Courage in Congress: The Jackie Speier story
March 16, 2021
The attributes of a fighter are quite different than that of a person who simply survives adversity.
A fighter is a person that when faced with adversity, doesn’t give in.
A fighter is a person who, rather than take the easy way out, seeks a challenge.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier is a fighter.
Speier faced some of the toughest challenges imaginable and overcame them. She chose not to be defined by the unfortunate circumstances that befell her. She chose to create her own path. Speier chose to be a fighter.
Karen Lorraine Speier was born on May 14, 1950, in San Francisco, to Nancy and Fred Speier. Both of her parents helped the future congresswoman learn the value of hard work.
“My parent’s exceptional work ethic set the tone in our home. Both mom and dad always wanted us to be active,” Speier said in her book “Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back.”
Speier loved belonging to a community with common interests and wanted to be a Girl Scout and ballerina as a child. But, her parents wanted her to participate in activities that would teach her lessons that would apply to the real world.
Speier learned to work with others, going door-to-door around her neighborhood selling cacti. Despite her parent’s objections about ballet and the Girl Scouts, when the young Speier requested to go to Mercy Girls High School, her parents obliged.
She worked hard in high school and became interested in politics. When she was a junior, she started working for a California state assemblymember, Leo Ryan. Speier went to rallies and campaigns to help the election of her candidate.
Once she graduated from Mercy, she attended UC Davis as a Pre-Med major but switched to political science later on.
“Nobody else could determine my passion. Ever since my job with Ryan, I had been fascinated by the political sphere,” Speier said.
Speier had received the opportunity to Intern for Assemblymen Ryan’s office while at UC Davis, located close to the state capital. She loved the work and even acquired college credit for it.
Near the end of her college career, Ryan ran for the United States House of Representatives. Speier worked hard on his campaign, and her job was to answer constituent questions and concerns. As a result, Speier had to learn the in’s and out’s of United States politics.
“I had to take each call or letter seriously and really listen in order to get to the heart of the constituent’s reason for reaching out to the government,” Speier said.
Ryan was elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, and Speier worked as an aide in his office. At this time, she had to choose: stay with Ryan as an aid or pursue her own career in politics.
She chose to pursue a life of public service and decided to enter law school.
“I wanted to make the decisions that affected real change, and my job as a staffer wasn’t going to satisfy me forever,” Speier said.
In 1976, Speier graduated from Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, and Ryan offered her a position as legal counsel to his office. Speier was one of only a handful of women in high-ranking positions in congressional offices.
She would serve in this position for a short period before tragedy struck.
In the fall of 1973, Jim Jones and his cult, the Peoples Temple, created an establishment in Guyana. Jones took roughly 900 believers from his church to the Guyana jungle, including children and the elderly.
In 1977, Congressman Ryan reviewed accusations of sexual assault, overworking, and entrapment from family members and those who fled the encampment. This prompted him to organize a congressional delegation to Guyana to investigate these claims.
At the time, Speier worked as Ryan’s legal counsel and was scheduled to go on the trip. Speier had doubts about her safety and the delegation’s safety based on the testimony of witnesses from the camp.
She ultimately decided to go because, at the time, she was one of only female high-ranking congressional staffers.
“I was concerned that if I gave in to my reluctance and let a male colleague go in my place, I’d setting women in politics back,” Speier said.
Ryan and Speier journeyed to Jonestown, a location roughly 140 miles north-west of Guyana’s capital, on November 17, 1977.
When she arrived at what looked like a plantation, she observed strange behavior from the residents. Anytime Rep. Ryan said anything positive about the camp, the people would cheer with forced happiness and laughter. The next day the facade of happiness and joy came crashing down.
Members of the delegation started receiving secret notes from the Temple members requesting immediate evacuation from the camp. These requests kept coming as the day went on.
“Reading that note, I felt my stomach turn into hard knots of terror,” Speier said.
In the end, roughly 40 members of “The People’s Temple” in Jonestown, Guyana, wanted to go home, and Speier knew that the situation was deteriorating quickly.
As tension mounted and the delegation got ready to depart, Ryan was stabbed by a church member. At that point, it was clear that the group had to get out of Jonestown immediately.
The delegation only had a truck to carry them to the airfield a few miles from the encampment and could only carry a dozen people. Among them was Speier, Ryan, and a camera crew sent along with the delegation. The rest of the group stayed back at Jonestown, waiting for transportation to arrive.
When the delegation arrived at the airfield, they felt that danger was imminent, and Speier hurriedly rushed people to the small aircraft. As the delegation was getting ready to depart Jonestown, gunshots rang out. Members of the cult had followed the delegation to the airstrip and opened fire with assault rifles.
Congressman Ryan was shot more than twenty times. The camera crew and defectors of “The Peoples Temple” were also shot and killed. At this time, Speier was lying down, hoping for her life to be spared.
