Fiona Ma: Legislative Leader has Passion and a Plan

Fiona Ma is the Assembly Majority Whip for the State of California. She represents the 12th District, including San Francisco, Daly City, Colma and Broadmoor. She'll be honored on May 3 with the State Leader Award at Leadership California's Legacy of Lead

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Fiona Ma is the Assembly Majority Whip
 for the State of California. She represents the 12th District, including San Francisco, Daly City, Colma and Broadmoor. She'll be honored on May 3 with the State Leader Award at Leadership California's Legacy of Leadership Awards.

Fiona Ma: Legislative Leader 
has Passion and a Plan

by Carol Caley

ASSEMBLYWOMAN MA IS THE AUTHOR of numerous bills that have changed the lives of all Californians, including legislation to ensure legal protections for foster children, to ban the sale of toxic chemicals in toys, to promote fair and efficient taxpayer audits, to protect victims of domestic violence, to restrict subprime loans and other predatory practices affecting homeowners, and to increase safety measures at public swimming pools. She is Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Domestic Violence and is a champion of high-speed rail in California. 

Q: Of all the pieces of legislation you’ve worked on, which ones have had an impact that’s been particularly meaningful to you?

A: The bill that I got signed into law in my first year, AB 1108, removing phthalates from children’s products and toys was a first-in-the-nation bill. It was very difficult to pass, and ultimately went into the Consumer Product Safety Act. Now we have a federal law that bans this chemical from all children’s toys. That to me is the most significant, most important work I’ve done here so far.

Q: Was this an unknown or little-known problem that needed rectifying?

The U.S. essentially became a dumping ground for toxic toys. These days we have an increase in the prevalence of autism, ADD, juvenile diabetes. Something in the environment is harming our kids. I really believe it is all the chemicals on the market. Eighty thousand chemicals out there, and there is very little standard testing being done on these chemicals. That’s why this is so important to me as a consumer product safety and health bill.

Q: Have you moved forward from phthalates into other toxics?

Yes, we moved on to lead, trying to ban lead in baby products and in toys. Millions of toys coming from China with lead paint were recalled.

Q: I assumed that had already been done. Hadn’t lead been regulated long ago to be eliminated in most household products?

You would have thought so, but nobody is regulating [the lead content of] toys. The Consumer Product Safety Commission only has one toy tester to test all the toys on the market. Clearly, this person cannot do the job necessary, so toys laden with lead paint are very prevalent on the toy shelves.

Q: Even today?


Q: Amazing.

Yes. But we started with a bill here in California, and then the federal government decided to do something about it, to lower the allowable lead content in toys and baby products. So I didn’t have to push through my bill. But I’m always working on chemical-related bills.

Q: So those are the issues you care the most about, those having to do with chemical toxicity?

When you come in [to the Assembly], they tell you, you’re only here for six years, so you should really stake out a position and what you want to be known for. We all are generalists in our jobs. We hear and vote on up to three thousand bills a year. There’s no way we can be experts in everything, but we do try to know a little bit about every bill that we’re voting on, so we can feel like we’re making the right decision. I would say I’m best known for toxic toys, chemicals and pesticides regulation.

Q: You’re also a big advocate of high-speed rail in California. Tell us about that.

When I got elected, we were working to put a new trans-bay terminal in downtown San Francisco—it’s going to be the west coast Grand Central Station. I was on the [San Francisco] Board of Supervisors, and we were trying to get funding. The last piece was to get high-speed rail passed by the voters. It had been postponed twice on the ballot. So my job was to try to keep it on the ballot so the voters could vote for it, and hopefully it would pass. So the voters passed high-speed rail in November of 2008, and we have $2.25 billion, from the $8 billion of high speed rail money. My job is to make sure that the project stays on track, and that we try to get as much federal funding as possible.

Q: What other issues do you feel a special affinity for?

