Surviving Jonestown, Overcoming Trump: Rep. Jackie Speier sees unsettling parallels in turbulent times

On the release of her new memoir, the Bay Area Congresswoman discusses the current political climate, Big Tech, housing and the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier at her desk in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Little A Publishing)

She was shot five times and left for dead in the jungles of Guyana. She lost her husband in a fatal car accident. She experienced difficult miscarriages, and had an adopted child she loved reclaimed. She lost elections.

But Jackie Speier, undaunted, hasn’t let personal tragedy or professional challenges stop her from rising through the ranks of elective office to her current position as representative for California’s 14th Congressional District, which runs from parts of San Francisco as far south as East Palo Alto and San Gregorio.

Aptly, her new memoir is titled: Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage and Fighting Back, and was released earlier this month.

In advance of her upcoming appearance at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on Dec. 2, The Six Fifty spoke with Speier to discuss her book, her storied political career representing San Mateo County, and the state of the union.

(Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.)

(Courtesy of Little A Publishing)

Q: One of the themes throughout your book is that of resilience through personal tragedy — of which you’ve been through a lot. What has helped you move forward through difficult times?

A: Well, I refer to the three “Fs”: Family, friends and faith. And I’ve relied heavily on all three. We all have a difficult understanding of what people need when they’re going through trauma. In our society, we are reluctant to offer help. We tend to back up and wait for some sign. But the message in the book, in part, is that you’ve got to ask for what you need, and reach out to people who can be helpful to you, because they clearly want to be.

The other message is that we’re much stronger and more resilient than we think we are. It’s surprising what we can overcome.

Q: What was it like for you to revisit the memories of Jonestown 40 years later?

A: So many lives were lost when they shouldn’t have been. It’s always jarring and emotionally difficult.

Q: It seems like there are strains of a potentially cult-like attitudes in today’s political landscape — things like detachment from reality and devotion to a polarizing figure. What are your concerns about where we go from here? What happens when reality does catch up to the Trump administration?

A: It’s the lack of independent thought — whether it was Jonestown, the U.S. Senate, or the American people. We can never lose sight of how important independent thought is in being able to assess a situation. What Donald Trump does, in terms of browbeating people — it’s a form of psychological warfare that he engages in constantly with people. It’s not healthy or productive and has many of the same elements that you see whenever there is psychological damage being done to people, whether it is Jonestown or domestic violence, or in this case, people he sees as his enemies.

Q: So what do you do to ensure you remain independent?

A: My luxury is that I came very close to death and survived, and so I have a fearlessness that I probably wouldn’t have, had I not encountered the experiences that I’ve encountered in my life. I guess I’m more prepared to stand up and speak out because I don’t have anything to fear. Once you’ve looked death in the eye, you’re not afraid of much anymore.

Jackie Speier with Leo Ryan in Washington, D.C., while working as one of his staffers in 1973. (Image courtesy of Little A Publishing)

Q: You talk about your political mentor Leo Ryan and his “experiential” approach to legislation. How has this impacted approach to legislation — based on both the issues you’ve experienced on a personal level, and issues you’ve made an effort to go out and understand through experience?

A: I would say it’s impacted me greatly on both levels. When I adopted a baby and the birth mother took the baby back, I realized the heartache associated with losing an adopted child is great. While the birth mother had every right to take the baby back, in my case, if it’s six months down the road, is that realistic? When my husband was killed in an automobile accident, I wanted to make sure people had auto insurance, because, while I was able to scrape together the money for his funeral, many other people (couldn’t). And if we had a requirement that everyone carry at least minimum auto insurance, then there’d be money to pay for the funeral costs. So I carried legislation that required proof of auto insurance at the time of registration, and then a low-cost auto insurance policy in California so that everyone could afford auto insurance.

So it absolutely has impacted the way I legislate.

In terms of how I’ve been experiential, I took a page from Congressman Ryan’s book and I spent a night in a high security women’s state prison when I was still in the legislature. I spent the night at a local homeless shelter to appreciate the impact of what homelessness is in the area. I’ve taken the Food Stamp Challenge, and lived on $4 a day of food. I think it really helps to inform our decision-making if we have those experiences.

Q: What do you think the state government and people like you in Congress can do to alleviate the Bay Area housing crisis?

A: I think it’s steps to make sure that Section 8 Housing Vouchers are used. There was a period of time when they weren’t being used, and it was the equivalent of two or three apartment buildings. So I worked with many of the apartment owner associations to try and get them to participate. I think that what we need to do is regain more affordable housing that is accessible through mass transit.

High speed rail can be a part of that solution. I think of the people who can be an hour from their job on rail from San Francisco to Silicon Valley on Caltrain. If we have high speed rail, you can get from Fresno to Silicon Valley in an hour, and all of a sudden there’s many more opportunities for affordable housing within a reasonable timeframe of your work. Obviously, these solutions aren’t enough. From a federal level, the tax credit is basically what developers rely on to build senior housing and workforce housing— if we don’t protect those, there won’t be any housing built. As it turns out, the tax credits pay for about 60 percent of the cost to develop.

