California Rep. Jackie Speier, survivor of Jonestown massacre, to retire from Congress

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough)
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), a member of Congress since 2008, said she will not run for reelection next year.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

California Rep. Jackie Speier said Tuesday she will not run for reelection next year, the latest House Democrat to retire in the face of what could be a difficult election cycle for the party.

Speier, who has represented San Mateo County and San Francisco since 2008, said in a video announcement that it’s “time for me to come home.”

“Time for me to be more than a weekend wife, mother and friend,” said Speier, who is a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

While in Congress, Speier (D-Hillsborough) has been an advocate for women’s equality, LGBTQ rights and the #MeToo movement, even recounting misconduct she endured when she was a congressional aide.


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This week, she co-led a resolution to censure Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) for posting an animated video depicting the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The House is planning to vote on the measure Wednesday.

Speier said she committed her life to public service 43 years ago this week after the murder of her then-boss, Rep. Leo J. Ryan, at the Jonestown massacre in Guyana.

She was accompanying him on the trip and was shot five times. While lying injured on the airport tarmac, she “vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to public service,” she recounted in the video. “I lived and I served.”

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Few on Capitol Hill — where many members stay well into their 80s — were expecting Speier, 71, to retire. When she informed Pelosi of her decision, the House speaker told her she’s “so young,” Speier said with a laugh.


But Speier said the decision has been in the works for four years and is largely because she wants to spend time with her husband.

“He’s retired and he will, by the time I am finished, be retired for two and a half years and he wants us to do things and I respect that,” she said in an interview off the House floor. “My husband has supported my career for 20 years.”

Former California Sen. Barbara Boxer said Speier has been a committed and effective representative for decades.

“Her amazing resilience to come back from a near-death experience and to commit to public service, when public service almost killed her — that is a lasting legacy,” said Boxer, a Democrat.

She added that she understood Speier’s desire to spend more time with her family as it mirrored Boxer’s decision to retire from the U.S. Senate in 2017 after 24 years in that body and 10 years in the House.

“My view is it’s always good to retire at the top of your game,” she said. “She wants to pass the baton to those coming up behind her. I think that’s great. At some point you do have to make that decision — do you want to die on the floor of Congress or use your time and walk away when people really admire your work?”

Speier cited her work on military sexual assault as among her proudest accomplishments. She worked on legislation that would remove such cases from the chain of command and the Defense Department said in September that these incidents would be handled by a new special prosecution office by 2027.

It is “going to be something that I’ll look back on and say it took 10 years but we did it,” Speier said.

Katie Merrill, a Bay Area Democratic consultant, pointed to Speier’s work on women’s issues as a key part of her legacy.

“She has been so outspoken and so brave in talking about her own personal experience having an abortion and how important it is for women to have the right to make their own medical decisions,” Merrill said, referring to a 2011 speech Speier gave on the House floor during a debate over funding for Planned Parenthood.

She said that Speier was well-known in the community for taking care of constituents, whether it was connecting veterans with benefits, tracking down lost Social Security checks for seniors or helping people get their passports renewed.

“Frankly, 75% of what Congress members should be doing is taking care of their districts, and that’s what Jackie has done for decades now,” Merrill said.

Before running for Congress, Speier was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and the state Legislature.

Speier’s decision to vacate the Bay Area congressional district is likely to immediately set off jockeying to be her successor, who is almost certain to be a Democrat, even after redistricting. Speier refused to weigh in on what is expected to be a hotly contested primary.

“There’s some talented people and they’re going to make decisions on whether or not they run and I will endorse in the coming months,” she said.

Speier’s current congressional district, stretching across the suburbs to the south of San Francisco, has one of California’s most reliable Democratic electorates. The draft maps drawn last week by the state’s independent redistricting commission only boost the number of Democratic voters and would touch portions of at least six existing state legislative districts — offering opportunities for elected officials to seek a rare open seat in Congress.

Among the names being floated as potential candidates are state Sen. Josh Becker; Assembly members Kevin Mullin, Phil Ting and Marc Berman; San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa, and Redwood City Councilwoman Giselle Hale.

Speier’s departure is likely to further fuel speculation that House Democrats are seeking the exits because they believe Republicans will take control of the House next year. Midterm elections are typically difficult for the president’s party. Democrats have little room for error, holding a majority with 221 seats, compared with Republicans’ 213.

Speier rebuffed that thinking: “I’ve served the majority of my time in Congress in the minority. I know how to work under those circumstances.”

Haberkorn reported from Washington and Mehta from Los Angeles. Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this story.