The Story of Betty Yee

The California Young Democrats’ Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus had the chance to interview California State Controller Candidate Betty Yee! See below for the full interview transcript.

The CYD API Caucus had the opportunity to interview an API leader caught in one of the most contentious races for Controller in modern history, Board of Equalization Member Betty Yee. We wanted to know more about her background and what makes her tick. We also are curious what advice she would give to young API politicos who are interested in pursuing a career in government or who are interested in running for office. Read on to see learn more about Betty.


BIOGRAPHY: Betty Yee first came to Sacramento as a Senate Fellow through the Capital Fellows Program. Determined to master the State budget process, she continued working in the public sector for over 30 years, eventually specializing in state and local finance and tax policy. Ms. Yee has served in a number of fiscal and policy positions in both the Legislature and in the Administration. As a Chinese-American native of San Francisco where her immigrant parents owned and operated a laundry and dry cleaning business for 30 years, Betty has always been an advocate for under-served and under-represented communities, especially the Asian Pacific Islander American communities.

Q: What experience or issue first got you interested in politics?
A: When I was 13 years old, I was in 8th grade living in the Parkside District of San Francisco. My younger sister was going to be part of a program initiated by the San Francisco School Board to bus kids from the Parkside District to Visitation Valley. There was an elementary school down the block, and the parents were fine with the kids going there because if anything should happen, then the parents could just walk down the block and pick up their children. With the bussing program, however, it would take over two hours on public transportation for the parents who did not drive. My parents wanted me to represent the four Chinese families in the neighborhood, so I went to the School Board meeting and made my pitch the best I could. The Board decided to initiate the bus system anyway. However, it was the first event in my life that made me realize I could speak out for people who didn’t have a voice. I realized that politics was a way to bring voices to the table. I never thought to run for office, but I had always wanted to be in a position that would be able to influence policy decisions.

Q: What are some difficulties that you have faced being an API female through your career?
A: I think that the most difficult issue was not having a lot of API female role models. There were Maeley Tom, Georgette Imura, and Joyce Iseri, who were great role models, but that was pretty much it insofar as API senior female staff. However, I do believe that I felt more discriminated against as a female than as an API. What I learned from being a fellow is that you have to assert yourself to find opportunities or create them.

Q: What made you decide to run for controller?
A: My background. Money drives everything. I have been in the discipline of public finance since I was a Santa Cruz County Public Health Commissioner. I applied for the Fellowship because I wanted to learn the State budget process. However, I quickly saw that there was a lack of diversity in the senior staff advising legislators, so I wanted to stay and make a difference.

Q: What have you learned so far from running your statewide election?
A: Contrary to what people say, you can win a statewide election through grassroots organizing. In terms of what I have learned about  myself, I have learned a lot about my own limits, and my limits have been stretched a lot. I am glad that I am running now rather than when I was younger because I am no longer afraid of anything. I have good experience to bring to the job, and I have more emotional and mental capacity than before.

Q: What advice would you give to someone wanting to get more involved in politics, particularly young APIs?
A: Get some experience under your belt that demonstrates your ability to tackle tough issues and work with both sides of the aisle. People who run for office often run too soon. A title doesn’t matter as much as what you have accomplished. Can you work with people? Can you listen to people with diverse points of view and craft solutions? These are the building blocks for preparing one to run successfully for office and to serve in that office.


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