Followed home, frozen out the party and driven abroad: How Maryland politics went way too far

John Bowden reports on how a House of Cards-like story played out among Maryland’s Democrats, leaving some people still too scared to talk about what happened

Tuesday 14 May 2024 22:16 BST
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Aruna Miller and Wes Moore at a campaign event in 2022
Aruna Miller and Wes Moore at a campaign event in 2022 (Getty Images)

When Andrew Messick first noticed the white Mercedes, it had been following him for a while down a multi-lane highway through the suburbs. The car stood out because of its one working headlight; he recognized it from outside the political event he had left a few minutes before. Now, it tailed him closely as he made his way home.

A grad student and a recent veteran, Messick describes how his military training kicked in as the car got uncomfortably 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,” he says.

The car, with its one shining front light, would follow 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 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,” he recalled. What he saw, he says, was unmistakable. If it’s true, then Democratic politics in Maryland are some of the weirdest and most unconventional in the country.

A toxic path to power

Over more than two months in 2023, 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 favors while treating their opponents with such toxicity that many were frozen out entirely.

What we found was often downright bizarre. Indeed, while I investigated some of the claims made during my questioning in the state, the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee turned against me — and when I went outside of a meeting I’d attended to ask a source questions, they then barred the door and locked me out, separating me from my notebooks and computer inside. In my years of journalism, I’ve never been quite so brazenly targeted.

Yet complicated backroom politics and outright foul play isn’t exactly a new concept in Maryland’s Democratic machine.There’s still well-known bad blood between two of the state’s sitting House members over a 2016 primary which resulted in the election of Democrat star Rep. Jamie Raskin. Raskin’s opponent, David Trone, was dramatically forced to fire three of his own staffers during that race after it transpired that the staffers had “surreptitiously” volunteered for his rivals’ campaigns, clearly with the aim of spying on competitors. Trone lost that primary despite setting personal spending records. This year, as his district once more holds a Democratic primary, he has spent $61 million of his own cash — so far.

Having lost to Raskin in 2016, Trone ran again in a different district two years later. He won that race — but whether he can secure a spot in the upper chamber this time around is a much more complicated story. Because Trone may have money, but his opponent has powerful statewide political connections. And that power can trace its source in a bitter rivalry that emerged in 2018.

In 2018, Trone was the top performing candidate in his race against a little-known Democratic state senator named Aruna Miller. As they duked it out for the seat, Trone and Miller’s teams developed a bitter rivalry, insiders say. Trone — a multimillionaire businessman who owns Total Wine & More, the largest independent retailer of wine and beer in the country — couldn’t have been more different to Miller, a civil engineer who immigrated from India at the age of seven. On the face of it, one might assume that Miller’s liberal credentials would outstrip Trone’s. Yet Miller has found herself accused by a stubbornly persistent ring of Maryland-based progressive activists of wide-reaching ties to donors affiliated with Indian Prime Minister Narendra 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.

After Miller lost out to Trone in 2018, she went on to win an election for lieutenant governor under Governor Wes Moore, the first Black governor of Maryland, in 2023. And since then, Miller has worked to distance herself from her past political baggage. The Moore-Miller campaign dedicated an entire page on their campaign website specifically to countering claims that Miller was a supporter of Hindu nationalist ideologies in 2018 — and more recently, Miller tweeted a statement in support of a letter drafted by Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen to the president urging him to press Modi on the issue of human rights.

Yet troubling allegations remain, not least concerning who followed Andrew Messick in that one-headlight white Mercedes one night after a political event.

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 mischaracterize 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 mischaracterized her character and her record are misguided at best, and sexist and discriminatory at worst,” spokeswoman Madeline Pawlak said in a statement.

The man in the Mercedes

When Andrew Messick climbed into his car in June of 2022, in the parking lot of Kentlands Market Square in Gaithersburg, his mind wasn’t focused on the conversation he had just had with Aruna Miller. He was volunteering for David Trone’s re-election bid, but he was undecided in his choice for the state’s gubernatorial primary, at that time in full swing. He says he ran into then-Delegate Aruna Miller and her husband David at the annual Kentlands Under the Lights event. Kentlands Under the Lights is a community dinner, family-focused and supposedly as friendly as you can get. There, Maryland residents gather to dine under the stars, enjoy some music, and celebrate their pleasantly appointed, upmarket neighborhood. Politicians attend, but the atmosphere is hardly intended to be combative.

Messick recognized Aruna Miller at the event; she was there with her husband, David Miller, and was talking to residents alongside Moore about their joint gubernatorial ticket. In particular, Messick was curious about those long-standing allegations against Miller, which had recently caused a ruckus again because of 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. Striking up a conversation, Messick talked to Miller about this and that, before bringing up the fundraising reports.

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

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

A few minutes later, Messick left the party. And that’s when he noticed the car.

When the person in the white Mercedes came into view in the rearview mirror, he recognized them immediately.

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

“David Miller followed me home!” he exclaims.

“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,” Messick adds, explaining that he relayed the details of the incident as it transpired to his friend.

The Independent was provided contact information for the friend who Messick called as the incident supposedly transpired. That individual verified the events as recounted by 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 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. Messick’s friend provided those text messages from 2022 to The Independent.

Messick also detailed his experience that same June to a nonprofit news blog called Two Circles, and 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 Aruna Miller’s inner circle.

David Miller, through his wife’s office, issued a blanket denial of the incident as described by 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.

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

Barnaby Yeh, a Maryland-born activist of Taiwanese descent, told The Independent that his founding of a group that questioned Aruna 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 Modi’s party],” Yeh, who now lives in Taiwan, said in an interview. This “unleashed a massive following of political insiders”, according to 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 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 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 Yeh’s account of what they faced, speaking in an interview. They wish to remain anonymous.

