Profiles in Prominence: Fiona Ma

She credits her success to a unique combination: the competitive world of sports; the value of service to others instilled by the Girl Scouts (which rewards scouts for service activities) along with her mother's work for Fiona's grandfather, the Rev. Will

  ·  Golden Gate University

“Don’t waste time being something someone else wants you to be–listen to your heart.”   


Born in New York in 1966 Fiona Ma, member and Speaker Pro Tempore of the California State Assembly, spent much of her life before politics as a self-proclaimed “dutiful daughter” in a Chinese American household.

Growing up, she was a tomboy, interested in sports, Girl Scouts and academics. Fiona was concurrently captain of the basketball, volleyball, tennis and softball teams in high-school while maintaining straight A’s. After speaking with her, even briefly, you get the impression that she doesn’t like to lose at anything–and rarely does.

She credits her success to a unique combination: the competitive world of sports; the value of service to others instilled by the Girl Scouts (which rewards scouts for service activities) along with her mother’s work for Fiona’s grandfather, the Rev. William Doo (a minister at Chinese Presbyterian churches in New York, Toronto and San Francisco); and her father’s sole focus on professional services and business.

It is fate, Fiona believes, that guides your journey through life. “Doors open, and if you’re looking for the opportunities and then listening to your heart, your choices lead you down the path intended for you,” she says. Before entering politics, she tried a lot of things and found that “if it fights with your being, then it isn’t what’s for you.”

The eldest child of Dr. William and Sophia Ma, who were both born in China, she has a brother younger by two years, (also a GGU alumnus), and a sister younger by sixteen years. Perhaps her outspoken nature was cultivated by growing up a native New Yorker, despite being the only Chinese American kids in their Long Island, New York neighborhood, or perhaps it’s just Fiona.

A product of New York public schools, she attended Baker Elementary and Great Neck North Middle and High schools. Education was highly prized in the Ma household. “Dad always told us school is the number-one equalizer; knowledge is the gateway to success and with proper preparation and diligence, the sky is only the stepping stone,” she recalls. As a result the family is highly accomplished academically. “It’s true that education is the one thing no one can take away.”

Her father was a mechanical engineer with a bachelor’s degree from Canada, a master’s degree from National College, London, England and a PhD. From the University of Glasgow, Scotland.  After entering the business world in New York, he realized that he needed more knowledge in running successful business enterprises, so when Fiona was six year old, he went back to Columbia University and earned a MBA.  He is a licensed Professional Engineer by trade.

He founded or co-founded six companies and holds four patents on mechanical devices in solid waste compaction.  He was President and Chairman of the Board of a public company and later specialized n construction claims and litigation before his recent retirement.

Her mother had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in fine arts education from the City University in New York City and taught art at a public high school for 20 years before moving the family to San Francisco to be closer to her parents.

When counseling his children on their education and eventual careers, Fiona’s father encouraged an “honorable” profession–one that fit “the LEAD” (Doctor, Engineer, Accountant, Lawyer). Ever the dutiful daughter, Fiona received a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Rochester Institute of Technology with a listing in the Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges in 1988 honoring the nation’s most noteworthy graduates of high learning, a master’s degree in taxation from Golden Gate University, a MBA from Pepperdine University and her CPA license to practice. Her younger brother Mike says that Fiona’s role in the family is as a “trailblazer” who always leads by example. Fiona’s perspective is that she has always intuitively understood there is a time and place for everything.  She says by listening both externally to the people and situations around you, as well as internally, you’ll know when the time and opportunity are right; and then you can’t be afraid to go for it.

In 1993 she was at Ernst and Young–one of the “big six” accounting firms at the time–and while she hadn’t yet hit the glass ceiling, she saw it looming. There were no female partners and few female managers. She decided it probably wasn’t going to be a good place to seek her future and decided to leave.

