Retired California lawmaker reflects on Jonestown and Trump

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

During a heated debate, an opponent challenged Speier, wondering if she had ever fired one of the weapons destined for extinction.

His answer was quick and precise: “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 airstrip as they tried to leave Guyana.

Five people died in the sprays of automatic fire, including California Representative Leo Ryan. Speier was machine-gunned at close range. Bullets pierced her arm, back and leg, leaving her permanently disfigured.

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

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

She leaves office – reluctantly – on Tuesday.

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

“So when 70 people arrived,” she continued, “I said, ‘You know, I’m now the chair of the military personnel subcommittee. I mean, maybe I’m about to transform the way the military views sexual assault and harassment.

Her husband gave her a pass, she said, cheerfully referring to the wedding push-pull — a one-time deal, it turned out.

“I assumed I would get another dispensation” to get re-elected in 2022, Speier said with a smile and a sad laugh. “I did not understand.”

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

Leaving Congress, Speier has decidedly mixed views about the institution, as well as the hateful, venom-dripping culture that pervades 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.”

His dismal criticism continued.

Re-election 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 goal for Speier, for obvious reasons — was 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 sales and gun shows at fire, Congress managed to pass only modest legislation this summer after a series of particularly gruesome mass shootings.

The bill was a breakthrough — the first major gun control measure enacted in decades — but Speier was unimpressed. “My frustration is that it takes so long to move the needle a fraction,” she said.

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

“There are extraordinary similarities,” Speier said, describing the two men as charismatic, power-mad and totally self-centered.

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

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

Speier was in the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, when it was swarmed by violent, bloated Trump supporters seeking to overturn the 2020 election. She recalled the chilling sensation with eerie clarity. Panic. Broken glass. Ambush.

“I remember pressing my cheek to the floor and feeling how cold it was and all that feeling of resignation kind of washed 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, walked into Speier’s sunny living and dining room, lightening the mood.

Please, she asked, don’t make me angry, bitter or anything less than honored to have the chance to sit in elected office. If a young person reached out to express their interest in politics — as a 16-year-old Speier did when she volunteered for Ryan’s first campaign — she would absolutely cheer him on.

“Young people recognize that climate change is real – we need to address it,” Speier said. “They want to make sure there is a social security system when they retire. … Gun violence is something they grew up with in schools where they had to drill. So, yes, I think they are better prepared than us to solve these problems.

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

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

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

Now it is the turn of a new generation of determined optimists.

Los Angeles Times

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