’s organisation was “unchartered” and linked to a statement on the MCDCC website that accused the group of pushing unfounded allegations about Ms Miller during her candidacy for Congress. In that same press release, the MCDCC disavowed the group formally and the central committee’s then-chair accused Mr Yeh and his group of “masquerade[ing] as legitimate Democratic organizations in order to inappropriately influence our elections.”

Facebook posts from other critics remain, including one from a former state delegate complaining about the group’s “Trumpian” denouncement of Ms Miller’s ties to BJP-aligned figures.

The Independent was also provided with a curt email to Mr Yeh from George Neighbors, a former MCDCC member and a current group vice president at Warner Bros, which simply read, “You’re a fraud”. Contacted about the email, Mr Neighbors denied sending it but refused to further comment when provided with a screenshot.

The path to Annapolis

Once a month, members of the central committee meet in an office building in Rockville, Maryland — the same building that houses the county executive’s office.

In long evening sessions, typically attended by a dozen or so members of the public at most, members of the central committee plot the futures of the state’s power players, thanks to an oddity of Maryland’s constitution that puts the power to recommend appointments to the state legislature in the committee’s hands.

The MCDCC (which is allowed, controversially, to nominate its own members for seats in the House of Delegates and state Senate that become vacant) was Ms Miller’s path to the legislature, a position she attained in late 2010 after winning an election to succeed a Democrat who had decided to run instead for the county council. Today, the council is led by Saman Ahmad, described by some sources familiar with the two Democratic politicians to be a close ally of Ms Miller’s — though that characterisation is contested by others.

Wes Moore and Aruna Miller at their inauguration in January, 2023. (Getty Images)

Under Ms Ahmad’s chairmanship, those who attend regularly describe the council as developing a toxic atmosphere where those who do not play along with the state party are threatened with political reprisal.

Nathan Feldman, a current member of the central committee, alleged to The Independent that he had felt intimidated and as if he had been bullied by Ms Ahmad into voting against a local activist, Susan Kerin, for a seat on the MCDCC after the vote took place this February. Ms Kerin is an active member of Peace Action Montgomery, a local antiwar group, and had vocally criticised Ms Miller’s ties to the BJP.

Mr Feldman explained how in a conversation that took place in February of this year, Ms Ahmad had claimed that “she had spoken with Lt Gov Aruna Miller, who opposed the nomination of Susan Kerin to the open seat” and further warned him that “Miller would be ‘taking names’ of individuals who voted for Susan Kerin to fill the seat”.

“In politics, people have long memories,” Mr Feldman claims he was told directly. “She framed her threats in a manner such that they appeared to come directly from the lieutenant governor herself.”

If unseemly back-room behaviour seems out of place for such an organisation, one only needs to attend one of the central committee’s monthly meetings. At the group’s May gathering, The Independent witnessed baffling scenes of disarray for several hours as council members debated a fairly toothless resolution in support of a local teachers union’s bargaining efforts, leading to one council member screaming that another member was “bullying” her during the open session and others openly trading insults and taunts across the floor, in full view of a bemused audience.

Another committee member, Liza Smith, corroborated Mr Feldman’s general characterisation of Ms Ahmad’s leadership and agreed that the toxicity was being encouraged from the chair.

“When the press doesn’t show up, you know, that’s when Saman goes power-hungry,” claimed Ms Smith. “She becomes a dictator.”

Ms Ahmad did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The toxicity at the central committee is far from Ms Ahmad’s only concern, as well. MCDCC has separately been reported to owe thousands to the IRS in unpaid taxes, thanks to the committee apparently spending money it was supposed to withhold as payroll taxes in 2018. The committee owes $14,000 to the IRS, according to local news blog Moderately MoCo, a hefty sum compared to MCDCC’s reported $15,000 cash-on-hand.

A meet-and-greet turns into a shouting match

For Ms Kerin, the door was shut on her candidacy before it even began.

Describing the episode that first earned her a spot on Ms Miller’s radar, Ms Kerin explained that she knew even as she first jumped into activism against Hindutva and the BJP last year that it would get ugly. Rumours of the 2018 race had spread far and wide, and in particular, Ms Kerin said she expected pressure from Ms Miller’s camp.

“We knew that going into this, that there was [going to be] intimidation, specifically by Aruna,” Ms Kerin explained of Peace Action’s efforts during the 2022 gubernatorial primary.

“We walked into this knowing that people who had been in it longer than us had been intimidated and they wanted someone like us to be on the frontlines and take the hits.”

The conflict materialised during an early primary candidate meet-and-greet last year, hosted by a local mosque in Montgomery County. Ms Kerin and another Peace Action volunteer, Gayatri Girirajan, showed up at the mosque with flyers in hand urging Ms Miller to return any and all donations from BJP-affiliated groups or donors.

That led to what they both described as several Miller staffers crowding around them in the mosque, at least one growing visibly angry, and demanding that they cease their activities. A photo taken by an activist at the event shows the pair speaking with Ms Miller and two campaign aides, one of whom is staring directly at the photographer as the image was captured. At least one staffer was accused of attempting to have the pair thrown out of the mosque, an ask that was firmly rejected by their hosts.

Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller is seen speaking with two Peace Action Montgomery volunteers while a Moore campaign staffer stares at the camera. (Scott Webber)

Ms Kerin describes walking inside the community centre and seeing Ms Miller and her team standing around her fellow volunteer, “and were yelling and screaming at her”.

“I was pretty alarmed,” said Ms Kerin.

The two aides with Ms Miller allegedly went on to threaten the Peace Action volunteers with lawsuits for supposedly not specifying the funding for their pamphlets on the documents themselves — which, as a non-campaign entity, Peace Action was not required to do.

Ms Girirajan told The Independent that while she never felt endangered during the episode, the aides were “certainly very aggressive” towards her.

That same characterisation of aggressive behaviour has been lobbed at the small group of Peace Action activists by the Moore-Miller team, which highlighted repeated emails to Moore campaign staff from another Peace Action activist that the lieutenant governor’s office argued depicted an obsession or fixation on Ms Miller personally. The emails, reviewed by The Independent, did not contain any threats or explicit language but did forcefully and incessantly press the recipients to disavow Hindutva ideology and encourage the lieutenant governor to do so as well.

During the meet-and-greet, Ms Girirajan added, one member of Ms Miller’s team supposedly accused the pair of “singling [Aruna] out because of her ethnicity” with the criticism of her OFBJP donor ties.

“I’m Aruna’s ethnicity as well, and also was raised Hindu. So that argument didn’t really hold water [with me],” Ms Girirajan noted.

A former member of the Moore-Miller campaign who was present for that campaign event said that they couldn’t speak to the tone of the conversation between Ms Miller, Ms Girirajan and Ms Kerin, but recounted a separate moment during the same event wherein another Moore-Miller campaign staffer began a heated conversation with another Peace Action volunteer about the criticisms they were raising.

Icing out her own future — and Wes Moore’s?

The mayhem long rumoured to have followed Ms Miller’s career has now officially had a blunting effect on both the political futures of the lieutenant governor and, possibly more troubling, for the governor: Wes Moore.

Mr Moore, 44, is an author, nonprofit executive and TV producer who swept into office easily this past year over a Trumpian challenger who beat out a likely more-challenging opponent for Mr Moore in the GOP primary. Now virtually every Maryland politico sees the upward-bound Moore as running his governorship as a jumping-off point for a presidential run, potentially as soon as 2028.

But that puts his running mate, Ms Miller, in a precarious position where her baggage can affect not just one but two promising careers in politics.

And that baggage is already beginning to weigh on Mr Moore’s political future. The Independent can report, based on two sources familiar with the event’s planning call, that Mr Moore and Ms Miller were both excluded from the guest list of a gathering of prominent Maryland progressives at Democratic mega-donor Frank Islam’s White House-replica mansion in Potomac just one month ago. The guest of honour at the event was none other than Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s largest opposition party and subsequently Mr Modi’s greatest rival, who visited Washington shortly ahead of the prime minister’s arrival.

A request for comment from Mr Islam went unanswered. Mr Moore’s team also did not offer a separate comment regarding this invitation.

While not a fundraising event specifically, the value lost from missing out on a networking opportunity with some of Maryland’s most generous Democratic supporters can hardly be overstated.

Aruna Miller and Wes Moore at a campaign event in 2022 (Getty Images)

That isn’t to say that either Mr Moore or Ms Miller’s political future look bleak in any way. Last month, the lieutenant governor attended a White House state dinner in honour of Mr Modi’s visit, a guest of the president and first lady. And she has active in touting her support for religious freedom and democratic norms, especially in the leadup to the prime minister’s visit.

She also maintains powerful and valuable alliances in the statehouse. Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who worked in close proximity with Ms Miller for years when the two were office neighbours in the House of Delegates, described her friend as a rising blue-state star with an unimpeachable record in the legislature and a warm presence in person — though the two had never had the experience of coming down on opposite sides of an issue or candidate.

Most who spoke to The Independent about their various years of experience running against the lieutenant governor characterised the behaviour of the lieutenant governor and her team as extraordinary in terms of the lasting impressions they made on their political rivals.

In the end, the lieutenant governor may simply pick one statewide grudge too many. That seems to be the prediction of those who experienced what it was like to run against her, and learned that for Ms Miller and her team, the primary never seems to end — there’s no Kumbaya moment under the balloons onstage, just a procession of still-smouldering bridges.

The campaign manager for David Trone’s campaign for US Senate, launched this spring with the news of Ben Cardin’s retirement, claimed that the two have a positive relationship despite their bruising primary battle.

“Congressman Trone and Lieutenant Governor Miller have both worked to deliver results for working families across Maryland and look forward to continuing that work. Any implication to the contrary is inaccurate and grossly mischaracterizes their relationship,” said Dan Morrocco.

But a top official with his 2018 campaign said that relationship, if now mended, represented a significant improvement from the aftermath of their race.

“After he won the primary she did not endorse him, did not call him, did not stand behind them,” one senior Trone 2018 staffer noted of Ms Miller’s response to losing the primary that year.

“She has enemies because she’s kind of like, very, very self-serving in a way that when you do this job when you’re a politician, you gotta play the game. And I don’t mean that in a negative connotation. I mean, like, you have to support other people. You have to support the party. When you lose, you have to not burn bridges,” they mused.

“You’ve just got to, like, kind of be a good person.”

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