Q: Does that mean you’d support the Dumbarton rail line being rebuilt?

A: Absolutely. I was responsible for the program that created the Baby Bullet express Caltrain service. That reduced the number of cars on 101 and 280 substantially. It reduced the commute from San Francisco from San Jose by almost 50 minutes.

Congresswoman Speier speaking at a rally in 2015. (Image via Rep. Jackie Speier’s Facebook page)

Q: You’ve called the most recent elections a “pink wave.” How do you think having more women in Congress will change its dynamics?

A: I think women tend to want to compromise and move the ball forward. Sometimes we get so fixed on political machinations that it’s all about winning battles instead of winning the future. I think for women’s issues in particular, whether it’s paycheck fairness or the Equal Rights Amendment or repealing the “pink tax” — I look forward to trying to get all that legislation passed.

Q: What did you do earlier in your career when it was less common for women to be in positions like yours? How did you get naysayers to take you seriously as a politician?

A: Well, one of the things I learned early on was that the reason why women weren’t getting elected had more to do with other women than it did men. We needed to recognize that for women to get elected, we needed to support women. I think that losing really prepared me to win. I encourage people to not be afraid to run. I’m what I call a “three-time loser.” You can learn a lot from losing and you just never give up. You keep moving forward. You don’t let anything get you down.

A survivor of gun violence during the 1978 massacre in Jonestown, Congresswoman Speier has been out front on gun control during her time in government. (Image via Rep. Jackie Speier’s Facebook page)

Q: What’s your point of view on how the split in the Democratic party between more establishment and more progressive members will play out? Is it good or bad for the party?

A: It’s the nature of our party. But we’ve also seen it in the Republican Party, where they had their Freedom Caucus and then the moderates. So it’s all part of politics. We just need to come to common ground in times that there is a solution. We all share the same values. It’s just oftentimes how something is being implemented that needs to be reconciled between two or three different interest groups.

Q: In the last year, Denmark appointed an ambassador to Silicon Valley. What are your biggest concerns right now regarding some of the tech companies in your district and how they relate to democracy?

A: Tech has been the darling of the economy for a very long time. They’ve enjoyed a very positive run. There is growing interest in Congress to look at regulation. It’s even coming out in Silicon Valley the recognition that self-regulation isn’t working. So there’s going to be some efforts to develop some forms of regulation, whether it’s around truth in advertising and campaigning, or the size of companies and whether it becomes monopolistic. I think all those issues will be looked at.

We’ve got some great companies. They employ lots of people in our region. They’re doing very innovative things, so I don’t want to see that dampened at all, but a certain level of regulation is appropriate and I think everyone needs to feel confident that their privacy isn’t going to be breached.

I mean, Marriott just announced that 500 million people had their privacy breached and their passports identified, so, you know, we don’t necessarily get it right. We’ve got to anticipate that everything is hackable. So how do we protect personal, identifiable information in a way that makes it less susceptible?

Q: You’ve been tough with PG&E in the past. How do you think PG&E should mitigate the wildfire threats its infrastructure poses?

A: I would just say when they argue that undergrounding utility wires in high risk areas is too costly, ask the 50,000 people who lost their homes in Paradise how costly that is, or the insurance companies that are going to be picking up the tab. So there’s got to be some better techniques, whether there’s a substance you can spray out there, which is something they’re looking at, or insulating the wires, or whatever it is — there has to be some steps taken that are smarter technologically than the PG&E of yesteryear.

One thing I’ll say in PG&E’s defense is: When the transmission lines exploded in San Bruno, so many people lost their homes and lives. I introduced a bill to make them much more accountable, and they responded, even though the bill never got passed in Congress. They installed automatic and remote shut-off valves in high-consequence areas, which is where seismic action could take place. They developed plans to work with local first responders. They informed persons who live within so many feet of a transmission line. I mean, they’re capable of doing the right thing. I just don’t know if the leadership today is willing to do that. It’s somewhat out of my jurisdiction now that I’m on the federal level.

Jackie Speier at a screening of the movie Selma, with Congressman John Lewis. (Image via Jackie Speier’s Instagram)

Q: Which modern political figures do you admire most?

A: John Lewis, Madeleine Albright and Benazir Bhutto.

Q: What’s the latest on the ME TOO Congress Act you co-sponsored — which would overhaul how harassment claims are handled within Congress?

A: We’re in final negotiations with the Senate. It will be probably 80 percent of what the House version was, and I have a commitment from my Republican colleague that we’ll come back next year and ensure it’s 100 percent in terms of its impact on the House.

Q: Where do you like to go in San Mateo County nowadays?

A: I would say the coast is where I gravitate to — any excuse to go down to Half Moon Bay or Pacifica, or Pescadero. I, like everyone else, love that we have this magnificent coastline right at our doorstep.

About the book

Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage and Fighting Back, is 240 pages and was published Nov. 6 by Little A Publishing. It is available online on Amazon, among other retailers.

Speier will be at Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, from 4 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, for a conversation with journalist and radio host Angie Coiro. The event is sold out.

She will also be at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Tuesday, Dec. 3, in conversation with ABC News reporter Cheryl Jennings.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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