Congresswoman Jackie Speier Steps Down

The oft-repeated story is that Rep. Jackie Speier committed her life to service when she was in Guyana. Lying in a tent without medical care after being shot five times at point-blank range with an assault rifle, Speier, then 28, vowed that if she made it out alive, she would become a public servant.

It was November 1978. Speier, a legislative aide to California Rep. Leo Ryan, had accompanied him to Jonestown, Guyana. They were there to check on reports that members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult, formerly based in Ryan’s district in the San Francisco Bay Area, were being held against their will. The visit ended with Temple supporters gunning down Ryan, three journalists, and a defecting member of the Temple. Speier and eight others were injured in the shootout. Jones then ordered his followers to drink poison; those who refused were shot. More than 900 people died in the mass murder-suicide.

Speier survived, barely.

Speier being taken from a plane at Georgetown on Nov. 19, 1978, after it arrived from Jonestown.

Bettmann//Getty Images

“I was really centimeters or millimeters away from losing my life had my femoral artery been severed,” says the Democratic congresswoman, now 72, on a video call.

The bullet just missed cutting a major blood source, but her right leg had a gaping wound. She spent 22 hours waiting for medical care, with only rum to dull the pain. Speier recounts in her 2018 memoir Undaunted that when she was finally on a plane headed back to the U.S., she heard someone say, “She has another three minutes.”

Now, 44 years later, as Speier prepares to step down from Congress after serving constituents in San Mateo County and parts of San Francisco since 2008, she looks back at that harrowing moment with clarity. “There was a reason why I survived,” she says.

It’s a moving story, a straightforward starting point—except Speier’s commitment to public service actually began much earlier. And in the years to come, there’d be even more tragedy.

She was going to be a nun. That was the first way Speier planned to serve. She became Jackie just before starting high school in 1964, when she chose Saint Jacqueline for her confirmation name in the Catholic Church. Speier dropped her birth name, Karen, for that of a saint, and, yes, another Jackie, the one who married John F. Kennedy. Her renaming was deliberate and determined, a hint of what was to come.

But that’s also when her losing streak started. It’s an anecdote Speier loves to recount—the fact that she’s a “three-time loser.” Her first loss was the race for student body president at Mercy High School in Burlingame, Calif. (While in high school, Speier also worked as a volunteer on Ryan’s state Assembly reelection campaign.) Her second loss came in 1979, when she ran in the special election for Ryan’s congressional seat after his murder. She had only been home from the hospital for a few days when she decided to get in the race. One of the bullets had pierced through her right arm, and she was unable to sign her name. She ran anyway and lost in the primaries.

jackie speier in a button up shirt and suit jacket writing with a bandaged hand

Speier testifies at a hearing with her arm still in a cast after Jonestown.

Bettmann//Getty Images

After that, the losses only continued. She had a miscarriage. An abortion performed out of medical necessity. She adopted a baby boy, who was removed 10 days later when his birth mother changed her mind. Then there’s the moment she describes in Undaunted when she truly felt her world had come to an end. In 1994, her husband, Steven Sierra, was broadsided by a car that ran a red light. Speier was pregnant with their daughter, Stephanie. Sierra was declared brain dead, and Speier made the difficult decision to end his life support.

Jonestown had a profound effect on her, but so did “the things that happened to me that happen to most people, whether it’s being jilted or broken engagements or miscarriages.” She says, “It’s all the other elements that have made me who I am.”

Even so, she doesn’t focus on any of these losses in her three-time loser speech. That speech is limited to her political campaigns, like her third and final loss in the race for California lieutenant governor in 2006. Speier refers to herself as a loser because she wants people to understand that losing is a part of life. That had she allowed her setbacks to stop her, she would have never achieved her wins.

And there have been many wins.

In 1980, Speier became the youngest person ever elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. In 1986, she was elected to the California State Assembly. In 1998, she was elected to the California State Senate. The wins weren’t just the elections—but also what she was able to accomplish in office under both Republican and Democratic governors.

