Representative Speer, survivor of the 1978 Jonestown ambush, to retire

Representative Speer, survivor of the 1978 Jonestown ambush, to retire

Washington — Long-term California Representative Jackie Speer, who first ran for president after surviving a congressional ambush in 1978 by followers of a cult that murdered her president, said she will not seek re-election.

The seven-year-old’s decision to relinquish a secure Democratic seat in the San Francisco Bay Area made her the latest House Democrat to announce retirement ahead of the charged 2022 midterm election cycle, a worrying sign for Democrats clinging to narrow majorities.

Speer said in a video message that it was an “extraordinary privilege” for the service. She said that after nearly 40 years in public office at the local, state and federal levels, it was time to step down.

“It’s time to go home,” Speer said. “It’s time to be more than a wife, a mother, and a girlfriend for the weekend.”

Speer remembered how she was inspired to pursue a career in public service after she accompanied her deputy chief, Liu J. Ryan, on a trip to Guyana in a disastrous 1978 attempt to rescue 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones.


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

Ryan and four others were shot dead at an airstrip by gunmen who were Jones’ followers. Speer, who was 29 at the time, was hit by five bullets that went through her arm and leg. Hours later, Jones urged members of his flock to drink a punch full of cyanide in a murder and mass suicide.

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

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


She was first elected to Congress in 2008, where she claimed the seat of her former president. During her time in the House of Representatives, she championed women’s rights. At the start of the #MeToo movement, she shared her own story of being sexually harassed as a young congressional aide by her chief of staff.

“I know what it’s like to lie in bed at night wondering if I’ve done something wrong,” she said in 2017, encouraging other women who work in the Capitol who have been harassed to come forward. “I know what it would be like years later to remember the rush of humiliation and anger.”

Her work helped pass the Congressional Accountability Act Reform Act, which took effect in 2019 and expanded protections for harassed congressional aides.


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

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

Speer is the 14th Democratic member of the House of Representatives to indicate that they will not seek re-election in 2022. Most have cited reasons outside of politics for their decisions, such as a desire to spend more time with family, or an interest in allowing someone else to serve.

But the accumulation of retirements is an alarming sign for Democrats, underscoring the fact that the party that wins the White House usually loses seats in Congress in the next midterm election. More members are expected to leave as they come to terms with the fact that they may find themselves in the minority.

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