New House Member Speier: A Survivor

Jackie Speier, who served for 18 years as a state lawmaker in California, was the overwhelming winner Tuesday in a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, who died in February. She will be sworn in Thursday in Washington as the representative of California's 12th Congressional District, which covers areas in and around San Francisco.

Speier, a Democrat, came away with 78 percent of the vote, election officials say.

When asked what she is like, her friend and former state Assembly colleague Phil Isenberg gives a response typical of those who know her.

"Smart, lively, energetic, exasperating, charming, pugnacious," he says.

Most people wouldn't mind being described this way, but no one would want to go through what Speier has in earning that reputation. In 1978, she accompanied her boss, U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, on a fact-finding trip to Jonestown, the jungle compound of cult leader Jim Jones in the South American country of Guyana.

Ryan wanted to visit the compound to see if people were being held there against their will. But the paranoid Jones warned off Ryan and his "invaders."

"If by any chance you would make a mistake to try to come in and take any one of us, we will not let you. You will die. You will have to take anybody over all of our dead bodies," Jones said while addressing his followers.

Jones made good on his threat: Ryan's party was ambushed at the airstrip, and Ryan and four others were killed. Speier was shot five times at point-blank range and left for dead.

Not long afterward, 912 Jonestown residents drank or were forced to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

Speier was rescued and spent two months in the hospital. Upon her return to California, she immediately ran for her late boss's seat in Congress "because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life as a victim," she says. She lost that election.

For all the horror of Jonestown, Speier says it wasn't the worst thing that has happened to her. Speier's husband was killed in a car accident while she was three months' pregnant with their second child.

"When my husband was brain dead, I had to decide when to pull the plug. But, too, I had to pick up my kindergartner and bring him to the hospital to say goodbye to his daddy for the last time," she says. "Very, very tough."

Despite — or maybe because of — these personal tragedies, Speier became a force to be reckoned with in California's Legislature as the author of trailblazing consumer protection laws.

"She worked on what, at the time, was the toughest financial privacy legislation in the country," says Jamie Court, head of the organization Consumer Watchdog.

Speier didn't mind antagonizing the powerful. "She was up against an army of lobbyists from the insurance companies to the banking industry to the credit card companies. Everybody had a stake in that fight, even health care companies," Court says.

But Speier, 57, says the challenge didn't intimidate her. "Once you look death in the eye, you are just not nearly as afraid anymore," she says.

The financial privacy bill was groundbreaking. Like a number of the bills Speier worked on, it went well beyond the protections offered consumers in most other states.

"I could take those 300 laws that I've had signed in California, and just, you know, scratch out 'California State Legislature' and introduce them in Washington and be busy for quite some time," she says.

Such a move would surely antagonize the powerful, but that's nothing Speier would shy away from.

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