Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Column: California lawmaker who survived Jonestown, Jan. 6 reflects on Trump, Jim Jones and Congress

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When Jackie Speier was a lawmaker in Sacramento, before mass shootings became a sad and sick part of everyday life, she helped push through the first state ban on military-style assault weapons.

During a scorching debate, an opponent challenged Speier, wondering whether she’d ever fired one of the weapons targeted for extinction.

Her response was swift and sharp: “No. But have you ever been shot by an assault weapon?”

In 1978, as a congressional aide, Speier was part of a delegation that traveled to South America to investigate the Jonestown cult and its murderous leader, Jim Jones. The delegation and some would-be defectors were ambushed at a nearby landing strip as they attempted to leave Guyana.

Five people died in the spray of automatic gunfire, including California’s Rep. Leo Ryan. Speier was strafed at point-blank range. Bullets pierced her arm, back and leg, leaving her permanently disfigured.

“I look at my body every day,” Speier said, “and recognize that it’s not the way it should be.”

In some ways, her career has come full circle. After serving on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, in the Assembly and in the state Senate, Speier for the last 14 years has represented much of Ryan’s old congressional district in the suburbs south of San Francisco.

She leaves office — reluctantly — on Tuesday.

“When I first ran for Congress I was 58,” the 72-year-old Speier said in a recent conversation via Zoom. “And I said, ‘You know, I just want to do this til I’m 70.’ Sort of just threw out that number. … I had no idea that the work would be so challenging and so rewarding.

“So when 70 rolled around,” she continued, “I said, ‘You know, I’m now chair of the Military Personnel Subcommittee. I mean, I’m on the cusp of maybe transforming the way the military looks at sexual assault and harassment.’”

Her husband gave her a pass, she said, referring good-naturedly to the push-pull of marriage — a one-time deal, it turned out.

“I assumed I would get another dispensation” to seek reelection in 2022, Speier said with a smile and rueful laugh. “I didn’t get it.”

She did, however, help bring about the historic change she sought, a reform of the military she calls the proudest achievement of her decades in public life.

As she leaves Congress, Speier has decidedly mixed views of the institution, as well as the hateful, venom-dripping culture that suffuses Washington today.

“It’s been the greatest privilege of my life,” she said of her time on Capitol Hill. But she added that “it’s a pretty dysfunctional place right now.”

“Consensus is a dirty word,” Speier said. “Compromise is a dirty word.”

Her dismal critique went on.

Reelection has become the be-all and end-all for too many lawmakers, Speier said, and they too often sacrifice principle in the service of personal ambition.

Gun safety — a career-long focus for Speier, for obvious reasons — has been a particular disappointment.

Despite strong public support for a nationwide ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and for other common-sense measures, such as requiring background checks for private and gun-show sales, Congress managed to pass only modest legislation this summer after a string of particularly horrific mass shootings.

The bill was a breakthrough — the first significant gun control measure signed into law in decades — but Speier was not impressed. “The frustration I have is that it takes so long to move the needle just a fraction,” she said.

The conversation turned to Jones and another malevolent leader, Donald Trump.

“There’s extraordinary similarities,” Speier said, describing both men as charismatic, power-mad and utterly self-absorbed.

Jones, she noted, convinced hundreds of true believers “to follow him into the jungle of Guyana. Once there, they became somewhat enslaved by him, and in the end, they didn’t commit suicide. They were murdered.”

Trump, she said, “created this cult of personality that allowed him to then telegraph to his supporters to do things that were illegal, destructive, personally harmful.”

Speier was in the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, when it was overrun by violent, jacked-up Trump supporters seeking to overturn the 2020 election. She recalled the fearful sensation with grim clarity. Panic. Broken glass. Ambush.

“I remember pressing my cheek to the floor and feeling how cold it was and this whole sense of resignation kind of came over me,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to die here in what we think is this sanctuary of democracy’” after surviving Jonestown.

Her two dogs, Emma and Bubba, capered into Speier’s sunny living and dining room, lightening the mood.

Please, she asked, don’t make me out to be angry, bitter or anything less than honored for the chance to serve in elected office. If a young person reached out to express an interest in politics — the way a 16-year-old Speier did when she volunteered for Ryan’s first campaign — she would absolutely encourage them.

“Young people recognize that climate change is real — we’ve got to fix it,” Speier said. “They want to make sure there’s a Social Security system when they retire. … Gun violence is something that they grew up with in schools where they had to do drills. So, yeah, I think they’re better prepared than we are to address these issues.”

Going forward, Speier plans to work again at the local level, starting a foundation aimed at fighting poverty in San Mateo County, which is one of the wealthiest in America thanks to its abundance of tech millionaires and billionaires.

Still, as critical as she is of Congress, Speier admits she’s sorry to go.

“I’m going to miss putting on the armor and getting into the battlefield and trying to make the place more functional and holding people accountable,” she said.

That’s now up to a new generation of determined optimists.

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