Joe Stephenshaw takes the reins as state’s new finance director

Joe Stephenshaw, left, the new director of the Department of Finance, takes the oath of office from Gov. Gavin Newsom.(Photo: H.D. Palmer, via Twitter.)

As a budget analyst in the California Department of Finance in 2005-2008, Joe Stephenshaw never imagined that he would one day come back to lead the division.

This month, Stephenshaw, 47, was sworn into the post, becoming the first African American to hold the position.

“I have a great deal of respect for this department,” said Stephenshaw, who previously served as Gov. Newsom’s senior counselor on infrastructure and fiscal affairs. “I have a deep understanding of the work the employees do and how hard everyone here works. To be the director of this department is such an honor in the highest degree.”

“You don’t always make friends as director of Finance.” — Toni Atkins

He sees the department — often viewed in the Capitol as the most powerful state agency — as playing an important role in driving forward public policy that improves the lives of California residents. He said his number one goal is to make sure the department is carrying out the administration’s priorities in fiscally responsible ways. The top of his mind is to protect the investments the state has made and to manage whatever fiscal situation it finds itself in.

He served as staff director for the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee from 2017-2022, and previously held multiple positions in the California Legislature. Among them were serving as policy consultant in the Office of the Senate pro Tempore, a special advisor to the Speaker of the Assembly, and as a budget consultant for both the Assembly Budget Committee and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

His appointment in his new post was praised by state senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. “I think the world of Joe,” she said. “He is professional, he is intelligent, and he is kind.”

Atkins said he has the heart of a public servant and is a good fit for the tough job. “You don’t always make friends as director of Finance.”

Born in the Bay Area, Stephenshaw was raised for the most part by his single mother, who worked for a time with midwives. Shortly after she and his father divorced, she took him, his twin brother (not identical) and their older sister to L.A. where she enrolled in medical school against all advice at the time. Despite the challenges, she became an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Stephenshaw is proud of what his mother accomplished. “I didn’t appreciate it as much when I was a kid,” he said. “But as I matured, I saw she really did sacrifice her life to get us to a better place.”

He decided to work as a budget analyst in the state finance department because he wanted a challenge in his career.

The family eventually moved to Sacramento, where his mother completed her residency, and remained.  His mother has only recently retired after delivering both of Stephenshaw’s children, who are now 5 and 8.

While Stephenshaw’s twin ended up getting a PhD in sociology and moving to East Africa (living at different times in Tanzania, Mauritius and Rwanda), Stephenshaw stayed closer to home.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Menlo College in Atherton and a master of business administration from California State University, Sacramento.

He decided to work as a budget analyst in the state finance department because he wanted a challenge in his career.

Daisy Gonzales, newly appointed interim chancellor for the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, was impressed with his work when they were colleagues in the Assembly budget committee. “He’s open-minded, he brings people together and he’s an incredible mentor,” she said.

At the time, she was an Assembly Fellow, a type of intern, who had come to the position after serving as a classroom teacher. Gonzales said Stephenshaw helped her realize her expertise was relevant and that she could make a contribution. She said he has served as a mentor and inspiration to many.

“He’s resilient,” Gonzales said. “He has been able to advance his career in all kinds of political dynamics,” including under a Republican governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

His resiliency helped him get through the challenging situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years.

Like so many others, he had to manage his work responsibilities with his regular home life, which in his case included his wife and two young, active children. His daughter completed kindergarten and first grade remotely and his son wasn’t able to go to preschool. On top of that, the family managed a move within Sacramento in the summer of 2020.

At the end of the day, he said the pandemic experience made him focus on what is really important — family and health. He enjoys being with family as much as he can, including attending T-ball games and taking regular ski trips to Lake Tahoe.

He is grateful for an opportunity to help further the administration’s policy priorities through the state Department of Finance.

The work we do is so meaningful and impactful for our state,” he said.

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