“When I was in the state legislature, I had 300 bills signed into law,” she says, making her one of the most prolific legislators. Among the 300 was a series of bills she introduced that led to the collection of more than $2 billion in delinquent child support payments.

jackie speier laughing with her head tilted back with her children on either side of her

Speier waits with her daughter, Stephanie Sierra, and her son, Jackson Sierra, in January 1998, as then-Mayor Willie Brown announces her campaign for the California Senate.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images//Getty Images

In 2008, she ran again for Ryan’s old congressional seat. This time, she won. Throughout Speier’s last 15 years in Congress, she’s become known for her steadfast support of women and other underrepresented groups. In 2011, she shared her abortion story on the House floor—the first member of Congress to do so—while speaking out against a proposal to defund Planned Parenthood. Her courage influenced others to do the same, including Ilyse Hogue, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who talked about her own abortion in her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. More recently, in September 2021, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee, and Cori Bush spoke about their own abortions during a House Oversight Committee hearing.

Speier’s ME TOO Congress Act laid the groundwork for amending the Congressional Accountability Act in 2018 which, among other things, allows interns the same rights as staffers in harassment and discrimination cases. She has also spoken publicly about her own experience with harassment as a young congressional staffer in the 1970s, when a man in a position of authority held her face while he forced his tongue in her mouth. Speier has passed a bill in the House to remove the arbitrary time limit for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment first proposed in 1923 that guarantees equal legal rights regardless of sex. She spent a decade working on legislation that allows an independent counsel to make prosecutorial decisions in rape and assault cases involving the military.

jackie speier standing alongside other members of congress and holding a banner that reads our bodies

From left, Reps. Nydia Velázquez, Ilhan Omar, Speier, and Carolyn Maloney make their way to the Supreme Court for a sit-it in to protest the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on July 19, 2022.

Tom Williams//Getty Images

The congresswoman’s office also estimates they’ve recovered over $5 million for veterans in the districts she represented during her time in office. One of those cases was a cartoonist and Vietnam veteran who was living under a bridge. The former service member contacted Speier’s office, because he believed the Department of Veterans Affairs owed him service-related disability payments. It took years, during which time the veteran moved to a new bridge in a different district, but Speier’s staff stayed with him until he was given $100,000 in past benefits and a monthly lifetime award.

Speier remembers another man, an 85-year-old with dementia, whose home was at risk of foreclosure because of a $10,000 debt during the 2008 financial meltdown. Her office intervened with the bank, and the man was able to keep his home. Some might argue that negotiating with banks does not really fall within the purview of a legislative office. “Whether it was or not, we did,” Speier says. As a member of Congress, she adds, “You’re a Mr. or Ms. Fix It on a lot of levels that can really keep people alive.”

jackie speier wearing a black and blue suit and holding the hand of a veteran

Speier and a World War II veteran talking before a press conference in January 2014.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images//Getty Images

It isn’t a coincidence that there’s an individual behind almost every issue Speier fought. During one of the two periods when Speier’s longtime friend, Kathleen Wentworth, worked for Speier, she noticed that any time Speier had a conversation with a constituent, she would take that conversation back to her office and channel it into legislation. “I think she exudes a true caring for people that you just can’t fake,” says Wentworth, who is 73 and has known Speier since they were in high school together.

It’s this level of caring that’s kept the same group of people in Speier’s corner since her first campaign for county supervisor. They call themselves ACSS, Aides to County Supervisor Speier, comprised of two dozen or so individuals, including Wentworth, who knocked on doors and raised money for Speier for years.

Wentworth, who coordinates efforts to improve the impact of airplane noise on the community, explains they weren’t just volunteers. “We were her extended family. She didn’t forget any of our birthdays.”

jackie speier wearing a black and red suit during a congressional hearing

Speier at a hearing on preventing sexual harassment in Congress in December 2017.

Chip Somodevilla//Getty Images

But it was more than just loyalty, Wentworth explains—it was commitment. Commitment to her supporters, her friends, her family, her faith, her constituents. Even when Speier was recovering in the hospital after Guyana, Wentworth remembers witnessing her devotion. Speier had to undergo extremely painful, twice-daily hyperbaric chamber treatments to try to stem the gangrene in her leg. The chamber resembled an iron lung, and it made Speier physically ill. After treatment, Speier would be “wrung out,” Wentworth says, but she would still thank the nurse taking care of her. When she had visitors after one treatment, Speier not only smiled, she also managed to remember the name of, and ask after, the couple’s child. “She had that kind of a connection,” Wentworth says.

Those close to her also describe a different side to Speier, calling her “tough,” “ferocious,” a “pitbull”—and giving her nicknames like Superwoman and the Energizer Bunny. “She doesn’t back down,” says John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party from 2009 to 2017. Burton, who served in the California State Assembly and Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives, has known Speier since her days working for Congressman Ryan. He recalls that in 1989, the California State Legislature was discussing a ban on assault weapons. A Republican asked Speier if she had ever shot one before. “She just says, ‘This is where the assault weapon shot me,’” Burton remembers. “And that was the end of that discussion.”

