Rep. Speier, survivor of 1978 Jonestown ambush, to retire

Politics
Jackie Speier

FILE – Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Sept. 16, 2020, in Washington. Speier announced Tuesday that she would not seek re-election, making the five-term congresswoman the 14th House Democrat to announce they would retire from Congress. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Longtime California Rep. Jackie Speier, who first ran for office after surviving a 1978 ambush by cult followers that killed her congressman boss, said Tuesday that she would not seek reelection.

The seven-term congresswoman’s decision to step down from a safe Democratic seat in the San Francisco Bay Area makes her the latest House Democrat to announce retirement ahead of a fraught 2022 midterm election cycle, a troubling sign for Democrats clinging to a narrow majority.

Speier said in a video message that it was an “extraordinary privilege” to serve. But after nearly 40 years in public office at the local, state and federal level, it was time to step aside, she said.

“It’s time for me to come home,” Speier said. “Time for me to be more than a weekend wife, mother and friend.”

Speier recalled how she was inspired to pursue a career in public service after she accompanied her boss, Rep. Leo J. Ryan, on a flight to Guyana in a disastrous 1978 attempt to rescue 900 followers of the cult leader Jim Jones.

Ryan was investigating complaints his office received about conditions at the jungle settlement established by Jones and his followers, known as Jonestown. But the trip ended in tragedy.

Ryan and four others were shot to death on an airstrip by gunmen who were followers of Jones. Speier, who was 29 at the time, was shot five times, with bullets ripping through her arm and leg. Hours later, Jones exhorted members of his flock to drink cyanide-laced punch in a mass murder-suicide.

“I vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to public service,” Speier said in the video announcing her retirement. “I lived, and I served.”

After losing a bid for Ryan’s former seat a year after the attack, Speier went on to serve for six years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and 18 years in the California Legislature, where she developed a reputation as a consumer advocate and critic of the state’s troubled prison system.

She was first elected to Congress in 2008, claiming her former boss’ seat. During her time in the House she has championed women’s rights. At the outset of the #MeToo movement, she shared her own story of being sexually harassed as a young congressional aide by an office chief-of-staff.

“I know what it’s like to lie in bed at night, wondering if I was the one who had done something wrong,” she said in 2017, encouraging other women who worked at the Capitol and who had been subjected to harassment to come forward. “I know what it’s like years later to remember that rush of humiliation and anger.”

Her work helped pass the Congressional Accountability Act Reform Act, which went into effect in 2019 and expands protections for congressional aides who have been subject to harassment.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also represents the Bay Area, praised Speier in a statement, calling her “a force in the fight to combat sexual assault and harassment in all places.”

“Her legislative success, including to bring the Me Too movement to Congress,” Pelosi said, “has helped defend the dignity and rights of so many.”

Speier is the 14th House Democrat to indicate that they will not seek reelection in 2022. Most have cited reasons beyond politics for their decisions, like a the desire to spend more time with family, or an interest in allowing someone else to serve.

But the pileup of retirements is a foreboding sign for Democrats, underscoring the reality that party that wins the White House typically loses congressional seats in the following midterm elections. More members are expected to depart as they contend with the reality that they could find themselves in the minority.

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