Jackson says she’s been a fighter since youth

by Timm Herdt, Ventura County Star

Those who know Hannah-Beth Jackson use a common set of adjectives to describe her personality: passionate, tenacious, aggressive, a fighter.

All are traits that she marshaled on July 31, 2006, the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I researched it, went to the experts, got as many different opinions as I could," she said. "Like I do with everything, I got very proactive."

The best advice was to treat it as aggressively as possible. Jackson underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She put herself on a strict diet. Even during the worst of the chemotherapy ‘ she lost her hair and says the ordeal was "like having a bad case of the flu for four months" ‘ she kept up an exercise regimen.

"I walked three miles every other day when I could," she recalled. "I considered it my primary job to heal and get well."

Seven months later, in February 2007, she underwent her final treatment.

"The doctor said to just go home and stay well," she said recently. "I feel great. I have lots of energy and a more humble perspective on what life’s all about."

By the end of 2007, confident in her prognosis, Jackson announced she would be a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, hoping to return to the Legislature, where she had served in the Assembly from 1998 to 2004.

"I realized that, like all of us, I have a limited amount of time left, so I asked myself, What is it I want to be doing?’ This really is my passion," she said. "Just the fact that you’re able to be engaged in the process of making public policy is rewarding."

Willingness to irritate’

Jackson, 58, entered politics relatively late in life. She was 48 when elected to the Assembly, shifting careers after practicing law for more than two decades, mostly as a family law attorney in a small firm owned by her and her husband, George Eskin, in downtown Ventura.

Retired Superior Court Judge Melinda Johnson, who has known Jackson since she and Eskin were married in 1981, said Jackson was always a fighter for her clients in court but that she seemed to be more fulfilled as a legislator.

"Her heart is twice as big as that tiny, little body," Johnson said. "She’s very passionate at caring about working hard for people."

Jackson’s tenacity in fighting for issues didn’t win her any congeniality awards in Sacramento. Many legislators, lobbyists and Capitol insiders privately say that her battling style created some hard feelings, and, in fact, may have been the reason that the 2001 redistricting plan did not include a state Senate seat tailored for Jackson.

Former Assemblyman John Longville of San Bernardino, who calls Jackson "one of the brightest, most passionate public-policy advocates I’ve ever met," cites an example of Jackson’s unwillingness to go along to get along.

Longville, an eclectic fellow, sometimes verbally presented his bills to the Assembly in haiku form.

"It got a lot of attention, and members appreciated the brevity," he said. "Everybody appreciates it when you give your message in 17 syllables Hannah-Beth was the only person who had a problem with it."

Jackson argued, he said, that anyone listening on television had the right to hear a brief, cogent summary of what a bill was about.

"It reflects her willingness to irritate a colleague," Longville said, "but her purpose was to provide greater information to the public."

I hated to lose’

Democratic political consultant Gale Kaufman acknowledges the perception that Jackson was not universally liked in Sacramento. She said that could affect the degree to which special interest groups and Democratic leaders are willing to financially support her campaign. "It will be an ingredient, but not THE ingredient," she said.

Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, said sometimes it takes a fighting spirit to take on interest groups and their legislative allies in the Capitol.

He points to a landmark financial privacy bill that Jackson helped pass, a law that he says provides Californians with the highest level of financial privacy in the nation.

"What California consumers need are advocates who will speak out," he said. "That often means you go up against very wealthy adversaries who fund both political parties. I don’t think congeniality is always the recipe."

Jackson says she’s been a fighter since she was a young girl. "I was not allowed to play Little League," she said, "even though I was the best guy on the team."

She took up tennis instead. She won the national 16-and-younger doubles championship and went on to play four years as the No. 1 singles player for Scripps College.

"I love competition," she said. "What motivated me when I was young was that I hated to lose."

It was her passion’

Jackson grew up in the Boston suburb of Newton, the daughter of a photography supply owner and the granddaughter of a Russian immigrant.

After coming to California to get her bachelor’s degree at Scripps, she returned to Boston University to pursue her law degree.

Upon graduation, she headed back to California. "I went back East and realized I was right the first time," she said.

She landed a job with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, where she first met Eskin, now a Superior Court judge in Santa Barbara. After two years as a prosecutor, she went into private law practice in Los Angeles.

There, she became involved in advocating for changes in child custody laws and met a UCLA law professor who shared an interest in the subject, Sheila Kuehl, who would later establish the California Women’s Law Center and go on to serve 14 years in the Legislature.

Kuehl said she took a liking to Jackson right away, kept in touch, and eventually encouraged Jackson to run for the Assembly.

What was it about Jackson that made an impression?

"It was her passion," Kuehl said. "She was always so passionate."