The Survivor


By Samantha Love

Jackie Speier’s life changed forever one day in 1978 on the landing strip of an airport in Guyana.

In November of 1978, Speier was a staff member of Congressman Leo Ryan’s ill-fated trip to Jonestown, Guyana that inspired and initiated her life’s work. Ryan had constituents who had children who had gotten involved in the People’s Temple, a Church in San Francisco.

The Rev. Jim Jones had taken about 900 members of his congregation to Guyana in 1978-79, where they created, Jonestown, a commune in the middle of a jungle. Ryan’s mission was to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by Jones and his Peoples Temple followers, most of whom were American citizens.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier

As Speier recalled it: “People had defected and told Congressman Ryan about their experiences there and the abuse that was going on and so he wanted to go and find out first hand, and he took a number of relatives and staff members. We found out that people were being held against their will and many of them wanted to leave with us.”

When they left for the airstrip, they were not aware that a tractor-trailer armed with seven gunmen was following them, ready to ambush Ryan’s team and fleeing Church members. Speier recalled, “On the airstrip and I was loading passengers onto both planes and I heard this noise and I didn’t know it was gunfire.”

Ryan ran under the plane and she followed suit and hid behind one of the wheels, but they were both shot at point blank range. Congressman Ryan was shot 45 times. He was the first U.S. Congressman to be assassinated. Six others were killed. That same day, November 18, over 900 of the remaining members of the Peoples Temple died in Jonestown and Georgetown in a mass murder-suicide y drinking poison-laced KoolAid..

Although Speier got away with her life, she did not get away unscathed. She was shot five times on that airstrip.

Nearly dead

“The whole right side of my body was blown up. I was 28 and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I’m not going to live to be 85. I’m not going to get married and have children,’”

Speier said. She “experienced firsthand what mortality was all about.” As she lay there, the image of her grandmother, who was then 86, flashed in front of her. Speier recalled thinking: “I don’t want her to have to live through my funeral.” So, she dragged her body to the side of the plane, avoiding anymore gun wounds. “I don’t know how I did it” she said. And then, “someone pushed me into the plane,” which “wasn’t going anywhere because it had bullet holes through it.” Eventually she was taken out of the plane and put on the side of the airstrip, conveniently located on top of an anthill. She quipped, “I always tell everyone, you don’t sweat the small things when you are dying.” She waited there for 22 hours without medical attention.

Before committing herself to public service, Speier grew up in the San Francisco bay area. She graduated from Mercy High School and then left the nest as an undergrad at the University of California, Davis, where she received a BA in Political Science. She had originally applied to Stanford but was rejected.

She said, “I always tell young people that it (rejection) happens for a reason, because by going to UC Davis, I was 20 minutes from the state capitol and so as a result, I got an internship working for the state assemblyman (Ryan)…and my whole career took off from there.”

She worked for him as an intern and then as a staff member. Then, she came back to San Francisco, and attended Hastings Law School, where she received a JD. She went back to work for Ryan in Washington D.C. after he was elected to U.S. Congress as a House Representative from California.

In 1979, two months after Jonestown, which she had spent recovering in the hospital, she ran for Congressman Ryan’s seat in 1979, but lost. Speier quipped, “I love to tell people that that’s not the first time I had lost. In fact, she was a three-time loser. “I had lost for student body president in high school, the first time I ran for Congress and then again when I ran for lieutenant governor of California in 2006,” she said.

First Victory

In 1980, she ran for the San Mateo Board of Supervisors and won, beating out a 20-year incumbent. In 1986, she got elected to the California State Assembly from a district in northern San Mateo County, where she served for 10 years (1986-96). Two years later, she was elected into the state Senate and served for eight years (1998-2006).

On January 13, 2008, Speier announced she was running in the Democratic primary for Ryan’s old district. Fellow Democrat Tom Lantos, a 14-term incumbent, was vacating the seat. On February 11, 2008, Lantos died. In a primary election on April 8, 2008, she was elected to serve the remainder of the term, which ended January 2009, making her the 89th woman to serve in the House of Representatives and Senate. For the same seat, Speier easily won the Democratic primary on June 3. She was elected to a full term in November with 75 percent of the vote, and has been re-elected on two other occasions with no significant opposition.

