Jackie Speier has spent most of her adult life in politics. Early on in her career, she worked eCongressman Leo Ryan. Their lives, and the lives of many others, would be changed by the deadly events surrounding Jonestown. While investigating the cult in Guayana, Ryan was killed and Speier was seriously wounded. The lawmaker later wrote about her experiences during the tragedy in her book “Undaunted”.
The politician attempted to run for Ryan’s vacated seat, but lost. Later, she would win her first attempt at being on a local Board of Supervisors. Her time there would lead to successful runs for California’s State Assembly and then the California State Senate. The seat once held by Ryan became available again after the death of Tom Lantos. Speier would finally win the seat and become a part of the US House of Representatives. In her time there, she has focused on women’s rights and stronger gun control laws.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. She Survived a Brutal Shooting While Investigating the Infamous Jonestown
Jim Jones was a self-appointed leader that had grown his church of followers in San Francisco. While there, he began to go further into illegal and unsavory activity. His dominance over the “cult” he had crafted would later be revealed to include sexual assault and unwanted harassment of female members. With a growing pressure on Jones from several sources, the leader sought somewhere to go where his word was law and his followers would have no outside influences.
The charismatic cult leader soon found a place in Guyana that would distance himself and his followers from the prying eyes of outsiders. Followers began their trek to the jungle hideaway in groups, with the crude dwellings hiding the secrets of Jones continued abuses. Some families were split as parents would take children or couples would give birth to offspring while there. Meanwhile, Jones himself continued his mind control practices with regular loud speaker announcements or calls to meetings. At one meeting, he even asked followers to kill themselves, later telling them it was just a test.
In San Francisco, Congressman Leo Ryan was repeatedly approached by family members as well as others worried about Jonestown. The concern grew until Ryan felt it was time to check out the location for himself. He brought along a young staffer named Jackie Speier, members of the press, and other officials on a fact finding mission to the site. Once there, Jones treated the visitors to a ceremony and events surrounding their inspection. As Ryan and the guests talked to those who lived in Jonestown, some began to express a need to leave. An attempted stabbing of Ryan caused the delegation to quickly pack up and arrange for other members to leave with them.
While loading up a small charter plane, representatives of Jones came to the site and began shooting at everyone there. To make matters worse, one of the supposed members set to flee turned out to be working for Jones. He began trying to stab others in the group. The brutal onslaught was partially caught on camera by an NBC cameraman before he was fatally shot. When the dust settled and the attackers left, several members of the press were dead, as was Congressman Ryan. Speier was severely wounded,but laid where she had fallen out of fear that her attackers would return. It would take a day to get help to the site. By that time, those members left in Jonestown were already dead by a mass suicide, that Speier herself said was more of a mass murder. Considering many members, especially children were forced to take poison or shot as they fled, the latter description has proven accurate.
2. Speier Lost Her First Husband in a Tragic Accident
The Jonestown tale of survival was not the only major tragedy to occur in Jackie Speier’s life. In 1994, the politician’s husband, Dr. Steven Sierra, died in as a result of a car accident. The couple married in 1987 and had their first child in 1988. In an added bit of pain for representative, she was pregnant with the couples’ second child at the time of the accident.
Speier would find love again and married Barry Dennis. Dennis, who was described as an investment consultant in press releases and articles, wed the lawmaker in 2001. The wedding was described as an afternoon ceremony that saw both her daughter and son from the previous marriage participate in the event.
After the ceremony itself, the bride and groom would celebrate with friends and family. As the event went on, Speier spoke to the day itself and hinted to the tragedies in the past. “today is truly one of the best days of my life,” she was quoted as saying during a toast. Speier and Dennis have remained married as of 2019.
3. The Lawmaker Has Served At Local, State, and Federal Levels
Speier first tried her hand at running for office after Ryan’s untimely death left the seat open. She would lose before getting out of the Democratic party primaries. The Republican running for the seat won, leaving the future representative to regroup on her political efforts. She would try again to run, this time for a local Board of Supervisors position. The fact that Speier beat a long time incumbent made some in the party take notice. After years of serving on the board, the politician turned towards larger goals.
She went for a seat in California’s State Assembly while still serving among the Board of Supervisors. While Speier would only win by a narrow margin, her 1986 victory moved her up to a higher elected position, this time on a state level. She would continue with the assembly for several terms. A term limit rule ensured that the lawmaker to could not stay in the Assembly. Instead, the politician decided to run for California’s Senate. She would once again be elected and stay until reaching the term limit. In 2006, the politician would fail in her bid to be Lieutenant Governor.
In an unexpected development, Speier would learn that Tom Lantos would not be seeking re-election once his term ended. The seat he held in the US Senate was particularly special to Speier as ii once belonged to the late Leo Ryan. Lantos himself would die while in office, setting up a special race to occupy the seat. She won and then won again when the general election for a full term came up later. As of 2019, she remains in the US House of Representatives.
4. The Representative Revealed Her Own Abortion
As states around the US debated their own abortion laws and stricter rules stopping short of outright bans, Speier spoke of her own abortion. In a tweet, she began with the very blunt statement, “today, I shared my story of my 2nd trimester abortion.” From there, she went into the details of the condition that forced her decision, “a painful procedure that became necessary after the fetus I was carrying moved from my uterus to my vagina. I am not ashamed. Neither should anyone else be. Those who treat women like chattel should be ashamed. #StopTheBans.”
For the representative, it was important to speak out on the issues as some opponents try to challenge legal abortions in courts. In an interview featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Speier talked about the various aspects that caused her decision.“Twenty-five percent of the women in this country have had abortions, under what have to have been traumatic times and experiences,” she said of the figures on how many women have undergone the procedure. “There’s over 100 women in the House, and in all likelihood there’s maybe as many as 25 that have had abortions. It’s always a painful and complicated experience, it’s not anything anyone wants to do, but it’s a right that we have and it’s not going to be taken away,” she continued.
5. Speier Revealed She Was a Victim of Molestation and Sexual Harassment
The lawmaker spoke up about the incidents of sexual violation and harrasment that helped define her views on various issues. Revelations of molestation are fairly recent in Speier’s life and only came out as she wrote her book “Undaunted”. In an interview of ABC7’s Cheryl Jennings, she offered more information on not only who was behind the event, but how it affects her policies today. “When I was a young girl, my grandfather molested me. And it took me years to tell my mother,” she said. “Why do I get so enraged when some of these things are presented to me? But then, I realized that it was that outrage from my childhood that was really spurring me to pursue all these issues,” Speier reflected further when asked about her current approach to politics.
The growing METOO movement also gave the representative a chance to address sexual harrassment that occurred early in her career. She choose to speak about the events in a video posted to her own YouTube account instead of traditional interview opportunities. Speier said during the video that “a chief of staff held my face, kissed me, stuck his tongue in my mouth.” While she did not name the assailant, she did say he was 30 years or more older than her. The lawmaker talked to CNN about her reasons for speaking out. “This is a problem nationally, and certainly Congress is not immune to it,” she stated. “The national conversation taking place in the wake of several high-profile sexual harassment cases. “The flood gates are open, we have reached a tipping point.”
Speier also sponsored legislation that helped address harassment on Capital Hill. “Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. There will be transparency and members will be held accountable,” she said after the bill’s passage in both the House and Senate. In addition to directly confronting the problem, this legislation also streamlines the claims process to remove previously set hurdles towards reporting incidents.