Interview with Hannah Beth Jackson

December 16, 2020
(Via ZOOM)

Interviewers: Jeany Elson, Leslie McGorman, and Leslie Brtek, Legislation & Advocacy Committee

SBWPC interviewers conducted this interview after Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson had retired, so we began our conversation by extending gratitude for her years of service and her distinguished legacy. (Senate staffer Lysa Markey helped facilitate the scheduling.)

Mentoring and Staff Diversity: As in years past, Sen. Jackson prioritized achieving a staff that reflects the diversity of our community – not only in terms of gender, but racial and ethnic diversity, as well as diversity of sexual orientation and identity. Sen. Jackson expressed a strong belief that diversity in experience brings richness to legislative and in-district work. This year, she continued to have women and BIPOC staffers in several key roles.

Gender-Equity Legislative Issues: Sen. Jackson was actively involved with the Legislative Women’s Caucus, serving as both Chair and Vice Chair in both the Assembly and again when in the Senate. She was instrumental in moving forward a policy agenda centered around gender equity and childcare. We are fortunate to have had such a leader in the state Senate and Sen. Jackson is hopeful much of that work will continue. Sen. Jackson’s SB 493, sex equity in education; SB 973, wage discrimination and reporting; and SB 1383, family leave protections were all supported by SBWPC and signed into law. Progress continued this year, but issues of women in the workplace (paid leave and family care), gender-based violence and Title IX, are issues that will require ongoing work. This is particularly the case in areas like Title IX in which the Trump administration rolled back federal protections, the legislature will either have to wait for those protections to be reinstated or it will have to pass even greater state-level protections.

Senator Jackson has led the movement for fair pay and has advanced first-in-the-nation policies for increasing female representation on corporate boards of directors, as well as for paid-leave policies. Driven by her legislation, these laws have led to a nation-wide call for the participation of corporate America in changing its culture to be more reflective of the 21st century workforce and workplace. Senator Jackson has served on numerous state and national panels. Most recently, she participated in a UC Berkeley School of Law conference to discuss the impact of her legislation and the now-national movement her bill requiring more diverse Board representation that continues to be extraordinarily successful.

Sen. Jackson articulated how much the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced issues around childcare access, families’ reliance on grandparents, and gaps in the system. With children doing distance learning, much of the responsibility has fallen to mothers – further highlighting the need for job-protected and paid family leave policies, greater flexibility, and policies that simply acknowledge the reality of what families are going through. The effort to improve and expand these policies will continue, as will efforts to dismantle the “pink tax”, other gender discriminatory policies, gender-based violence and gun violence among other important issues.

Criminal Justice Reform: We discussed AB 2542, the Racial Justice Act and AB 3070, preemptory challenges (among other things) with Sen. Jackson. These are two examples of bills the SBWPC supported but Sen. Jackson did not, and we wanted to hear whether there ought to be future efforts to improve upon those policies. (Both bills were signed into law.)
Sen. Jackson articulated the many challenges facing our criminal justice system, as well as those persons who have interaction/s with the system. Many of the challenges are systemic in nature and require a holistic approach to fixing them (early education, identification of learning disability, stable home life and substance abuse treatment, prevention, and intervention). While Sen. Jackson supports the good intentions behind the bills, including eliminating structural racism, she believes each could result in unintended significant problems in practical application. Some of those challenges could include vastly increased trial lengths and time spent on jury selection (as with AB 3070), as well as our challenges of limited court space from the COVID-related backlog. Sen. Jackson very much supports addressing the underlying issues of criminal justice and providing robust rehabilitation and re-entry services, including mental health treatment and medical care for those who can reintegrate into society. But we must balance these efforts with the need to protect society. The need for bail reform is ongoing, and Sen. Jackson believes more creativity is needed in the areas of mental health, courts, police, and probation as they relate to structural racism.

Economic Equity: Especially Regarding the Growing Gap Between the Very Wealthy and Everyone Else: Sen. Jackson asserted that economic inequality is a major issue in this state. She believes that a large part of the problem is our current tax structure and explained that taxes should be assessed not just to collect revenue, but to affect social behavior, as well. Whereas in the 1950s tax regulations were designed to discourage the accumulation of excessive wealth and to redistribute funds to build a strong middle class, since the Reagan administration, governmental influence has decreased and the private sector has grown unfettered. This allows massive accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of people.