A shadow of the backlash remains as well: A post from the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC) from 2018 notes that Yeh’s organization was “unchartered” and links to a statement on the MCDCC website that accuses the group of pushing unfounded allegations about Miller during her candidacy for Congress. In that same press release, the MCDCC disavows the group formally and the central committee’s then-chair accuses 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 Aruna Miller’s ties to BJP-aligned figures.

The Independent was also provided with a curt email to 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, Neighbors denied sending it but refused to further comment when provided with a screenshot.

‘In politics, people have long memories’

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 Aruna 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 Miller’s — though that characterization is contested by others.

Under Ahmad’s chairmanship, regular attendees 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, who was a serving member of the central committee when he spoke to The Independent in 2023, alleges that he felt intimidated and as if he had been bullied by Ahmad into voting against a local activist, Susan Kerin, for a seat on the MCDCC after the vote took place in February 2023. Susan Kerin is an active member of Peace Action Montgomery, a local anti-war group, and had vocally criticized Aruna Miller’s ties to the BJP.

Feldman explained how, in a conversation that took place in February 2023, 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,” 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 behavior seems out of place for such an organization, one only needs to attend one of the central committee’s monthly meetings. At the group’s May 2023 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 Feldman’s general characterization of? 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 Smith. “She becomes a dictator.”

Ahmad did not respond to multiple requests for comment. She has denied Feldman’s accusations to other news outlets.

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 has agreed to a payment plan to pay back $14,000 in tax debt and fines to the IRS, according to documents first obtained by local news blog

A meet-and-greet turns into a shouting match

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

Describing the episode that first earned her a spot on Aruna Miller’s radar, Kerin explained that she knew even as she first jumped into activism against Hindutva and the BJP in 2022 that it would get ugly. Rumors of the 2018 race had spread far and wide, and in particular, Kerin said she expected pressure from Miller’s camp.

“We knew that going into this, that there was [going to be] intimidation, specifically by Aruna,” 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 materialized during an early 2022 primary candidate meet-and-greet, hosted by a local mosque in Montgomery County. Kerin and another Peace Action volunteer, Gayatri Girirajan, showed up at the mosque with flyers in hand urging Miller to return any and all donations from BJP-affiliated groups or donors.

That led to what they both describe as several Miller staffers crowding around them in the mosque, with 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 Miller and two campaign aides, one of whom is staring directly at the photographer as the image is 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.

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

“I was pretty alarmed,” says Kerin.

The two aides with 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.

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

That same characterization of aggressive behavior 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 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, 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],” 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 Miller, Girirajan and Kerin, but recounted a separate moment during the same event wherein another Moore-Miller campaign staffer began a heated conversation with a separate Peace Action volunteer about the criticisms they were raising.

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

The mayhem long rumored to have followed Aruna Miller’s career has now officially had a blunting effect on both her career and the career of the governor she campaigns alongside, Wes Moore.

Moore, 44, is an author, nonprofit executive and TV producer who swept into office easily in 2023 over a Trumpian challenger. Now virtually every Maryland politico sees the upward-bound Moore as heading for a presidential run, potentially as soon as 2028.

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

And that baggage is already beginning to weigh on Moore’s political future. The Independent can report, based on two sources familiar with the event’s planning call, that Moore and 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 a few months ago. The guest of honor at the event was Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s largest opposition party and subsequently Modi’s greatest rival, who visited Washington shortly ahead of the Indian prime minister’s arrival.

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

While not a fundraising event specifically, the event represented a valuable opportunity for the governor to rub shoulders with top Indian-American Democratic donors. It’s hard not to read Miller’s lack of an invite as a snub.

That isn’t to say that either Moore or Miller’s political futures look bleak in any way. In 2023, the lieutenant governor attended a Biden White House state dinner in honor of Modi’s visit, as a guest of the president and First Lady. And she has been active in touting her support for religious freedom and democratic norms, especially in the leadup to Modi’s visit.

Miller also maintains powerful and valuable alliances in the statehouse. Delegate Joseline Pe?a-Melnyk, who worked in close proximity with Miller for years when the two were office neighbors 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 characterized the behavior of Aruna Miller and her team as extraordinary in terms of the lasting impressions they made on their political rivals.

In the end, Miller 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 who learned that for Miller and her team, the primary never seems to end — there’s no Kumbaya moment under the balloons onstage, just a procession of still-smoldering bridges.

The campaign manager for Trone’s Senate bid claimed that the two now 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 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 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 kind of be a good person.”

The chosen candidate for 2024

This year’s Senate seat will most likely go to David Trone or Angela Alsobrooks, the leading Democratic candidates, although Republican Larry Hogan’s recent entrance to the race has led to somewhat of an upset.

Alsobrooks is running with the backing of the state’s Democratic establishment: Governor Wes Moore is firmly in her camp. So are members of the state’s congressional delegation, like Chris Van Hollen, the state’s junior senator (and her would-be partner in the upper chamber). Other backers include former rival Will Jawando and US Senator Raphael Warnock, a rising star in her party nationally after he won a key seat in Georgia, then successfully defended it.

Trone is not short on endorsements either. Anthony Brown, the state’s Democratic attorney general, supports his campaign, as does Hakeem Jeffries, his party’s leader in the House of Representatives. And that $47 million he poured into his campaign can’t hurt, either.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Raskin — the representative whose campaign was once spied on by Trone’s staffers — is backing Alsobrooks.

On May 9, Aruna Miller shared a smiling picture of herself on Twitter alongside the message: “Just voted for the next US Senator from Maryland, Angela Alsobrooks. Good luck to all the candidates, up and down the ballot.” In the picture, she stands with her arm around an activist in an Alsobrooks campaign T-shirt.

The shirt reads: “Let’s go farther together”.

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