After the first try, she never thought she would run for Congress again. Speier said: “It’s just a great example of how you can always expect the unexpected in politics. A Congressman (Lantos) that had been there for 30 years and all of a sudden decided that he wasn’t going to run for re-election. So I announced that I would run.” The following month, he died of cancer and literally two months later, she was walking into the chamber of the house to be sworn in.

Speier, 64, is currently a senior member of two Committees: the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In HASC, she is a member of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee mission, as stated on its website, is to “exercise effective oversight over the federal government and investigate and expose waste, fraud, and abuse.” On this committee, Speier is a ranking member on the Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care, and Entitlements.

In the course of her legislative career, she has pursued the issue of women’s rights, despite all the pushback. “I remember my campaign consultant saying to me when I got elected that I’ve got to make sure not to be so focused on women’s rights issues.” She said: “I asked myself, ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’” If a woman is not willing to take on the cause of women, who is?

“Men are going to take up the cause?” Speier quipped.

“I’m a feminist and proud of it, but I don’t know that I went to Congress saying that I was going to be a feminist. It just sort of evolved.”

Being a feminist 

She started in politics around the time when “feminism was like a dirty word almost,” so she would really counsel young women about what being a feminist was all about–fighting against gender discrimination. “Do you think it’s fair that women get paid less than men for the same job?..78-79 cents for every dollar…Literally, for the same job, you have to work an extra 3 months to April Fool’s Day, in order to make up how much you’re losing by not being paid the same amount as a man doing the same job,” Speier said. “I don’t think that we are fools and I think that women’s rights issues are really relevant,” she said.

Speier has been fighting at the forefront of women’s health issues as well. In particular, she has investigated issues in reproductive health. In the mid-late 90s, one of the bills she introduced took her four years to get passed and signed into law. The bill told insurers, with prescription drug benefits, that they would be required to cover contraceptive pills, if they did not cover already them. It was the only class of drugs not covered on most prescription drug benefits. Speier said: “It was interesting that insurers just didn’t see any relevance in covering contraceptive pills. They are not inexpensive. You know they cost $50-60 a month to pay for.”

She ran into a lot of blockages, people making excuses and cases against her bill, but it was passed and signed into law. Although, Speier does not take credit for the success, because “that year (1998), Pfizer pharmaceuticals introduced a new pill called Viagra and it was instantly covered in prescription drug benefits,” she said, and “You couldn’t argue that its far more expensive to cover than contraceptive pills, so it couldn’t be the exception. So eventually, we got it passed and signed into law.”

In 1994, Speier got a law passed that allowed financial damages to be sought from persons convicted of prohibiting access to abortion clinics. It created “ a means by which someone could file an action if they were prevented from accessing an abortion clinic,” she said. She also helped make RU46 treatment (two pills), which is similar to Plan B (the morning after pill), available to women in California.

More recently, Speier has been investigating the mishandling of sexual assault in the U.S. military. When it comes to sexual assault cases, the military justice system has too often failed to acknowledge the victim’s right, and has “allowed” sexual perpetrators to get away “pro bono”. Speier believes that system needs to be better

She said: “When someone is sexually assaulted in the military, what typically happens is that you are required to report it to your unit commander. And then your unit commander has the authority to be judge and jury. They determine whether the case is investigated or whether you are told to return to your barrack, and to learn to deal with it, to buck up. That’s not the way it works in the civilian world and that’s not the way it should work in the military.”

The bill that she introduced to the House would take the decision, out of the chain of command’s authority. There are many reasons why sexual assault cases are inadequately handled, Speier said. Sometimes the issues are conflict of interest problems: the commanders are the rapists, or they are friends with the rapist. But more important commanders are not qualified to handle such cases because they are not professional investigators or prosecutors.

Speier’s bill takes the decision away from the chain of command by putting a separate office in control of sexual assault cases. The staff personnel would specialize in investigation and prosecution of sexual assault. People would then be able to report their complaints and file those reports without having to fear backlash (e.g., verbal abuse) and punishment (e.g., unwarranted charges made against them).

Those specialists would then make the decision to pursue the case or not. At the time, her bill had 125 host sponsors. Today, it has 159 cosponsors. Additionally, it is a bipartisan bill in the House, so “you’d would think that we would be able to get a hearing on this bill,” Speier said, but unfortunately, “the military has made it very clear that they are not going to change the chain of command.”

However, she remains committed to getting the bill passed and remains optimistic about the future: “So this is a heavy lift, but one that I think we are capable of achieving.”