Gay CA legislator Jackson makes waves

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 21, 2023
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Assemblymember Corey A. Jackson, Ph.D. Photo: From Jackson's Facebook page
Assemblymember Corey A. Jackson, Ph.D. Photo: From Jackson's Facebook page

For a freshman legislator in Sacramento, gay Assemblymember Corey A. Jackson, Ph.D., (D-Perris) has wasted no time in making waves in the Statehouse. He is carrying legislation this session that has generated national coverage and doesn't shy away from calling out his Republican colleagues.

Jackson, 41, the first Black member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, has made mental health and anti-racism the prime focus of his legislation this session. His Assembly Constitutional Amendment 7 aims to amend Proposition 209, adopted by voters in 1996, which ended race-based preferences in state programs and the admissions processes of California's public colleges and universities.

ACA 7 would allow the governor of the state to issue waivers for research-based and culturally specific interventions funded by tax dollars aimed at "increasing the life expectancy of, improving educational outcomes for, or lifting out of poverty" people of color or LGBTQ individuals. A recent committee debate over ACA 7, currently making its way through the Assembly, led to a heated Twitter exchange between Jackson and fellow freshman Assemblymember Bill Essayli (R-Corona), the first American Muslim to serve in the Legislature's lower chamber.

After Essayli called ACA 7 "backwards policy" in a tweet, Jackson shot back that the GOP legislator is "a perfect example how a minority can become a white supremacist by doing everything possible to win white supremacist and fascist affection."

It wasn't the first time that Jackson has tangled with conservative critics of his legislative proposals. After vocal backlash against his bill to restrict the use of police canines for arrests and crowd control, which led to him receiving death threats over it, Jackson pulled Assembly Bill 742 in May when it became clear he didn't have the votes to pass it.

"I have some exciting anti-racism bills and exciting other things I am working on, but now I am being known as the canine guy," said Jackson during a recent video interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

The attention the bill received came as a surprise, said Jackson. Even some of his Democratic colleagues had put up posters in opposition of AB 742 on their doors, he noted.

Yet, his ending up being the lead author of the bill gives some insight into how he approaches his job as a lawmaker. For the former Riverside County Board of Education member, who earned his master's and doctorate degrees in social work from California Baptist University, statistical information is key.

"I think, at the end of the day, I am a data guy," explained Jackson, noting he is the lone social worker serving in the Assembly. "Because I am a data guy, when I see a problem arising from data I believe I have a moral responsibility to address it."

He didn't enter the Legislature thinking he would carry a police canine bill. But after meeting with representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, who provided him with figures on how many people are injured by the law enforcement dogs, Jackson decided to take the issue on.

"I was blown away by it. I had no clue it was even an issue," recalled Jackson, who agreed to author the bill since "I am seeking to solve problems up here."

Book bannings

One issue he is trying to address is public school officials banning books and curriculums with content about the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. On Wednesday, Jackson took part in a special hearing of the Task Force on Inclusive Education convened by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

Earlier in the year Jackson had introduced AB 1078 with an eye toward ensuring the state's school districts were teaching about LGBTQ+ Americans and people of color. But the bill has proved to be controversial, prompting Jackson to make various amendments to it, with reports noting that he had watered it down in May in order to get it passed out of the Assembly by the deadline to do so.

But then the Temecula Valley Unified School District's conservative-led school board rejected a state-approved history textbook due to inclusion in its supplemental materials of slain gay rights leader and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the first LGBTQ elected official in California. It led Jackson to announce June 6 revisions to his AB 1078, so it would mandate that any school district within the K-12 education system must secure a super majority on its school board to vote in favor of banning a book.

He also announced that the bill would allow parents the right to appeal such decisions to the countywide Board of Education. Yet a hearing on AB 1078 in the Senate Education Committee was recently postponed because negotiations are ongoing over Jackson's two amendments to it.

"It is disheartening to witness the rise of white Christian nationalist extremism, which seeks to erase the invaluable contributions and narratives of marginalized communities. As a Christian myself, I am deeply appalled that these individuals are perverting our faith to sow division and suppress the histories of others. This will not happen on my watch," stated Jackson in announcing the proposed bill revisions.

His being on the frontlines of the fight over educating kids about LGBTQ topics, a legislative battle taking place in statehouses and school districts across the country, is a somewhat surprising position for someone who did not really campaign on the fact that he would be the first out Black legislator elected in California. It was rarely brought up in media reports about his candidacy and didn't get much attention until after he had been elected last November.

Ambivalent with 'first'

In fact, Jackson wasn't immediately aware he could break through a pink political glass ceiling with his candidacy.

"Interestingly enough, I was surprised when they told me," recalled Jackson. "By that time, I had already developed my stump speech. I wasn't going to change it, you know."

There are no recognized LGBTQ neighborhoods where he lives in Riverside County, thus no pool of LGBTQ voters to focus on or court by touting his sexual orientation. Instead, he focused on the work he had done in the community as founder and chief executive officer of SBX Youth and Family Services, which provides services to youth, especially youth of color, and his serving as a trustee on the board that oversees the California State University system.