The members of the hit squad were walking from person-to-person shooting people at point-blank range. The gunmen came to Speier and shot her in the back five times.
“My body was suddenly crushed by a shocking blow to my side, it felt like a Mack truck had just sped over me,” Speier said.
She had severe injuries to her arm and leg and was on the verge of unconsciousness.
“All I could think of was that I could not make grandma sit through my funeral. I couldn’t bear the thought of her sitting in front of my casket, suffering,” Speier said.
With unfathomable grit, determination, and courage, Speier walked to the plane’s cargo compartment with a hole in her leg and five bullets in her body. Eventually, she was moved to the airstrip side and remained on the brink of death for hours.
At this time, she promised herself that she would never take another day for granted and she would devote her life to public service. It was this promise that aided Speier in pushing for the needs of her country years later.
“If I got out of there alive, I would make every day count. I would live as fully as possible, and I would devote my life to public service,” Speier said.
Speier laid on the airstrip for 22 hours without medical attention, aid, or any sign of relief. She hung on to life, and eventually, help came.
Even then, the medics thought she was as good as dead. With five bullets in her body, a bone sticking out of her arm, and a chunk blown out of her leg, Speier was given two aspirins.
In the meantime, in Jonestown, Jones had forced more than 900 members of his church to drink a deadly combination of juice and cyanide, which ultimately killed them. Jones murdered 900 Americans, a third of them children.
“This was not a mass suicide. This was a mass murder,” Speier said.
This event represented the largest loss of life in American history until the events on September 11th, 2001. Speier continued to fight the effects of the bullets for years after the shooting. The mental and physical scars of the massacre will remain for a lifetime.
“Even when a bullet doesn’t kill, it annihilates in ways that without the experience of being shot, are difficult to understand,” Speier said.
After the death of Ryan, his district held a special election to fill his seat. Even though Speier was in a wheelchair and could barely move her arm and leg, she decided to run.
She faced opposition from many angles and received a multitude of sexist remarks.
“‘I want you to know that I’m not going to vote for you just because you’re a woman.’ Those needless digs usually left me speechless,” Speier said.
Speier lost the election. She came in 3rd among the Democrats running, and a Republican won the seat. The loss was the first of many in her long tenure in public service.
In 1980, she decided to run again, this time for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. The race was extremely tight, and
Speier pulled off an upset by defeating a 20-year incumbent. She won the position again in 1984 and as her achievements in politics grew, so did her political aspirations.
In 1998, Speier ran for California State Senate. She won the election and served in the California Senate until 2006. Finally, in 2008, Speier ran once again for the United States House of representatives. After roughly 30 years, she was running for Ryan’s old seat. Speier won the election with a large majority of the vote.
Since then, she has won three consecutive terms in the United States House of Representatives, most recently running in 2020. She represents San Francisco and the Peninsula. Speier has continued to fight for her constituents in Congress throughout her tenure.
Speier’s personal life has been filled with tragedies and successes. Jonestown left heavy scarring on her body that led her to a long process of self-acceptance.
“You cannot live your life as some disfigured, frightened victim who has to hide. You have to embrace that this is exactly who you are,” Speier said.
Speier met Dr. Steven Sierra, an emergency-room doctor at San Mateo General Hospital, and they were married in 1987. In 1988, the couple had their first child, Jackson.
During their time together, Speier had to overcome the pain of losing two pregnancies to miscarriage, one of which faced a medically necessary abortion. She also had to face the loss of an adopted child. These losses pained Speier, but she stayed strong for her son, Jackson.
“I needed to reflect strength and hope to my 5-year-old son, I had to pick him up from kindergarten with love and hope to give,” Speier said.
In 1994, Speier finally got pregnant again. Two months into the pregnancy, Speier’s husband tragically died in a car accident. This left Speier in a difficult position: she was a single mother, pregnant, and close to bankruptcy.
“Like most people, I have endured spans of time when I felt like life was only dealing hardship. But there were always means of coping,” Speier said.
Eventually, Speier gave birth to her second child, Stephanie, in 1994. Seven years after the death of her first husband, Speier married again.
The tragedies in Speier’s life helped guide her policy-making and gave her viewpoints on issues that would aid women in California and the United States.
On that desolate airfield in Guyana, Speier made a promise to help others. After more than three decades working in politics, she did that and so much more.
Pulling from Jonestown, her failed pregnancy, and other obstacles she has overcome, Speier brings first-hand experiences into Congress. She actively supports the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and serves as the Vice-Chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force in Washington. Additionally, in 1989, Speier sponsored legislation in California that banned the sale and distribution of assault weapons.
So despite the many challenges she has faced, Speier uses her platform to touch the lives of many.
“There is a quote that I have carried with me for decades, that has been attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill, to John Wooden. ‘Success is never final, and failure is never fatal,'” Speier said.