Ex-State Lawmaker, Survivor of Cult Attack, Launches California House Bid

By Rachel Kapochunas


Jan. 15, 2008

California Democrat Jackie Speier — a former state senator with a liberal persona and a biography marked by her survival of a murderous cult attack — is now an official candidate to succeed 12th District Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos , who is retiring because of ill health.

Speier had been testing the waters for a possible primary challenge to Lantos, the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But the 14-term incumbent, who turns 80 on Feb. 1, announced on Jan. 2 that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and will not seek re-election in a strongly Democratic district that runs from a chunk of San Francisco south through suburban San Mateo County.

Speier is making a return to congressional politics nearly 30 years after she sought unsuccessfully to succeed her late boss, Democratic Rep. Leo Ryan, in a 1979 special election. That contest came months after the horrific attack in Guyana by members of the “Jonestown” commune that left Ryan and five others dead.

Speier, then age 28, survived five gunshot wounds and was one of several people who suffered non-mortal injuries in the assault. This preceded a mass suicide in which flamboyant cult leader Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers died, most from drinking a poison-laced soft drink.

Speier’s candidacy announcement Sunday took place in a park named after Ryan, whom she said had taught her to “stand up” for what she believed in, even if it meant having to “stand alone.”

Speier had accompanied Ryan on the November 1978 trip to investigate Jones, who formerly operated his “People’s Temple” from San Francisco and had been accused of abusive behavior, including complaints from some of Ryan’s constituents that their loved ones were being held against their will. After three days at the Jones compound interviewing residents, Ryan and his party — accompanied by several cult members who said they wanted to leave — departed for an airstrip at the Guyana town of Port Kaituma, where they were ambushed by gunmen who had tailed them from Jonestown.

Speier ran to succeed Ryan in the ensuing special election, but lost the Democratic nomination. Republican Bill Royer ended up winning that short-term contest, but Lantos — who had immigrated from Hungary after fighting in the anti-Nazi Jewish resistance during World War II — ousted Royer in the 1980 full-term election and has held the seat with little serious opposition since.

Speier went on to serve in the state Assembly and state Senate. She ran for lieutenant governor of California in 2006, losing a bid for her party’s nomination by 3 percentage points in a three-way primary.

Speier casts herself as an agent of the kind of change many voters say they want to see in Washington, declaring at her candidacy announcement that it is time to end “partisan bickering” in Congress and begin altering legislative priorities.

“We spend $10 billion a month in a senseless war in Iraq, and yet we could spend $10 billion a year and make sure that every child in America had heath insurance,” Speier said. “That’s why I’m running for Congress.”

At her kickoff event, Speier said Congress should fight for tougher financial privacy laws; stated that the Environmental Protection Agency is behind California in pursuing measures that would reduce air pollution; and contended that veterans of the Iraq war are not receiving proper care.

Speaking on Speier’s behalf at the kickoff rally were California Democratic Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Mike Thompson , the latter of whom noted that he once served as Speier’s chief of staff when she was a member of the state Assembly. According to Speier, 92 elected officials had endorsed her campaign as of Sunday.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom added his official endorsement Tuesday after touring a local elementary school with Speier.

It is not yet clear whether she will have a clear path to the Democratic nomination. Candidates for California’s 2008 elections have until March 7 to file for the state’s June 3 primary. But Speier was spared one potentially substantial obstacle when Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, considered a possible candidate, issued a statement on Monday saying he will not run for the House seat this year.

But whoever wins the party’s nomination will be in a strong position to succeed Lantos in a general election contest that CQ Politics rates as Safe Democratic. The 12th District is a partisan bastion that gave 2004 Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry 72 percent of the vote to just 27 percent for President Bush. Lantos took 76 percent of the vote in his 2006 election and never received less than two-thirds of the vote in any general election since