For nearly 25 years, Ana Ma, who has labored in the political worlds of Tucson and Washington, D.C., has done so behind the scenes, shunning the public light. She preferred that others stand in its brightness.
But Ma, a product of Rincon High School and the University of Arizona, will soon shed her anonymity and take on a greater public role. Later this month, Ma, 44, will be the chief operating officer and chief of staff for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the most active and visible national advocacy groups in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights.
“I’ve gotten out of my shell,” said Ma, who stepped down earlier this month as the chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
Call this her second coming out.
Ma first came out about four years ago when she sat down with her mother, Lai Ma, one morning over coffee. She revealed to her mother her sexual identity.
“I met someone worth coming out for,” she said.
Her mother and the family were OK with it, which Ma attributes to the “sign of the times.” More Americans are accepting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, and are supporting their struggle for equal rights, Ma said.
While political progress has been made in some states and at the federal level regarding same-sex marriage and benefits, this country still has a long way to go toward achieving some goals, like eliminating work-place discrimination.
“We still don’t have it,” said Ma. “It’s time.”
She relishes the opportunity to shape the national legislative efforts to unshackle LGBT Americans from the demeaning status as second-class citizens. Ma, who learned the art of politics and coalition building in Tucson, said she has a love for public policy, advocacy and electoral
In addition to her political skills, Ma brings a wider cultural understanding of changing America. She represents the emerging demographics.
She grew up in Hermosillo, Sonora, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who ran a Chinese restaurant started by her father, Fernando Ma. The bilingual Ma is perfectly comfortable in her Mexican cousins’ kitchens as she is in the Capitol’s legislative hallways.
One of her biggest cheerleaders is also her mentor, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat in the 3rd Congressional District.
With the ascendancy of the LGBT civil rights crusade, Ma brings a strong ability to build bridges and allies, Grijalva said.
“She has a sense of purpose,” he said. “Every step along the way...she makes people around her better.”
Ma has worked on Grijalva’s congressional staff and election campaigns. She met him when she was Rincon’s student representative to the Tucson Unified District school board, of which Grijalva was a member.
“While other students talked,” he said, “Ana did the work. She got things done.”
After high school, Ma went to the UA, gave up her idea of becoming a dentist and immersed herself in campus politics as a member of various groups including MEChA, a Chicano student group. There she was a classmate of Rubén Reyes, now a member of Grijalva’s Tucson staff, Pima County Supervisor Ramón Valadez, Tucson attorney Rosemary Marquez, who has been nominated for the federal bench and former City Councilman José Ibarra.
Ma’s first political campaign came in the mid-90s when she ran Ibarra’s successful campaign. From there she continued in government and politics — without seeking attention.
She went on to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the Small Business Administration, the Democratic National Committee and the Labor Department.
Ma will remain in D.C. where, sometime in the near future, she will marry her partner, Heather Holdridge. Same-sex marriage is legal in the nation’s capital. It’s not in Arizona.
Ma hopes to help change that.