The third thing I’m passionate about is Hepatitis B. One out of five Asians has Hepatitis B, was born with it, through-mother-child transmission—that’s usually the way it is transmitted. I was born with it, my mother has it, my grandmother has it. It is the leading cause of liver cancer. The Bay Area has the highest rate of liver cancer, and deaths from liver cancer, in the country, because of our high Asian population. So I have become the spokesperson or poster child for the Hepatitis B Campaign, to try to get every Asian tested, vaccinated, and treated. We have a website for

Q: Can you tell us something about your career trajectory? Did you have a plan for yourself?

I am a planner. So in 1995, I decided I would make a good public servant. I had never run for office before, had no friends or family who held public office. I figured the best way would be to work for a politician, to learn the ropes. I put my resume out, and Senator John Burton happened to be hiring at the time. He always hired an Asian aide. I worked for seven and a half years for him. At that time we didn’t have training programs. It was doing the grunt work, working on campaigns, and doing filings, because I was an accountant.

I got involved in all the Democratic clubs, started a Democratic club, got appointed to a commission. It was one step at a time, to prepare myself for the day I was going to run for office. After seven and a half years, I got elected to the Board of Supervisors, and prepared to run for the Assembly.

In public office, if you’re open and ready to move, then you should always be preparing for the next step, because we have term limits now. People want to go with a winner, someone who’s got the passion, thought about it, put together the right team, have fundraising ability—and that usually comes with time. So I usually prepare two years for each position that I want to work for.

Right now, I’m hoping to run for the State Controller’s office in 2014. I’ve actually spent four years preparing, because it is daunting: I’m going to have to raise probably $10 million to get as many voters as I can, so I’m going to have to start earlier. But my backup plan is the State Senate, that’s also in 2014. So regardless, I’m trying to prepare myself as best I can.

My first job was with Senator Burton, so of course he had a huge influence on my life, because every day we were executing his will, his policies. I learned a lot about the role of government, to help the underserved, those with a lesser voice.

Q: Were there ideas, people, family members who influenced you?

Another role model was Susan Leal, on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She helped appoint me to my first commission, became one of my mentors. I worked very closely with her, supporting her. I became her treasurer, I did all her filings. She later became the San Francisco Treasurer, then ran for mayor, but did not win.

I began following her style. She made decisions quickly, because she had been an executive for so many years. In politics, you can ask people for their input, but once you make a decision, you’ve got to stick with it. When she said she was going to do something, that she was going to vote a certain way, she would never waver. We knew that she was going to hold her ground.

In politics, your word was your bond. If you said you were going to vote for someone, if you said you were going to do something, people took that to the bank. That doesn’t happen these days, because there is so much pressure from outside interests. But if I’ve given someone my word, if I’ve said I was going to endorse someone, if I say I’m going to vote a certain way, then I’m sticking with it. John Burton was like that, and Willie Brown. I was on the Board of Supervisors under Willie Brown. I think it’s so important that people trust you.

Q: Was there anything that was an obstacle in your career?

When you don’t see women in a certain position, it holds us back in terms of what we think we can achieve. When I was working for a big accounting firm, I left because there were no women partners, there were no women senior managers. You start to see that maybe that’s not the place for you. Instead of trying to break through those glass ceilings, we tend to go to where women have broken the glass ceiling before.

In politics, it’s difficult, because less women are involved. But the fact that Hillary Clinton ran for president—that someday a woman may become president—I never thought I would see that in my lifetime. The lack of role models of people who are actually doing something holds us back.

Q: But it didn’t hold you back, personally. You still put out your plan, put one foot in front of the other to get where you are. If women feel held back by having no role models, is that how you would advise them, to have a plan and move forward step by step?

I think my responsibility is to try to help women. Help women get elected to office. Help them understand what it takes to be in this position, the obstacles that they’re going to face, and also to be a role model for them. Women need to support each other and stick together.

It’s not easy. There are double standards, biases out there. This is mostly a man’s world. Ninety-five percent of the lobbyists are men. Two-thirds of the legislature is men. We’ve never had a woman governor before, or a woman lieutenant governor, or attorney general. That’s pretty significant for California.

Q: Our alumnae are especially interested in women’s leadership styles and practices. What have you learned about that in your years of public service?