She and an associate started their own accounting practice. A scary prospect for some, but Fiona was influenced by her father’s entrepreneurial spirit and her parents’ encouragement growing up to “go for it” no matter what. In 1994 she was elected president of the Asian Business Association and found herself at San Francisco City Hall and at the state capitol in Sacramento lobbying for business issues that affected women and minorities.

Had she always dreamed of being a politician? Not even close. “I was exposed to the political process about once a year when my dad forced us to watch the presidential State of the Union address. I thought it was so boring!”

As a result of her work on behalf of the Small Business Association, she was elected in 1995 as a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business under President Bill Clinton. As her interaction with Washington, D.C. and lawmakers increased at a national level, she began to believe in the importance of government and its ability to create positive change. Fiona’s advocacy work in that role helped lead to socially responsible contracting for minorities and women in San Francisco. She saw firsthand how, through politics, she could make a contribution to the community and help people. She was hooked.

Fiona also applied for and was appointed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the Assessment Appeals Board and began to understand what she had to offer the world of politics. With her accounting and tax education, love of service and competition, drive and desire to help people, she was sure she could do a better job than the elected officials around her. And so her quest began.

That year Fiona embarked on her public-service career as a part-time district representative for then-State Senator John Burton. When considering the job, she found herself again pulled between duty and aspiration: to continue to please her parents or to follow what her heart had begun to tell her was a life-long passion–her calling. After some negotiation with her parents, who most certainly had not dreamed of having their first-born daughter become an American politician, a compromise was struck. She would continue to practice as a CPA and work part-time for Senator Burton. For the next seven years she served on the senator’s staff about two-and-a-half days a week. Her task was to help constituents with Medi-Cal, Workers’ Compensation, Unemployment Insurance, Franchise and Employment Development Department taxes, and professional licensing. A funny thing happened during her “part-time” work though, and she found herself spending virtually all her free time campaigning, researching and otherwise working in politics.

It was time to enter the political arena as a career; and at thirty-four, her parents were ready to let her go. In 2002 Fiona Ma was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and from 2002 to 2006 represented District 4, which encompasses the Central Sunset, Outer Sunset, Parkside, Outer Parkside and Pine Lake Park. “My parents always said ‘go ahead, give it a try’ about everything while we were growing up and then made us feel good about the attempt, regardless of the outcome. Entering politics full-time wasn’t scary for me. Failure never occurred to me. I’m sure that was an advantage.”

Starting with her small-business advocacy and continuing in her service on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a pattern of giving voice to those without, creating equality where none exists, improving the human condition, and standing up for what she believes to be right, emerged in the politics of Fiona Ma. As a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors her major legislative push was to shut down massage parlors that were involved in illegal trafficking of immigrants for purposes of prostitution. Following the passage of Proposition 209, which barred public institutions from considering sex, race or ethnicity, she led the effort to create San Francisco’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which enables small businesses to more easily participate in public-works projects. As a direct result of her work, the San Francisco Public Transportation Authority now states: “The Authority and its employees shall not discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability in the award and performance of Authority contracts.” This measure broadens the scope of inclusion, leveling an important playing field for small businesses in San Francisco.

What Fiona considers one of her most important legislative wins–something she hopes will become part of her lifetime legacy–is helping to protect the nation’s toddlers from toxic toys. The years-long effort, which culminated in federal law enacted in 2009, bans phthalates, which are known to be harmful to human health. It started with Fiona Ma in San Francisco City Hall.

She watched as a member of the California State Assembly tried, and failed, to pass a bill that would have prevented these chemicals from being used in the state. Fiona explains that she knew the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with their guideline to err on the conservative side where detriment to human health is concerned, would have no problem passing what was an obviously needed piece of legislation. She decided to start at the local level and then to use that as leverage, putting pressure on the statehouse. Ordinance Number 060107 amended the San Francisco Health Code to “prohibit the manufacture, sale, or distribution in commerce of any toy or child-care article that is intended for use by a child under three years of age if it contains bisphenol-A or other specified chemicals, and to require manufacturers to use the least toxic alternative to those substances.” As Fiona had predicted, the ordinance passed the San Francisco Board of Supervisors easily. The next step would be at the statewide level. As it happened, Fiona Ma would be the one to shepherd it through.

