Outgoing California lawmaker ponders Jonestown and Trump
When Jackie Speier was a Legislature in Sacramento, before mass shootings became a sad and sick part of everyday life, she helped push through the first state ban on military-style assault weapons.
During a heated debate, an opponent challenged Speier, wondering if she had ever fired one of the doomed weapons.
Her answer was quick and sharp: “No. But have you ever been shot by an assault weapon?”
In 1978, as a congressional aide, Speier was part of a delegation that traveled to South America to investigate the Jonestown cult and its murderous leader, Jim Jones. The delegation and some potential defectors were ambushed at a nearby airstrip while attempting to leave Guyana.
Five people died in the spray of automatic gunfire, including California Congressman Leo Ryan. Speier was shot at at close range. Bullets pierced her arm, back and leg, leaving her permanently disfigured.
“I look at my body every day,” Speier said, “and I realize that it’s not what it should be.”
In a way, her career has come full circle. After serving on the San Mateo County board of directors, assembly and state senate, Speier has represented much of Ryan’s old congressional district in the suburbs south of San Francisco for the past 14 years.
She leaves the office – reluctantly – on Tuesday.
“When I first ran for Congress, I was 58,” Speier, 72, said in a recent conversation via Zoom. “And I said, ‘You know, I just want to do this until I’m 70.’ I just threw this number out. … I had no idea the work would be so challenging and so rewarding.
“So when I turned 70,” she continued, “I said, ‘You know, I’m the chair of the subcommittee on military personnel now. I mean, I’m on the verge of maybe changing the way the military looks at sexual assault and harassment.’”
Her husband gave her a passport, she said, good-naturedly referring to the push-pull of marriage — a one-time deal, as it turned out.
“I assumed that I would get another dispensation” to apply for re-election in 2022, said Speier with a smile and a rueful laugh. “I did not understand it.”
However, she has helped bring about the historic change she seeks, a reform of the military that she describes as the proudest achievement of her decades in public life.
By the time she leaves Congress, Speier has decidedly mixed views of the institution, as well as the hateful, toxic culture that pervades Washington today.
“It was the greatest privilege of my life,” she said of her time on Capitol Hill. But she added that “it’s a pretty dysfunctional place right now.”
“Consensus is a dirty word,” said Speier. “Compromise is a dirty word.”
Her somber criticism continued.
Re-election has become the be-all and end-all for too many lawmakers, Speier said, and they too often sacrifice principle in the service of personal ambition.
Gun safety – a career focus for Speier for obvious reasons – was a particular disappointment.
Despite strong public support for a nationwide ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and for other sensible measures, such as particularly horrific mass shootings.
The bill was a breakthrough — the first significant gun control measure signed into law in decades — but Speier was not impressed. “The frustration I have is that it takes so long to move the needle even a fraction,” she said.
The conversation turned to Jones and another malevolent leader, Donald Trump.
“There are extraordinary similarities,” Speier said, describing both men as charismatic, obsessed with power and absolutely self-centered.
Jones, she noted, convinced hundreds of true believers to “follow him into the jungles of Guyana. Once there, they were somehow enslaved by him, and in the end they didn’t commit suicide. They were murdered.”
Trump, she said, “created this cult of personality that allowed him to wire his supporters to do things that were illegal, destructive and personally harmful.”
Speier was in the House of Representatives chamber on Jan. 6, 2021 when she was overrun by violent, jacked Trump supporters trying to overthrow the 2020 election. She remembered the anxious feeling with grim clarity. Panic. broken glass. ambush.
“I remember pressing my cheek to the floor and feeling how cold it was, and this whole feeling of resignation came over me,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to die here in what we think is this sanctuary of democracy'” after surviving Jonestown.
Her two dogs, Emma and Bubba, jumped into Speier’s sunny living and dining room and lightened the mood.
Please, she asked, do not make me angry, bitter, or in any way less than honored for the opportunity to serve in elected office. If a young person expressed an interest in politics – as a 16-year-old Speier did when she volunteered for Ryan’s first campaign – she would absolutely encourage them.
“Young people are realizing that climate change is real – we have to fix it,” Speier said. “They want to make sure there is a social security system when they retire. … Gun violence is something they grew up with in schools where they had to practice. So yes, I think they are better prepared than we are to address these issues.”
Going forward, Speier plans to return to working locally and start a foundation to fight poverty in San Mateo County, one of the richest in America thanks to its wealth of tech millionaires and billionaires.
As critical as she is of Congress, Speier admits she’s sorry to be leaving.
“I’m going to miss putting on the armor and going out onto the battlefield and trying to make the place more functional and holding people accountable,” she said.
It’s now up to a new generation of determined optimists.