BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE & VEENA RAO
Atlanta, GA, April 9, 2018: When she landed in America on a snowy February morning in 1972, little did this seven-year-old know that she would one day be running for the United States Congress. Today, Maryland’s District 15 Delegate, Aruna Miller is busy gearing up for her campaign as she makes a run for the U.S. Congress in the state’s 6th Congressional District.
Such is the prophecy of the promised land. “I am a proud American. I am a progressive Democrat. I am ready to fight for you and with you because our country needs our voices to write the next chapter of its story,” she says.
With primary elections scheduled for June 26, Miller is touring the US. NRI Pulse caught up with the busy candidate at an Atlanta event titled “Women’s Night for Aruna Miller” organized by a group of Indian-American women at Utsav Restaurant in Johns Creek, GA recently.
In her exclusive with NRI Pulse, Miller talked about issues she cares about and the legislative policies she hopes to implement, if elected.
What motivated you to get into active politics?
I arrived in this country when I was 7 years old. When I arrived, I didn’t speak a word of English. America welcomed me, educated me, and gave me incredible opportunities. I attended university and became a civil engineer. I spent 25 years improving the infrastructure in my local community.
My political interest was sparked by the Bush v Gore election in 2000, where the fate of our country was not determined by the voters but rather by the Supreme Court. It was then I realized that Democracy needed me. Not as a bystander or to cast a vote when there’s an election — I needed to engage and empower others every day. I started to volunteer locally which brought me face to face with the needs and problems of others in the community.
In 2010, I ran for and was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates forMaryland’s 15th Legislative District and became the first Indian-American woman elected to a state office inMaryland.
As a State Delegate, I’ve seen first-hand what a big impact small legislative changes can have on people’s lives. My past, present, and future have culminated in one purpose – to give the best of myself every day to champion the needs of other people in the community.
What are some of the legislative priorities you hope to work on once elected?
My hope is to help transform the US to the destination for 21st century jobs. Much of the District I seek to represent has been hit hard with the loss of manufacturing jobs. Many of these jobs will not come back either due to globalism or technology advances in factory automation. But the people in these effected areas have great skill sets, they know how to work as teams, they have a strong work ethic. If provided an opportunity in these areas, they can thrive. This comes through building a strong public education system which offers STEM education as well as building universal broadband access. The US needs to make investments aimed at ensuring we are part of the industries of the future including green energy, advanced manufacturing, and biotech innovations.
One of your key achievements as a State Delegate was making the governor set aside $3 million in the annual budget for programs related to sexual assault. Are you happy with the direction the #MeToo movement is taking?
Because inappropriate comments and touching in the workplace are uncomfortable topics and the fear of reprisal for speaking out, for years women have been silent on this topic. The #MeToo movement, has shed light on this topic and is changing the culture in the workplace to reflect that this type of behavior is unacceptable. The #MeToo is a great example of what happens when people take a moment and turn it into a movement. It was ordinary women standing up and speaking out that shifted the culture. As lawmakers, there has been a focus on sexual harassment in the workplace and this year we have strengthened laws to prevent these acts from happening.
One of the students who survived the mass shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School last month said that his generation is “the mass shooting generation.” What would you say to him and others of his generation? How do we make our schools safer?
Gun violence in the US is large problem. Mass shootings seem to be more prevalent today than anytime in the past. However, our nation’s issue with gun violence extends beyond mass shootings; it includes incidents that occur daily where guns are used in violent crimes, domestic abuse, and suicides.
To make schools and communities safe, we need to enact common sense gun safety laws. First, if we are to reduce gun violence in America, we must use science to do so. That is why I support the repeal of the “Dickey Amendment” that prevents the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from researching causes and preventative measures for gun violence.
In Congress I will work to ensure we truly achieve universal background checks for all gun sales. Just as I have done inAnnapolis, I will continue to work to ensure we have stringent controls when over the purchase of firearms, including closing the loopholes for gun shows and straw purchases.
How do you propose to strengthen economic and cultural ties between the US and India?
It is inevitable that the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy should share a common vision of the future. As President Obama stated, “the relationship between India and the United States can be one of the defining partnerships of this century.” In 2011, I encouraged then Governor Martin O’Malley to travel to India to make cultural and trade exchanges between Maryland and India. The Governor agreed and became the first sitting Governor of Maryland to travel to India. Once the precedent was set, other state officials initiated relationships.
