Of all the comebacks on Capitol Hill, Rep. Jackie Speier‘s ranks among the most unexpected. Her first stint here, 30 years ago, nearly killed her.
In November 1978, Speier, then a 28-year-old legal aide to Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.), accompanied the maverick lawmaker, a handful of reporters and concerned family members into the jungles of Guyana to investigate the People’s Temple cult. The group’s roughly 1,000 members had abandoned San Francisco and built a compound in the South American nation.
Cult members attacked and killed Ryan and several members of the entourage. Speier was shot five times and left for dead, and more than 900 cult members committed mass suicide at the urging of their leader, Jim Jones.
After recovering, Speier made an unsuccessful attempt to win the special election to succeed Ryan, then settled into a life of local and state politics, intending to erase the horrors of the experience.
“I had kind of washed my hands of D.C. There were a lot of painful memories,” she said in a recent interview, her voice trailing off as she recalled the time. “It just didn’t hold the same interest that it held before.”
Now Speier, a Democrat, is in the House seat once held by her old boss, representing a portion of Silicon Valley, after winning a special election this spring to succeed the late Tom Lantos (D). .
She used her first floor speech, on the day she was sworn in, to excoriate President Bush’s handling of the war and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the likely GOP presidential nominee, for suggesting troops could be in Iraq for decades to come. She was heckled by Republicans in response.
“After I was booed, I really felt like I do belong here,” she said. “I’m not unaccustomed to the rough-and-tumble world of high-stakes politics, and there’s a lot at stake. . . . To evoke that kind of response, it suggests you hit a chord.”
Throughout her political career, Speier has battled assertions that her public profile came from one searing moment that made worldwide headlines. Speier said that she has forged her own political identity, one that goes far beyond her Guyana experience, and that she is much more than just the 20-something who barely survived tragedy.
She has served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and in the state Assembly and Senate, and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2006. She touts a record of passing more than 300 pieces of legislation in her 16 years in Sacramento, including hard-fought battles with the insurance industry and prison guards. She has suffered other tragedies as well, including the death of her first husband in a 1992 car accident.
“I think I have been able to, over the years, overcome that [Jonestown] moniker,” she said.
Yet Speier freely admits that her experience at the People’s Temple settlement, including waiting 22 hours to be rescued by Guyanese police, is the defining moment that guides her political philosophy.
“I think the experience in Guyana just made me more fearless, because I believe that once you have looked death in the eye you’re just not nearly as afraid,” she said. “So there’s a real sense that, once I survived, I didn’t want grass to grow under my feet. And I didn’t want to ever forget the lessons learned in that experience: You’re just not guaranteed a tomorrow.”
Ryan, whose constituents included members of the People’s Temple, began investigating the cult after complaints from family members. The visiting delegation’s suspicions were confirmed when a member slipped a note that read “help me get out” to an NBC reporter.
When Ryan tried to take some defectors with him, Jones ordered an attack at the airstrip that killed the congressman, an NBC cameraman, a San Francisco Examiner photographer and two others. Speier was shot five times on her right side.
While Speier and a couple of reporters who survived the attack awaited rescue, Jones launched the mass suicide at the compound.
Speier was flown to Andrews Air Force Base, where she underwent four hours of emergency surgery. Then came a grueling recovery period that included treatment for gas gangrene and about 10 more surgeries, including skin grafts.
She eventually recovered and, at 29, ran for Ryan’s seat but lost to a Republican in a special election. Lantos claimed the seat in 1980 and held it until his death this year, making Washington the last place Speier thought she would end up.
“It’s also very humbling, because it makes me realize, you know, that there’s a plan out there, there’s a plan for each of us. You’re not always privy to it,” Speier said.
But just before the Memorial Day recess, Speier learned the reality of life in the Capitol: No matter how well-known you may be at home, you’re still just one of 435 in the House. Hoping to win a seat on the coveted Energy and Commerce Committee, with its oversight of the technology and biotech issues important to her district, Speier instead was given a seat on the Financial Services panel.
Despite not getting her first choice, Speier said she is happy to have been assigned a committee after five weeks of waiting. “I kept telling people, ‘come and visit me — I have nothing to do,’ ” she said.
Original title: New Career on the Hill For Survivor of Killings