According to the senator, we need to better protect workers from workplace dangers (including COVID-19) and to pay them more. She cited the example of Japan, where there is a ceiling on how much more than workers CEOs are legally allowed to earn. “Why,” Jackson asked, “should sweat equity be taxed at a higher rate than capital gains? Why is it that, with two working parents, a family can still go into debt while Jeff Bezos can become a trillionaire?” The senator believes that our current tax laws are “disgraceful” and we must commit to requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share in order to allow everyone to attain the “basics of human dignity.”

She argued that we must make the tax regulations consistent and predictable. Sen. Jackson was a co-sponsor of legislation to raise the minimum wage and explained that higher wages contribute to a thriving economy. However, although California is the fifth largest economy worldwide, economic inequality cannot simply be addressed at the state level. California has been a leader in supporting workers’ rights, but this has created unfair competition in attracting industry by states where worker protections are less stringent, and wages are lower. Therefore, Sen. Jackson points out that ultimately economic equity must be approached on the national level and is pleased that this has become a priority with the new administration.

Climate Change: Sen. Jackson maintained that California has also taken the lead in developing alternative energy sources (especially solar) to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. While the oil industry has had a significant impact on our state, it has been irresponsible regarding oil spills and other environmental problems. The senator hopes and expects that by pursuing alternative energy sources, the oil industry will have to transition away from its fossil fuel focus .She explained that we can and have been training oil workers to be successful in alternative energy industries. However, California can only do a limited amount on its own. This is a national and international challenge. The senator is concerned that there has been a recent lack of recognition on the national level that extreme weather events and fires are the result of human behavior. She maintained that we must return to explanations about climate change based upon science and recommit to ending our dependence on fossil fuels. Sen. Jackson is encouraged that President Biden has rejoined the Paris Accords, which are a good first step in addressing the serious issues affecting the survival of our planet. She is also heartened and pleased that the new administration is and has taken several other steps to unwind the destructive environmental policies of the prior administration.

Housing Crisis: Sen. Jackson connected housing problems in California to both economic inequity and climate change. This state is “three million housing units short of what we need.” She stated that we must determine how to make housing more affordable in California while also sustaining the quality of life here. In recognition of increasingly destructive wildfires, we must limit building in high fire areas, but also protect people who already live in the wildland-urban interface. The senator called for regulations requiring more fire-resistant homes, advanced warning systems and weather forecasting, as well as sufficient water supplies to adequately protect our communities when fires occur.

Aging Population: Sen. Jackson believes that California does not provide adequate services or infrastructure to serve our aging community. This leaves older adults with very limited choices, often becoming completely dependent upon family as caregivers. More extensive government assistance is required, particularly in the areas of transportation and health services (incorporating mental health) for all Californians, including older adults. Jackson participated in developing a “Master Plan for Aging” in this state but noted that this is yet another area where the federal government could provide aid. She is hopeful that this will happen, particularly because President Biden has promised to promote affordable healthcare for all.
Education: Sen. Jackson claimed that California probably has the best higher educational system in the US. She emphasized that education is the key to opportunity, but it is beyond the financial reach of many people, particularly those from underserved communities. Jackson insisted that we must provide greater educational opportunities for people who are “asking for a hand-up, not a handout.” She emphasized that this should incorporate an expanded understanding of education, including training in the trades. Sen. Jackson stated that many jobs in the state are not filled because people lack training for careers in the 21st century workforce.

Future Plans: Since Sen. Jackson has completed her last term in political office, we asked how she plans to dedicate her time and skills going forward. Since leaving office, Jackson has created a consulting practice offering and providing strategic planning services to assist businesses, governmental agencies and non-profit communities. Given her experience and successes she wishes to provide advice and guidance as we address the impacts on the workforce, climate change and related crises as we move into a post-COVID future. She also hopes to work with corporate America to develop more supportive family policies, including onsite childcare, citing Patagonia’s 40-year-old program as a successful exemplar. In addition, the senator would like to work with companies to help them realize the goal of her legislation requiring more women on corporate boards. She believes that California is “the state that invents the future” and she hopes that this state will continue to be a leader in promoting progressive national changes.

In sum, Sen. Jackson looks toward the future with hope for a “better, richer, fairer society for all of us.” We greatly appreciate her considerable efforts to help make that happen.