New House Member Speier: A Survivor Thirty years after she was left for dead outside the Jonestown compound in Guyana, Jackie Speier has won a special House election in California. Speier was shot five times in an ambush that killed her boss, U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, and four others.
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New House Member Speier: A Survivor

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New House Member Speier: A Survivor

New House Member Speier: A Survivor

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Washington tomorrow, Jackie Speier will be sworn in as the new representative of California's 12th congressional district. That's the area in and around San Francisco previously represented by Tom Lantos, the congressman who passed away in February.

Speier was the overwhelming winner yesterday in a special election to fill the seat. In California, she's known for her 18 years as a state lawmaker. She's also a survivor of the gruesome and tragic Jonestown Massacre.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has this profile.

INA JAFFE: Ask people who know Jackie Speier what she's like and you typically get a list of adjectives like these from her friend and former colleague in the state assembly, Phil Isenberg.

Mr. PHIL ISENBERG (Former California State Assemblyman): Smart, lively, energetic, exasperating, charming, pugnacious, smart.

JAFFE: Most people wouldn't mind being described this way, but no one would want to go through what Speier went through to arrive at this moment.

In 1978, a young Jackie Speier accompanied her boss, Congressman Leo Ryan, on a fact-finding trip to Jonestown in the South American country of Guyana. That was a jungle compound of cult leader Jim Jones. Ryan was coming to see if people were being held in Jonestown against their will. Speaking to his followers, the paranoid Jones warned Ryan and his so-called invaders.

Mr. JIM JONES (Founder, Peoples Temple): Even 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'll have to take anybody over all of our dead bodies.

JAFFE: Jones made good on his threat. Congressman Ryan's party was ambushed at the airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed. Jackie Speier was shot five times at point-blank range and left for dead. Not long after, 912 Jonestown residents drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide or had it forced on them.

But Speier was rescued. In an interview yesterday, she recalled spending two months in the hospital, coming home to California, and immediately running for her late boss's seat in Congress.

Ms. JACKIE SPEIER (Representative-Elect, California): Because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life as a victim.

JAFFE: She lost that election. But for all the horror of Jonestown, she says it wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to her. That would be when her husband was killed in a car accident, and she was three months pregnant with their second child.

Ms. SPEIER: When my husband was brain dead, I had to decide when to pull the plug, but, two, I had to pick up my kindergartner and bring him to a hospital to say goodbye to his daddy for the last time — very, very tough.

JAFFE: Despite or maybe because of a series of calamities that would leave many people unable to get out of bed in the morning, Speier became a force to be reckoned with in the state legislature as the author of some trailblazing consumer protection laws.

Mr. JAMIE COURT (President, Consumer Watchdog): She worked on what, at the time, was the toughest financial privacy legislation in the country.

JAFFE: Says Jamie Court, head of the organization Consumer Watchdog. Speier, he says, didn't mind antagonizing the powerful.

Mr. COURT: 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.

JAFFE: The fight was nothing to be feared, says Speier.

Ms. SPEIER: Because once you look death in the eye, you are just not nearly as afraid anymore.

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

Ms. SPEIER: 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.

JAFFE: Which would be sure to antagonize the powerful, but nothing to be afraid of.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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