Fiona Ma

Fiona Ma Shares Her Vision of Helping Middle-Income Families over a Cup of Tea

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PASADENA, Calif. – After exchanging awkward questions about keeping the mask on and our vaccination status as a recent addition to social interactions during the pandemic, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma and I sat down for an interview in a cozy tea room in Pasadena.

Fiona Ma, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, started her career as an accountant at Ernest & Young. She served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the California Board of Equalization and the State Assembly, and was elected on November 6, 2018 with more votes (7,825,587) than any other candidate for treasurer in the state’s history. She is the first woman of color and the first female Certified Public Accountant (CPA) elected to the position.

“It doesn’t happen in all the states!” notes Ma about the ability of immigrants to reach such heights, before we start to talk about California’s specific characteristics.

Even agreeing with the treasurer on the Golden State being a “state of immigrants” and “the fifth largest economy,” I couldn’t help mentioning the high taxes, the astronomical housing prices and post-pandemic small business crisis that forced nearly 40,000 businesses to close down permanently, according to the New York Times.

“I am concerned about [all] that, but taxes are controversial,” notes the treasurer. She is more focused on housing prices that she calls “a product of supply and demand.” “Next door to my house there was a house for sale. It went for a million dollars over the asking price! They didn’t need to do that. But that also creates imbalance in what the real prices are,” says Ma.

Sky high and ever-rising real estate prices as well as other issues that make California an expensive state forced many to migrate to neighboring states. According to the Census Bureau, from 2010 to 2019 more than 900,000 people left California as a net change in population. The Armenian population is no exception to this trend.

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In fact, during the last couple of years at least 35 families migrated to Carrollton, Texas, and many more called and emailed inquiring about the ways to move there, as the pastor of St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Carrollton reports. In Arizona, the number of families attending the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church in Scottsdale went up from 900 to 1070. Its pastor, Father Zacharia Saribekyan, based this number on the church’s mailing list. He sees more families from California relocating to the cities of Arizona, opening ethnic grocery stores and businesses. There is a large migration movement towards Nevada, Oregon and Washington as well. The reasons vary from gas prices, to business opportunities and high taxes. Californians find it easier to buy real estate in these states especially after retirement.

This is the pattern that Ma hopes to break with a new project her office is working on. Increasing the creation of affordable housing is one of the biggest tasks for the treasurer. With her team, she is now focused on the “middle income families,” for which, she explains, “there is no subsidy; people make too much to live in affordable housing, yet they can’t afford a down payment for their house.”

The treasurer’s office is preparing to reform this situation through a “shared appreciation model” that Ma, Senator Bob Hertzberg and others plan to put on the ballot next November. “As you sell your house, or it appreciates, and you refinance, then you would put the money back in the fund so other families can access that fund. That is an opportunity for working folks in the middle income to buy their own home. And when you buy your own home that’s how you accumulate wealth and stay in California,” explains Ma.

California has always been home to a large Armenian population. The figure is listed as a quarter million according to various sources, like the British Broadcasting Corporation and Wikipedia. But Ambassador Armen Baibourtian, who serves as Consul General of Armenia in Los Angeles, finds that number should be threefold higher. He said in a phone interview that during the US census generated every ten years, Armenians don’t include themselves in the “other” category as Armenians. They overwhelmingly register themselves as “White Caucasians.” Baibourtian stated that this creates difficulties in gauging the real figures in the state and for the group to be included in the government’s programs for ethnic minorities. Also, according to a decision of the government of Armenia taken on September 29, 2016, immigrant Armenians are not obligated to be registered in diplomatic missions of Armenia, including the Los Angeles Consulate General. This creates a further obstacle in accurately counting the number of the Armenian population in California.

The treasurer’s first contact with the Armenian community happened in 1994 when she was a district representative of then-State Sen. John Burton. “In northern California, we have the Mount Davidson Cross. Every Easter and every April 24, the cross is lit up for the Armenian Genocide. Every Easter Sunday I used to go up there and celebrate the non-denominational sunrise service,” recalls Ma.

Serving in the California State Assembly she continued supporting resolutions related to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. She also encouraged the formation of the Southern California Armenian Democrats (SCAD) and continued to support them.

Ma was endorsed by the Armenian National Committee for both the State Board of Equalization and the State Treasurer’s office.

What does she think about the recall election results? “I am pleasantly surprised that the governor [Gavin Newsom] did as well as he did. We’ve spent multimillions of dollars on the ballots to be mailed, [and] the people who were counting them. I just wasn’t sure with the pandemic, with the mask mandates, with the vaccines how they are going to vote,” Ma confesses.

In May Newsom announced that the state accumulated a $75-billion budget surplus. “A lot of the legislators got to have their wish lists as a number one priority,” says Ma reflecting on the recent $1.8 million that state Sen. Anthony Portantino was able to generate. “Having museums where the next generation can go to learn about the history, the traditions and culture of your people, is so important. I am fully in support of the Armenian museum. I applaud Senator Portantino for making this museum a priority,” Ma says.

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