As women, we need to work harder than men, be more prepared in understanding the issues, because we’re going to be judged harder than men. For me, I’m a consensus builder. I like to hear from the people closest to me, from my staff. I like to get their input. That’s my leadership style. I believe in giving them a lot of room to come up with their own ideas.

Q: In your opinion, why are many Californians disappointed in the way our state government works?

When there is money and there are programs and people have jobs, nobody complains about government. When there’s no money, people want to blame someone. When things aren’t going well in the state, who are you going to blame? We’re kind of the easy targets because we signed up to do this job, to represent the people, and the people want us to do something about it, to fix the problem.

California is the only state that requires two-thirds of the legislature to pass a budget or to increase taxes. No other state has those strict requirements. When times are good, and there’s plenty of money and everybody’s happy, we don’t have a problem. Everybody gets an allocation, they’re all receiving money for their districts. It’s only when we don’t have money that we’re fighting for the crumbs.

For the last three years since I’ve been in elected office, we’ve had budget deficits. There are certain programs and services that Democrats support, and certain ones that Republicans support, and when there’s not enough money to go around, we don’t want to come to the center because we want to keep as much money for ourselves. That’s why government seems dysfunctional during tough times.

Q: What are your ideas for remedies?

My philosophy is to promote jobs and keep companies here in California. If we do not do this, we’re not going to generate the tax revenues we need to get out of this deficit. So we’re hoping the economy gets better. We’re creating incentives for businesses to stay here, and streamlining the way businesses can be opened up. It’s very hard to start a green business here in California because of all the regulations, the hoops that companies have to jump through. Companies would rather go to another state, and export solar panels to California, or wind turbines. Why build it here?

I’ve worked hard to change our corporate taxes, to make us more competitive with other states. I’m on the National Conference of State Legislators Executive Board, and I go around the country, meeting with elected officials of other states so that I understand what laws and policies they’re implementing to try to attract certain businesses. How do we stay competitive as a state so that we don’t lose high tech, biotech, the film industry? These are all the things that make California what it is.

Q: We have a number of women in our Leadership California program each year who are thinking about running for office, or who might seek an appointment. What tips do you have for them?

They should intern in the office of a politician, or shadow a politician, or if they have a chance to go to any training programs, there are a lot of them out there now to help women get elected. There’s Emerge California, Emily’s List has a very good training program: And California Women Lead has links to a dozen organizations that do training for women.

Getting appointed to a commission, if you’re going to run for elected office, is an excellent way to understand the process. On a commission, you have to make tough decisions. You’re going to sit in a hearing, you’re going to make recommendations on policy issues, get to know different interest groups. Getting on a commission also will help with your resume.

Q: Any other tips about personal qualities, attitude?

You’ve got to like people. You have to be O.K. with change. You have to be able to raise money, so you have to have confidence in yourself, in your ability to sell yourself. It’s tough for women. I don’t think we’re brought up patting ourselves on the back, expecting that people will give us money, for doing a good thing. We just expect to be recognized for our hard work. You really have to be proactive and aggressive. You’ve got to like to compete.

I always say, if women play sports, take a look at what sports they play, and it tells where you should go in government service. If you like individual sports, local government is probably better, because you’re kind of out there on your own fighting. If you’re a team sport player—I always played team sports—being up here in the legislature is better, there’s a team mentality. You’re competing amongst your colleagues, you’re competing against future candidates, if you’re in a race you’re competing. So people who do competitive sports do well in this environment.

I found that most elected officials were active in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. We always got a badge whenever we helped at the senior center or volunteered at the local food bank. Growing up, getting that sort of reward for doing good things in the community stays with you. I’ve done that a lot, asking elected officials how many of them were active in Scouting. I would say 90% of the hands go up.

Finally, my motto is what goes around comes around. The same people who you pass going up are the same ones you’ll pass going down. In politics, it’s all about relationships. If you treat people poorly when you’re in power, you can’t expect them to treat you well when you’re down and out. That’s my advice. Treat everyone with dignity and respect.