Four years later, in the November 2006 elections, Supervisor Ma chose not to seek re-election after winning the Democratic nomination for California State Assembly District 12, which includes San Francisco, Daly City, Colma and Broadmoor—some 420,000 constituents. Fiona soon was off to Sacramento as an assemblywoman, one of eighty members of the California Assembly. She got off to an auspicious start in Sacramento and the speaker appointed her as the Majority Whip, making her responsible for marshalling votes to ensure the passage of crucial legislation to improve public education, expand healthcare access and protect the environment.

During her first year in office she introduced what came to be known as the “Rubber Duck” bill, so named because the phthalates are often used in the manufacture of soft plastic toys and other baby products such as bath books, rubber ducks, and baby teethers. AB 1108 virtually mirrored the San Francisco ordinance she’d sponsored four years earlier. At the time she said, “California continues to lead the nation in protecting children from dangerous chemicals and in safeguarding our environment. AB 1108 sends a clear message to the Consumer Product Safety Commission that if the administration won’t act, states will.” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law in October 2007; it took effect on January 1, 2009. Other states followed suit, and act, the administration ultimately did.

In March 2008, Fiona Ma’s bill was used as a model in federal legislation when California Senator Dianne Feinstein wrapped a ban on phthalates into the U.S. Senate version of a Consumer Product Safety Commission bill that Congress passed in February 2009 and which went into effect the following August. As Fiona observes, “Banning phthalates across the whole country and helping keep kids healthy. That’s pretty good work, right?”

The next item on her “legacy list” is high-speed rail for California. “I carried this one over the finish line,” she says. As a joint author of Proposition 1-A and the convener of the High Speed Rail Caucus, Fiona Ma is the legislature’s leading advocate to bring high-speed trains to California.

The caucus fought to keep the issue in front of the voters, but in the end, it was a wild ride that brought the important, but otherwise “less than sexy” issue to the forefront of California transportation policy. In April 2007 Assemblywoman Ma was aboard the world-record-breaking high-speed train. The V150, a French TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) reached a top speed of 357.2 mph. As the only American aboard the record-setting train, she caught the attention of many and succeeded in elevating the conversation.

She continued her work, leading the effort to maintain $21 million in funding after the governor proposed in 2007 to slash the High-Speed Rail Authority budget to less than $2 million. In 2008, she jointly authored AB 3034, the Safe Reliable, High- Speed Train Bond Act for the 21st Century (Proposition 1-A), which was approved by 53 percent of the voters in the November 2008 election. She continues to work tirelessly– because she knows no other way–to gain the federal funding necessary to have what she hopes will be the system’s first segment from San Francisco to Los Angeles completely up and running by 2018.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma was appointed in 2010 Speaker pro Tempore by Speaker of the Assembly John A. Pérez. As presiding officer and member of the leadership team, she runs the daily business of the assembly, responds to parliamentary inquiries, issues rulings on points of order when necessary, and is responsible for guiding legislative priorities.

On top of the “business as usual” duties attached to being a highly placed member of the California Assembly, she serves on a number of key committees: Agriculture, Business and Professions, Governmental Organization, Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security, and Utilities and Commerce.

Amidst this morass of obligations, she uses a spark of creativity and sometimes shock-value to keep what she considers to be the important topics in the public eye. Her utilization of the social media channel, Twitter, has become famous or infamous (depending upon which side of the issue you sit). As one San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter observed, “What can we say; the woman is a Twitter savant.” Leading to such proclamations are her tweets including:

“Happy 90th Bday to Jane Morrison! Her wish is to have high-speed rail in CA by her 100th bday.”

