The scenes on the floors of the Assembly and Senate today when the 2013-14 session of the Legislature convened for the swearing in of new members and the election of officers were as different as a college reunion and a chamber of commerce social mixer.
In the Senate, only one member was new the Legislature. The rest were either returning senators or people who had previously served in the Assembly. The atmosphere was one of happy familiarity, with hugs all around, even bipartisan hugs. Among those doing the hugging was Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who was returning after an eight-year absence to represent western Ventura County's 19th Senate District. Jackson had served with a large number of her new Senate colleagues when they were in the Assembly together in the early 2000s.
Jackson was greeting so many old, familiar faces that she even stopped to give a hug to the veteran Associated Press news photographer who has covered the Capitol for decades.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rotunda in the Assembly, 38 first-time members were taking their oaths of offices. On the floor, members were approaching each other, introducing themselves and offering handshakes. In a less august environment, they would have been wearing name tags.
The day had a particularly poignant significance for Jackson, who returned to Sacramento after having perservered against both personal and political setbacks -- a bout with breast cancer in 2006 and a nail-biting loss in her 2008 Senate campaign.
At a celebatory luncheon for supporters this afternoon, I asked her if she ever expected to be here after that 2008 defeat.
She said she learned from surviving cancer to take life "each day and step at a time. After losing in '08, it was very disappointing. I didn't close off the option, but I didn't focus on it, either."
Then the Citizens Redistricting Committee created an opportunity by drawing the 19th District, which includes most of the area she represented in the Assembly, including her base in Santa Barbara, and was also home to no incumbent senator.
"I was quite surprised that the opportunity arose," she told me.
Once it did, she embraced it with her trademark tenacity, fending off entreaties from Democratic leaders to step aside as part of deal that would have had Sen. Fran Pavley running in the 19th and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg running as the Democratic candidate in the neighboring 27th District (in which Pavley ultimately ran and was re-elected).
"I felt very strongly that I understand this district as well as anyone, better than anyone," she said of her insistence on staying in the race.
Given what his wife had been through, Jackson's husband, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge George Eskin, said he choked up when a choral group performing at the ceremony sang the Louis Armstrong classic, "What a Wonderful World."