Speier recalls replying with her own question: Had he ever been shot by an assault weapon? Regardless, the result was the same. Speier shut down her opposition.

It’s that determination that stands out to Speier’s daughter, Stephanie Sierra—a fearlessness when it comes to holding those in power accountable and “a tenacity to shine for women.” They are attributes that helped inspire Stephanie, 28, to become an investigative reporter. The end goal for both their jobs is the same, she says: “How can we make the world a better place?”

Stephanie “definitely got the gene to right the wrong” from her mother, says Wentworth. She remembers one dark winter afternoon in the 1980s when Speier dragged Wentworth out to examine telephone poles. They were checking to see if any of the poles were still insulated with polychlorinated biphenyls, whose production was banned in 1977 after studies linked them to cancer in animals. The power company was supposed to be changing out the PCBs, Wentworth explains, but wasn’t doing so fast enough for Speier. In their suits and heels, the two friends searched an empty lot, surrounded by discarded beer cans.

speier holding her toddler daughter who is touching pete wilson's face

Speier, Stephanie, and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Courtesy of Jackie Speierspeier's toddler daughter playing on the floor with willie brown

Stephanie playing with then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Courtesy of Jackie Speier

Her dedication to her community has been constant, but Stephanie says it did not come at the cost of her family. When Stephanie had the lead in the musical Really Rosie in eighth grade, Speier would practice with her before flying off to Washington, D.C. Stephanie would lay out the sheet music and Speier, while packing or doing her hair, would sing along with her daughter. They once even performed a musical skit together, although singing is one of the rare things Speier’s family and friends admit isn’t her strong suit.

However, Speier ultimately made the decision not to run again for her family, finishing up her congressional career when her term ends this year. She originally told her husband, Barry Dennis, she would retire when she turned 70. When the time came, she asked for two more years so she could see through legislation about the handling of assault cases in the military. He agreed. Now, she is keeping her promise.

But the decision hasn’t been easy. When we first spoke in April 2022, Speier was in a rush. “I’m running out of time,” she says. She was in the middle of responding to a case of correction officers accused of sexually abusing inmates in a federal prison in Dublin, Calif. “In a few months, I won’t be able to do that,” she continues. “It makes me sad I will be losing my voice.”

In regards to her next chapter, Speier is still moving forward with passion and excitement, just like she does everything in life, says her daughter. “I’m coming home to do good trouble,” Speier says. “Just like [the late civil rights leader] John Lewis taught me.”

A big part of that “trouble” is a foundation she plans to establish to fund existing programs for women and families in San Mateo County. Speier has already zeroed in on two groups in need: elderly women facing eviction and young adults phasing out of foster care. Her pitch focuses on numbers she’s researched: the 22 billionaires and 5,000 millionaires in the county versus the roughly 28 beds in the domestic violence shelter and the high percentage of elementary school children on school lunch programs and reading below grade level.

jackie speier dressed in a blue and white suit standing outside the capitol

Speier outside the Capitol in September 2020.

Tom Williams//Getty Images

As for her seat in Congress? “There’ll be others that will take my place and do an incredibly good job,” she says. In case they need tips, her staff is making a list of all the things that still need to be fixed, with gun control at the very top. In June 2022, a set of gun safety measures passed, but didn’t include any new restrictions. “I’m terribly disappointed that this so-called breakthrough bill that we got signed into law, after 30 years of getting nothing done, does virtually nothing,” Speier says.

Federally, she says, gun control has been a failure. But locally, Speier has held a half a dozen gun buybacks over the years that harvested an illegal machine gun, assault weapons, and rifles with scratched-off serial numbers, convincing her that being hyper-local is “how you can get something done.” This is where she plans to now devote her considerable energy, a declaration that doesn’t surprise longtime politician Burton.

“We call her Goody Two-Shoes,” Burton says, adding to her list of nicknames. “She’s a do-gooder. She’s not going to sit and rest in the rocking chair. She’ll keep contributing to the community.”

When asked if the late Ryan would be impressed with all Speier has done, Burton doesn’t hesitate. “He wouldn’t be surprised.”

Headshot of Katya Cengel

Katya Cengel has written for New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Wall Street Journal, and others. Her memoir, From Chernobyl with Love, will be released in paperback in early 2023.

Comments are closed.