“Sturgeon General Warning: Don’t grab one by its tail! White and Greens take 7-9 yrs to produce caviar (avg) and can weigh up to 1800 lbs.”

“Found: SF 1939 Treasure Island World’s Fair Hook & Ladder Fire Truck in heart of Amador
County; home 2 oldest Zin Vineyard & 40 diff  wineries”

And while those are clever, informative and engaging on topics from high-speed rail to the environment to a plug for California’s economy, as for the provocative part of her strategy, you need look no further than her controversial ad campaign about Hepatitis B, “Which One Deserves to Die?” That effort received national coverage that featured Ma in the New York Times and was covered widely by radio stations across the nation.

And that brings us to number three on her “legacy list.” At the age of twenty-two, Ma learned she has hepatitis B (HBV), a virus that causes 80 percent of all liver cancer if left untreated and one that shows no symptoms until it’s almost too late. Almost 1.4 million Americans are infected with HBV, and more than half are Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. An estimated one in ten is chronically infected with the virus. Like most Asian Americans, Ma contracted the disease from her mother at birth via perinatal exposure. San Francisco has the highest rate of liver cancer in the nation because of its high Asian population, and HBV-related liver cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among API men living in California. In true Fiona fashion, she decided to tackle the issue head-on and call as much attention to it as possible—a big jolt to a community that had attached such stigma to the illness it was considered best to keep it quiet.

As the “poster child” in the fight against hepatitis B, Ma serves as unofficial chairperson for San Francisco Hep B Free– the largest, most intensive healthcare campaign for APIs in the U.S. and one that is looked upon as a model for the nation in eliminating HBV. In May 2010, San Francisco Hep B Free launched its “Which One Deserves to Die?” campaign featuring all-Asian groups of ten people smiling–ranging from beauty queens to a basketball team, from family portraits to dignitaries–each asking, “Which one of us deserves to die?”

Ma takes this bold approach to help remove the stigma of the disease within the Asian community by actively speaking out about the importance of testing and vaccination. In 2008, she introduced Assembly Bill 158, which would have required the Department of Health Care Services to apply for a federal waiver to expand Medi-Cal eligibility for individuals with chronic hepatitis B. It was deemed that the costs associated with the bill were too high, and it failed to pass. In response, she introduced a resolution declaring May 2009 as Hepatitis B Awareness Month in California. While she continues to shine the spotlight on the issue, she’s still grinding away to support it with law. “How amazing would it be to help eradicate a disease?” she asks. Amazing indeed.

To round out what she hopes to leave behind when her six-year term in Sacramento is up, Ma cites “water” saying, “Water is the backbone, the driver of our state’s economy. Enough good, clean, working water for the whole state is what makes us viable. This is an important issue and I hope the voters understand it that way.”

With her immediate goals firmly in place, she reflects on her future. “I’m not sure what opportunities are coming my way. I think I’d like to run for California State Controller at some point, but I’ll just have to wait and see.”

When that day does come—and if it’s on Ma’s radar, you know it will—Fiona believes that her education is one of the many things that will make her a better candidate. With her accounting and tax degrees, she staffs her own committees so she doesn’t have to rely on others to interpret data for her. Getting it firsthand makes for better-informed decisions. “I’m far more familiar with the practice and laws than are my aides, so it’s more efficient and effective this way,” she explains.

Given her penchant for juggling, Ma loved the multiple focus GGU gave her–integrating the learning with her daily work, and interacting with other professionals in the field who were her classmates and professors. She thrives on multitasking and going to GGU while working enabled her to stay fully engaged and focused at the same time. “Every time I attended class, I found it totally relevant.”

Fiona loves what she does–and for the foreseeable future she wants to keep on doing it. Oh, and her advice? “Don’t waste time being something someone else wants you to be–listen to your heart.” The duty is necessary, the passion wins.

This story was written by Tasia Neeve, Director of Marketing and Communications at Golden Gate University.

Fiona Ma was interviewed by Ms. Neeve on May 24, 2010