A Woman for the People–Fiona Ma California State Treasurer

Born in New York to immigrant parents, Fiona Ma is a nationally recognized leader and changemaker in public finance. As the first woman of color to be elected as State Treasurer of California and the first woman Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the role, she has championed workplace diversity and enhanced the strength of small businesses. 

Ma was a member of the California Board of Equalization from 2014-2018 where she worked for taxpayers’ rights. During a state budget crisis, Ma fought to protect funding for public education, environmental safeguards and increased access to health care. Additionally, she has been a strong advocate for women’s rights and for domestic abuse survivors to have their cases reconsidered in the court system. From 2002-2006, Ma served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and spearheaded a human rights campaign to end human trafficking. She has won over 90 awards for her public service and continues to make a bold mark on the California political scene.

YOUNG FIONA

Fiona Ma: I am the eldest daughter of immigrant parents who were both born in China and settled in New York. This is where I was born. I lived with my grandparents in Chinatown during the week because my parents were both working upstate in Yonkers. They would come and see me on the weekends. I played four sports in Junior High School: tennis, volleyball, basketball and softball. When I graduated, I received the Benjamin Award for best athlete, scholastics and sportsmanship.

DRIVE & EMPATHY

Fiona Ma: My drive definitely comes from my father. He was very supportive and I learned many things from him. I am the dutiful oldest child. Growing up my dad was always positive and encouraged us to try everything. We always felt like we were great at everything, even though maybe we weren’t. Having the confidence to try new things allowed me to explore new experiences in my life without worrying about failing. Everything I’ve done has provided the building blocks for what I do today. This foundation was really powerful.

My mother, on the other hand, was more of an introvert, not as adventurous. She had depression most of her life. Unfortunately, she had a tough childhood growing up in China. Her father was a minister, so they always moved around; she didn’t have many friends or a lot of stability. They didn’t have enough money and their living situation was not good. This really affected her health.

When you grow up in the United States in a pleasant house, it’s hard to understand why someone is not happy every day. Finally, after researching and talking to medical professionals, we found out that there is a chemical imbalance in people that causes depression. It took a long time for my father to admit this.

Many family members don’t know how to cope with depression. In the Asian community, we don’t talk a lot about stigmas. I am a public servant. I talk about things that people find difficult to confront such as depression and domestic violence. I also talk openly about how I was born with Hepatitis B which is directly linked to liver cancer–– an Asian predominant illness because it’s passed on from generation to generation.

SOCIAL CHANGE

Fiona Ma: I worked for the State Assembly and chaired the Select Committee on Domestic Violence for six years. I like to talk about difficult issues in public because if you’re not raising awareness and breaking those stigmas, people suffer alone and feel helpless. Now they can call us.

PATH TO POLITICS

Fiona Ma: My grandparents passed away a long time ago, and I actually never met my grandfather. I only found out later that my grandfather [Lieutenant General Ma Zhen] was a mayor of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in China.] I actually never wanted to be in politics. It is something that I fell into.

I started as a real estate tax accountant and then left one of the big eight accounting firms because they didn’t listen to young women. Then I went my own way, became president of a small business association called the Asian Business Association. This is the first time I had to go down to City Hall and testify. While I was there I looked around, and saw older Asian men, civil rights leaders in our community saying “We [women] need to be at the table, we need to get more involved in politics and have more people in office.” I noticed there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me in politics back then, and I thought okay I’m going to achieve this.

Supporting small businesses is still my passion and priority. We always say that small businesses are the backbone of our community. Yet, they are hard to manage. We should be doing much more to help them. During this pandemic [as of mid-2021], I’ve conducted about 250 webinars with small businesses and groups, connecting them to the different resources at the federal, state, local and private sector.

FACING DISCRIMINATION & ENCOURAGING ASIAN AMERICANS TO GET INVOLVED

Fiona Ma: Asian hate crimes in the state of California are a bit surprising because we pride ourselves on our diversity. We are all kids of immigrants at some point. We’ve been doing a lot to rally our community because Asians don’t typically get involved in politics. To be out there and protest as a vulnerable community is a new thing for us, but we’re learning.

I believe that we need to support other targeted communities such as the Black, Muslim and LGBTQ+ communities, because when it’s our turn, we want them to support us as well. It’s a learning moment to expose the Asian community to what is happening in society as a whole.

ECONOMIC IMPACT


Fiona Ma: I’m the state’s banker. All revenues to the state comes through my office totaling over $2 trillion a year. I invest whatever the state is not using to make sure that we’re making money on the idle cash. I also issue all the bonds for the state––we’ve been issuing them even during the pandemic. As for affordable housing, I oversee the tax credits and bonds that goes to subsidize affordable housing in the state and we have approved more applications than ever before. I also chair 15 boards, commissions and authorities that fund children’s hospitals and clinics, schools, green energy, manufacturing, and public transportation.

REVIVING HOLLYWOOD


FIONA MA: I am a SAG-AFTRA member and I’ve always been interested in the film industry. I co-sponsored the film tax credit back in 2007, which helped TV shows come back independently; in a way, this helped revive Hollywood. Then I sat on the California Film Commission from 2012​​-2014, and I was recently the sponsor for a diversity film tax credit to help promote more diversity behind and in front of the camera, because the [majority of] people who are actually making money are not people of color. I’ve been supporting the creation of new film studios in California. Gov. Newsom just signed the new film tax credit, SB 144, on July 21, 2021. With this he’s going to invest $15 million to TV series who relocate back to California, $75 million to recurring TV shows, and a new $150 million film tax credit to build new studios. The applicants have to submit a diversity report; without this they cannot get a credit.

Interview by Tricia Love Vargas

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