"I have a long record of service within the community, so that was what I was leading with so people understood the caliber of person I am," said Jackson.

He told the B.A.R. he also isn't comfortable with touting that he would be "the first" in order to secure someone's vote.

"I think, at the end of the day, something that irks me is when people lead with I am going to be the first this or first that so that is why you should elect me," said Jackson. "I am not comfortable with saying, 'because I am the first.' That is not a reason to elect me. I am not sure it is a legitimate reason when we have so many crises in California."

When asked by the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus if it could promote the fact that he was gay and would become a member of the affinity group for legislators should he be elected, Jackson told the B.A.R. he was ambivalent about its doing so.

"I told them if it helps the caucus, fine, but I don't feel the need for you to do so," recalled Jackson, explaining that if he was running as an out LGBTQ candidate in a place like the Bay Area he might have thought differently. "In the Inland Empire me being LGBTQ certainly wasn't in my top 10 reasons for why they should have elected me."

Jackson had another reason for why he focused less on his personal background during his campaign and more on how his professional and volunteer work had qualified him to address the myriad issues confronting voters of his district.

"If you talk more about yourself than what they need, you will see yourself on a losing side of an election," predicted Jackson.

One of three Democrats who sought the Assembly District 60 seat last year, Jackson landed in second place in the June 2022 primary with 27% of the vote. He went on to easily defeat the first-place finisher, Republican Hector Diaz-Nava, with 54.5% of the vote in the November election.

"Who would have thought a nerdy Black kid on welfare would be able to make it to the Legislature, let alone the most powerful Legislature in this nation? I haven't had a bad day yet, even though I have received death threats and all that kind of stuff," said Jackson. "It is every Black person's dream to just be at the table. I am not only at the table, I am leading some of the tables, so it is just a blessing."

Jackson told the B.A.R. he decided to enter the race because of his belief in his ability to tackle the state's most pressing concerns. Social workers, he noted, are trained to deal with very tough issues, and he saw serving in the Legislature as a way to be "hands on" in coming up with solutions at a statewide level.

"I think I have a unique set of skills to be able to deal with, quite frankly, very daunting crises California is experiencing," said Jackson.

Assemblymember Corey A. Jackson, Ph.D., speaks at a committee hearing. Photo: From Jackson's Instagram page  

Not shying away
With LGBTQ rights coming under attack, even in liberal California, Jackson hasn't shied away from standing up for the LGBTQ community as an out legislator. While it may not have been a role he was looking to take on, circumstances have upended that expectation.

"I have been very vocal on these issues because people have to realize this is the second civil rights and human rights movement we are living in right now," said Jackson. "One day future kids are going to read about this moment in history. My question is are we going to beat it back like prior generations were able to do, or is it going to spread on our watch?"

The political moment the community now finds itself in is an "all hands on deck one," argued Jackson, who has had to contend with being called a "groomer" targeting kids by homophobic trolls on social media.

"It might require us to put our bodies on the line, risk our financial security, and it might call upon us to risk our own political future. But history is calling on us to stand up, rise up and act," said Jackson.

As for his own backstory, Jackson began coming out of the closet to friends when he was 19. An admittedly private person, he said his sexual orientation wasn't something he went out of his way to talk about.

"If someone asked me, I wouldn't deny it. It wasn't something I would try to hide," he said. "Some people feel the need to do that for the sake of liberation. That is fine if that helps with them being healthy, balanced, and free. I never felt that need myself."

None of his family members shunned him when they learned he was gay, said Jackson.

"I have a pretty accepting family. Whether they totally agree with it or not is one thing," he said.

He also never felt the need to leave the Inland Empire, traditionally a more conservative region of California, for a more liberal coastal city. Having grown up in Riverside County, he has roots in the area and deep connections with the community, which has "stuck with" him, noted Jackson, as he has pursued public office.

"I am not an urban, big city kind of guy. But the number one reason I have remained in the Inland Empire is because of the people I have grown up with," said Jackson, adding that, "I have been able to flourish here. I am not sure if I had went to live in a place with more of a LGBTQ community I would be where I am today."

He believes the first Pride parade he attended was San Diego's in either 2004 or 2005 when he was in his 20s. He told the B.A.R. he marched in one for the first time as a candidate in last year's Palm Springs Pride parade, held in early November.

Now that he is an elected official, Jackson said he had no plans to march in a Pride parade this year.

"If I am invited, I will go," said Jackson, though he questioned the merits of his doing so since most parade attendees would likely be asking "who are you?"

Even with the political attacks, be it personal or based on his bills, and having to confront a budget deficit, Jackson told the B.A.R. his time so far in Sacramento has been "extraordinary." The fiscal situation does have an upside, he noted, as it has forced state leaders to think about what should be prioritized.

"What can we do not just for the future, but of course meet the moment of the day with the fentanyl crisis, the homelessness crisis, the mental health crisis?" asked Jackson.

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