As the Indian-American community continues to grow through community and political engagement, we, similar to immigrants of previous generations, share our Indian cultural identities and traditions which eventually are embraced as American traditions.
There is growing uncertainty about the H-1B visa program, which is very popular among Indian technical workers. What is your stand on the issue of the H-1B visa?
I came to this country from India when I was seven years old, received a quality public education, worked my way through college, made a successful career as an engineer, raised three daughters, and am now giving back to our community as a State Legislator.
As an immigrant, I know the value immigration brings to this country. Immigrants embody the American Dream and make invaluable contributions to the fabric of American life. But today, President Trump is attacking immigrant families and using xenophobic rhetoric and policies to divide Americans against each other. This is not a partisan political fight, it’s about basic morality and fundamental decency, and we must fight back. What Donald Trump does not understand is that immigrants are not a nuisance to be dealt with, they are an asset to our nation.
In Congress, I will work on comprehensive fixes to our broken immigration system. Today there are thousands of highly skilled workers stuck in a legal limbo — sometimes up to 20 years—in our H1 visa programs. A shorter path to Permanent Residency would allow these individuals to fully participate in our economy and become job creators through entrepreneurship.
There has been a spate of hate crimes targeting Indians (among other minorities). How do we deal with the climate of hostility in the country?
Unfortunately, the rhetoric coming from the White House has encouraged crimes against minorities, especially those perceived as immigrants from non-European countries.
The best way to deal with this climate of hostility toward our community is to get out and vote. Register with a party, vote in the primary. While we are a successful community in many ways, our community’s voter participation is too low. We need to vote. Further, we need to register with a party and vote in the primaries. In the age of electronic voter databases, politicians are very aware of which communities vote and those which do not. If the South Asian community wants to make a change, the answer is simple, get out and vote.
Once politicians hear our voice at the voting booth, they will understand that they need to standup and speak out against xenophobic rhetoric.
You are endorsed by EMILY’S List and 314 Action, a political action committee dedicated to electing more STEM candidates. Why do we need more STEM candidates in Congress?
For the understanding that the 21st century jobs are going to be based around science and technology, having someone who understands science is important.
For our planet, this is important. While 97% of scientists around the world agree that climate change is a problem, over a third of our Congressional representatives are climate change deniers. My background is in engineering and I make decisions based on scientific evidence.
You will be facing four other candidates in the Maryland’s 6th Congressional District primaries. What gives you the edge over your opponents?
The legislative district that I represent in the State House represents nearly 20% of the Congressional District. I am the only representative that lives in the district. 97% of the money I have raised has been from individuals and we have received powerful endorsements throughout the country, including all four Indian-American representatives in the U.S. House, Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, and leaders throughout the state ofMaryland.
What has been the biggest challenge in your path thus far?
Being a minority woman candidate offers unique challenges. There remain institutionalized biases against minorities and women in many organizations, even those who claim to be progressive. There were many people in 2010 that were skeptical that I could win in my district. The naysayers said, the district was too conservative to elect a minority woman, yet we prevailed and went on to win with even larger majorities in 2014.
The other challenge is money. It’s unfortunate that money does play an active part in politics. We depend on people going to www.arunamiller.com and contributing $5, $20, $100 whatever they can to help make this campaign possible. Without the support of the Indian-American community we cannot continue to break ground and move the ball forward.
And your biggest achievement?
There are many bills that I have passed in the Maryland General Assembly that have had positive impacts on the lives of the citizens of my state. I have listened to the citizens of my district, and where government didn’t work for them I authored and passed legislation to fix these issues. So it’s hard to pick a particular piece of legislation. As for my biggest achievement, whenever I hear younger South Asian candidates running for council or state level office say that seeing me able to run and win helped inspire them, it gives me a large amount of satisfaction. If I was able to inspire one person to become more involved, to run for office themselves, that is my greatest achievement.
Do you have a message for aspiring political enthusiasts with an Indian origin background.
Indian-Americans have been a successful minority group in this country. We make up a large percentage of doctors, IT professionals and entrepreneurs. But one place we have been notably absent is in the area of elected public officials. When I was elected in 2010, there was only one South Asian in Congress (Hansen Clarke) and less than 15 South Asians elected at the state level throughout the country. I am pleased that with every election cycle more South Asians are running for office. So, to the political enthusiast who want to run, I say start local. Get engaged. Work with your local officials to effect change and learn about the elected office. If your interest lies in running for office, run. Running for office can be intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. Realize even if you don’t succeed, you have added your voice to the community.