California Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who survived the 1978 Jonestown cult shooting that murdered her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan, announced Tuesday that she would retire after a long career in Bay Area politics.
The current configuration of Speier’s 14th Congressional District, which includes most of San Mateo County and a portion of San Francisco to the north, is heavily Democratic turf at 78-20 Biden, and the new version of this constituency is likely to look similar once the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission completes its work. Because this area is so blue, there’s a good chance that next June’s top-two primary will result in a general election between two Democrats.
Speier got her start in politics as an intern for then-Assemblyman Ryan, and she joined his staff after he was elected to Congress in 1972. Speier was part of the delegation that traveled to Guyana to probe allegations that some of Ryan’s constituents were being held against their will at Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. She told Roll Call in 2015, “Back in 1978, there were not many women in high-ranking positions in Congress. I felt if I didn’t go, it would be a step back for women holding these high positions. I thought, ‘I can’t not go.’”
The party, which did find some members who wanted to escape, was ambushed at the airport by Jones’ assassins. The attack, which took place just before Jones killed himself and murdered 900 of his followers, resulted in the deaths of Ryan, three journalists, and one former cult member trying to leave. Speier herself was shot five times and spent 22 hours waiting for help; she recounted in her Tuesday retirement announcement, “Forty-three years ago this week, I was lying on an airstrip in the jungles of Guyana with five bullet holes in my body. I vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to public service. I lived, and I survived.”
Speier, who underwent 10 surgeries over the next two months, campaigned in the following year’s special election to succeed Ryan, who remains the only member of Congress to die in the line of duty, in what was then numbered the 11th District. Speier, though, ended up placing sixth in the all-party primary with 16% of the vote in a contest that was ultimately won by Republican Bill Royer. In 1980, she prevailed in a race for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors by defeating a 20-year incumbent; during that same year, Democrat Tom Lantos, who is the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, beat Royer.
Speier spent the following years in local government before winning a state Assembly race in 1986 and a state Senate contest in 1998. In 2006, Speier entered the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor (the Golden State would pass a ballot measure in 2010 to set up its current top-two primary system), but she lost 43-40 to state Commissioner of Insurance John Garamendi; Garamendi defeated Republican Tom McClintock in a close race that fall, and the trio would later spend over a decade serving together in the House.
Speier in late 2007 began making preparations to challenge Lantos for what was now numbered the 12th District, and she even released a poll showing her decisively beating him in a primary. Lantos, though, announced soon after that he was retiring because he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and he went on to endorse his would-be rival Speier as his successor. Lantos died in February of 2008, and Speier had no serious opposition in the special election to succeed him.
Speier made national headlines in 2011 when, in response to then-Indiana Rep. Mike Pence’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, she became one of the first members of Congress to disclose that she had once had an abortion. The congresswoman took to the House floor after New Jersey Republican Chris Smith used graphic details to emphasize his own opposition to abortion rights and said, “I had a procedure at 17 weeks pregnant with a child who moved from the vagina into the cervix. And that procedure that you just described is a procedure that I endured.”
Speier also made a name for herself as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. In 2017, as the #MeToo movement was beginning, Speier also revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by a senior staffer while she worked as a congressional aide. “I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside,” the congresswoman revealed in a video. In September, Congress passed the new National Defense Authorization Act that included her amendments to change how the military handled sexual assault and harassment allegations.
Speier mulled a 2010 campaign for state attorney general, but she opted to stay in Congress and never had any trouble getting reelected. In 2015 she said of Jonestown, “I had moved beyond being a survivor. It’s part of my life story, but it’s a small part of my life story.”