From San Francisco to the State

  ·  Beverly Hills Weekly   ·  Link to Article

You’ve served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and in the State Assembly. What inspired you to run for state treasurer?

My first office was the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and I ran on a platform of helping small businesses, which I felt like I did. And then after you do a job for a while, you kind of get comfortable and you want to do a little bit more. The state assembly seat opened up where I could actually propose statewide changes. San Francisco—we’re a very progressive city and we have a precautionary principle, so that means if something is thought to cause harm, we can actually pass it. We don’t really debate [how much science there is]; we just say, “If a chemical is bad and people say it’s bad, then let’s ban it.” I wanted to take it statewide. We wanted to pass free kindergarten statewide and ban toxic chemicals. The state gave me an opportunity to do that. I got 60 bills signed by two different governors—Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as Governor Brown in six years during the great recession. These bills were not tweaks to existing laws; they were actually real bills and first-inthe-nation bills. I was really happy, I felt I was successful in the legislature and then I faced term limits, so I had to sit out for two years. Then I ran for the State Board of Equalization which was a tax board. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to go back into taxes because I was thinking maybe I’d run for state senate. But they took away the senate seat through redistricting. We changed to a citizen redistricting committee. They said, “Why does San Francisco, with 800,000 people, have two senators and two assemblymembers,” so they [decided] to keep two assemblymembers and just have one senator. They took away one of the senate seats, so that’s why I decided to run for the Board of Equalization. Johan Klehs, who was also in the assembly at one time and on the Board of Equalization, convinced me that this would be the best job of my life. Honestly, it’s a great job. I got to work again directly with small businesses, taxes is something that I understand, we hear tax appeals, so being that arbiter, that judge of the people listening to everyday cases was really interesting. But I’ve been working on banking for the cannabis industry and trying to figure out how we can have a paper trail and make it safer for our communities who are dealing only in cash. So this is something I’ve been working on, so when the opportunity to run for treasurer came up, I said, “I want to be the state banker. I’ve been working on it, I want to lead, I want to push the envelope.”

You’ve been a strong advocate for Hepatitis B awareness and prevention. Why?

One out of ten Asians was born with Hepatitis B, and it was usually a mother to child transmission up until the 80’s when the kids got vaccinated at birth. So my grandmother had Hepatitis B, who gave it to my mother, who gave it to me when I was born. In 2007 I did a press conference and a liver specialist said, “Ms. Ma, you have chronic Hepatitis B. One out of four people like you will develop liver cancer or require a liver transplant.” So of course I went home and [told my] mom that we needed to get our livers checked. We did, and actually caught my mother’s liver cancer early. So she was one out of the four. Now, for me, every six months I’m supposed to go get my blood test and just keep track of my liver. But I am seen as the poster child in this campaign. We try to raise awareness, break the stigma, and just let people know that because you have Hepatitis B doesn’t mean you can’t have a normal relationship. It doesn’t mean you can’t have friends, you can’t have a job. Because in China, it was treated like AIDS. Nobody wanted to talk about it because you could lose your job, you could get denied school, you could get kicked out of housing. And that’s why it kept spreading, and that’s why it’s so prevalent in the Chinese community. By me talking about it, people have said, “We thought we were a pariah. Thank you for letting us know that you can get treated, that you don’t have to die of liver cancer.”

You’re one of only two Certified Public Accountants to have served on the Board of Equalization. How has that background helped you?

The fact that I have actually prepared tax returns has given me a lot of insight and background when we hear income tax cases from the Franchise Tax Board. So if you get audited by the Franchise Tax Board and you don’t agree, you can either pay or you can come before the Board. There’s not one case that has come before us in the last three years where I did not know the issue. That has been very helpful. I look at every case as, “Has the taxpayer tried to do the right thing? Did they follow their tax professionals? Or are they really trying to cheat the system?” Because I prepare tax returns and have worked with so many clients, I have that perspective of, “Did the client really try to do the right thing or where they relying on professionals and they just didn’t know?” Sometimes you start a restaurant and you buy a POS [point of sales] system, and the computer company didn’t set it up right. How was a little mom-and-pop immigrant running a restaurant supposed to know? They bought a system, they trusted it, they didn’t try to not pay their taxes. That’s kind of the mindset that I have to come in with because I’ve worked with so many small businesses and I’ve done a lot of income tax returns. There’s five of us [on the Board of Equalization], so a lot of times it’s 3-2 on some of the more difficult cases. So sometimes I’m the swing on either side so I bring that hat into these cases.

Your husband [Jason Hodge] is a firefighter, who recently fought the Santa Rosa wildfires. Tell us about that.

He has a specialty—he is a logistics specialist. So when there is a fire happening and all these different 911 responders are coming, someone has to set up the camp and make sure it’s organized for when people come in. [He covers] where they’re going to report, where they’re going to sleep, where they’re going to get food. Someone needs to organize that whole thing so that’s his specialty. He’s been on four different wildlife fires this past year.

You attended this week’s Walk with the Mayor. How was that?

Mayor [Lili] Bosse actually announced me and so people were like, “Oh who are you? Can we take a picture?” One guy gave me a hat. It was great. I got exercise, I met great people, we stopped at three different small businesses along the way. Zina Jewlery—a lot people said, “Hey we drive by all the time, we’ve never been in here,” so the fact that they were open was good. And [there was] also Bloch Galleries. The owner came in and specifically opened up the gallery [for us] so they had great artwork. It was a great experience.

Watch Fiona’s interview on Beverly Hills View at