Fiona Ma: The sky's the limit in politics

Being the first Asian American woman to serve in the position of state assemblywoman and speaker pro tempore in California since 1850, Fiona Hodge Ma's passion is public service.

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Fiona Ma

Being the first Asian American woman to serve in the position of state assemblywoman and speaker pro tempore in California since 1850, Fiona Hodge Ma's passion is public service. An electorate of 70,000 put her on the San Francisco board of supervisors, and an electorate of 450,000 put her in the state assembly.

Now Ma is gearing up a campaign among the 10 million people of District 2 to join the California State Board of Equalization, with election day June 3.

A certified public accountant specializing in taxation since 1992, she has also been a small business owner now for eight years. Her public service started in 1994 when she was appointed to the San Francisco assessment appeals board, and later became a district representative for Senator John Burton working on business and tax issues.

Describing her life as "having no time to stop and smell the roses", Ma said she is usually out of the door at 8:30 every morning and back home at 10 pm or later. Her daily life is campaigning, making phone calls and connections, fundraising and meeting her responsibilities on 12 non-profit and advisory boards.

"I normally start with breakfast meetings, and then 30-minute consecutive meetings all through the day," she said. "I also go to committee meetings, community events, three to four night events and sometimes have no time for lunch. Now, since I am running for a position that involves 10 million people, I am busy meeting voters."

Ma said she likes to make a difference directly, talk about things that she doesn't feel are right, and push things that need to be changed.

"Public office provides a perfect platform for me to do what I want to do and do well by people," she said, "a perfect place to have a voice and address issues of public concern."

One of the important campaigns Ma initiated was Hepatitis B Virus (HVB) Free in 2007. Ma has chronic Hep B herself, which was passed down from birth from her mother, and her mother's mother before her. Thanks to the awareness campaign, they caught her mother's liver cancer early on. Ma herself gets tested every six months.

Fiona Ma: The sky's the limit in politics

"One out of 10 Asians has HVB, and one out of four carriers will develop liver cancer. Asian Americans have among the highest rate of carriers among all races," Ma said. "I became a spokesperson for HVB since I found out about myself. I try to erase the stigma, since many of us Asian Americans do not want to talk about it. My mission is to educate people, get them to see a doctor and get tested. It's something we should discuss openly. Nobody should be ashamed of it. We can save many lives this way."

Being active in promoting trade between California and China, Ma has been leading delegations of local business leaders and elected officials to visit China since 1999. The destinations were initially sister cities between California and Jiangsu province, then extended to Beijing, Kunming, Xi'an, Chongqing, Inner Mongolia and other destinations.

"California is one of the largest economies in the US, and our relationship with China is very important. We need to learn how to get along and communicate, and better understand one another's cultures," Ma said.

Ma's grandfather was the first mayor of Kunming and both of her parents were born in China. But growing up she never considered a career in politics because her parents told her she could only choose one of four professions: accountant, attorney, engineer or doctor.

Her interest in politics began when she became president of the Asian Business Association in 1994, representing women and minority businesses.

"I had to go to city hall and present to the mayor and boards of supervisors in San Francisco and Sacramento. I learned that as a representative of Asian Americans, being a minority woman and having immigrant parents, I had to fight for basic things that were important to our community, such as making sure that voter registration was bilingual and getting access to free health care for those who couldn't afford it," she recalled.

It was also hard for Asians to open restaurants and other small businesses, she said, because of all the red tape, which was hard for them to understand. "It was from that experience that I decided to devote myself to public service, to represent them, and give them a voice," Ma said.

Now 48, Ma said "the sky's the limit" for her goals in politics. In four years, when positions open for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state controller and treasurer, she will not hesitate to consider running for them.

For now, however, she wants to concentrate on her campaign for state board of equalization, since it's the toughest race she's faced since 12 years ago - also a year of the horse - when she ran for state board of supervisors.

"As a minority woman, I still need to prove myself all the time," she said, "since people usually ask me 'Why you are qualified?' instead of asking the same question to a Caucasian or male candidate."

Ma says politics can mean sacrifices in her personal life. Her husband Jason Thomas Ma Hodge, a fireman and an elected Oxnard harbor commissioner whom she married in 2011, is completely understanding.

"All of my friends are in politics," she said. "We belong to the same group and travel to conventions together. Politicians typically put their work ahead of their personal lives. My husband Jason lives at the fire station 24 hours a day for 911 calls, fire alarms and accidents. This is our life, we go to events together, host fundraisers together. We are a good match since we both like people and social business."

Ma also shares advice with the Chinese community. She believes Asian Americans' kids need to be well-rounded communicators and develop leadership skills, something just as important as getting all As in school.

"Even if kids get perfect scores at school and go to the best colleges, if they don't know how to communicate, they may not be the most highly sought-after employees. To become leaders, they need to take on projects outside of their homes, volunteer, have internships, and take on more responsibilities. Networking, developing social skills, finding their passions and mentors are also important for younger generations.

"And if you don't like the way things are, you need to vote to make changes instead of staying home and doing nothing. You need to elect candidates who understand and represent your point of view," she said.

"Today many public officials in San Francisco are Asian Americans, but that did not happen overnight. It took us 20 years to get there, and our younger generation should carry it on."

 Fiona Ma: The sky's the limit in politics

Fiona Hodge Ma, the first Asian American woman served in the position of state assemblywoman and speaker pro tempore in California since 1850, is running for California State Board of Equalization. Qidong Zhang / China Daily