COVERInterviews

THE INTERVIEW — Jackie Speier: Fearless

with Janet Reilly

Photo by Frederic Aranda for California Elegance.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more tenacious or courageous lawmaker than Jackie Speier, the legislative powerhouse representing San Francisco and San Mateo counties in the U.S. Congress. Maybe it’s because taking on Wall Street, the powerful gun lobby or even Donald Trump might not seem all that scary when you’ve lived the life she has.

Janet Reilly

In 1978, at just 28 years old, Speier embarked on a fact-finding trip with her boss, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, to investigate Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult in Guyana. The trip came to a horrifying conclusion when she was shot five times and left for dead on an airstrip tarmac. Five others, including Ryan, were murdered that day.

Years later, while serving in the California State Assembly and pregnant with her second child, Speier’s husband, Dr. Steve Sierra, was killed in a car accident, leaving her a single mother to two children.

In 2008, Speier was elected to Congress — occupying the same seat Ryan had held 30 years earlier. From there she has championed women’s rights, advocated for gun control and fought against sexual assault in the military.

After all Representative Speier has been through, I wanted to hear her firsthand account of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. If anyone would have a unique perspective, it would be her.

I was not disappointed.


Obviously, Trump’s departure and the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration has been a sea change. What does it feel like in Congress? Guardedly optimistic. We recognize we have a very short window of time to restore normalcy — a short window to undo the things he did and to move the needle on issues we care about.

What do you think are some of the lasting effects of the Trump years, and what have we learned as a country? I think as a country, we have learned that there is a subset of Americans that are frankly hostile toward the country. They’re hostile toward persons of color, they’re hostile toward Jews, and they’re hostile toward government. And [Trump] was a pitchman for all of that discontent. He drew them in, recognized what their biases were, promoted those biases and amplified them.

When January 6 came about and his rhetoric was so hot about wanting to overthrow the election because he didn’t like the result, it allowed for this gross, destructive effort to tear down the democracy that we’ve always taken for granted.

Jackie Speier is sworn in to the 117th Congress January 3, 2021. Photos by U.S. House of Representatives Staff Photographers.

Take me back to January 6. Where were you and what were you hearing, seeing, feeling? I have always made it a point of being there for the certification of the Electoral College vote, so I went over early because I wanted to be there when California announced its vote. I was there around 1:15 p.m., and I remember sitting there and thinking there’s something wrong when a senator from Texas — in this case it was Ted Cruz — could come over and challenge the electoral vote in Arizona. I mean, how is that possible? But he had come over and we were now debating the Arizona vote and why it should be overturned.

All of a sudden, I saw the [House] speaker [Nancy Pelosi] being escorted off the House floor. She had a sense of determination, but she always has a sense of determination, so I didn’t think much of it. Shortly thereafter, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was escorted out, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, something’s up.”

I had seen some video on my phone of protesters coming up to the Capitol and some scuffles going on with the Capitol police, but I assumed it would be taken care of. There are demonstrations that go on in the Capitol all the time and people play by the rules. They respect the authority of the police and they have permits and all the things you would expect. Then a police officer went up to the dais and said, “The Capitol has been breached.” And I thought, “Oh my goodness.” And then he said, “There’s a pouch underneath your seat.”

__________________

LIGHTNING ROUND
I’m happiest when: I’m with my kids and husband.
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken: Probably running for lieutenant governor and losing.
My biggest regret is: That I didn’t have more children.
If I had a magic wand, I would: Rid this country and the world of poverty.
__________________

Now I’ve been in the gallery hundreds of times, I didn’t know there were pouches under the seat. I picked up this canvas pouch and I unzipped it, and I actually have it here, so I’m going to show you.

[Speier rises from her desk and walks across her office to retrieve the pouch, bringing it back to the desk to display it for the camera.]

This is what it looks like. You see it says, “CBRN Escape Hood.” I mean … it’s just … holding it now gives me the chills …

Oh my goodness. So, I’m trembling, and I tear it open and out comes the gas mask and it’s immediately operational. I start trying to put it on and it’s a hole about this big [gestures with hands] and you’ve got to pull it to put it over your head. And then the police officer says, “Don’t put it on yet. Stay in your seats.” At this point, they’re locking all the doors to the entrances to the various galleries.

Forty-three years ago, I’m lying on a dusty airstrip in the jungles of Guyana … and I survived that; but now I’m in my own country, in this tabernacle of democracy, and I may not survive this.

All the members who were on the floor had been escorted out. So, the only people in the chamber now are the police officers and those of us that are in the gallery. And they’re kind of shouting orders at each other to us, kind of conflicting. And then they say, “All right, we want you to move to the other side.”

Each of the galleries is divided by a brass railing so people can’t climb over. We were expected to duck under these railings to get to the other side, which we did. After we get over to the other side, at this point, there’s pounding on the chamber doors, and the staff and the police officers had taken a large piece of furniture and put it up against the doors. A number of the police officers had drawn their weapons and had them pointed at the door, and then there was some broken glass.

That must have been horrifying. And then they said, “Now, get down.”

So, we got down and I’m lying on the marble floor in the second row of the gallery on the other side. I’m thinking I’m kind of vulnerable because the only thing between me and a bullet is the seat back cushion of that chair in front of me. And then all of a sudden, I heard a gunshot.

I put my cheek on the cold marble floor and thought, “Oh my God, 43 years ago, I’m lying on a dusty airstrip in the jungles of Guyana, South America, and I survived that; but now I’m in my own country, in this tabernacle of democracy, and I may not survive this.”

I felt a sense of resignation. One of the police officers said, “Take your pins off.” There’s a pin that identifies you as a member of the House. And I’m shaking and taking this pin off, sticking it in my pocket, thinking we are the enemy to this mob of rioters that the president of the United States has sent up to the Capitol to prevent a peaceful transition of power.

How long were you down there on the floor? We were probably in the gallery for, I’d say, 20 minutes to a half an hour. As we left, I looked to the right and on the floor are members of the mob, face-down, with Capitol police with their assault weapons pointed at them. My heart sank: This is the United States and we looked like we were part of a banana republic. A coup was underway.

We went down many flights of stairs and eventually got to a secure place where we spent a good four hours. We were kind of the last group that got there, and there were 300 members in this room. I turned to the attending physician and I said, “Isn’t this a superspreader event?” Because we’re still playing this game about not wearing masks.

 

Speier, chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, speaks at a press conference in 2020 introducing the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act to transform the military’s response to sexual violence and missing servicemembers. Photos by U.S. House of Representatives Staff Photographers.

Where were you taken from there? I slipped into the anteroom because I had been in this particular room a number of times and stayed there for most of the time we were asked to stay in this lockdown setting. We turned on the televisions and I’m looking up at the Capitol and it looks like there are ants all over it. They’re people obviously, and I’m thinking to myself: How are we going to get all these people out of there to be able to move on and do the job that we are required to do in terms of certifying the Electoral College?

Eventually they did secure the Capitol, and it took until three in the morning for us to certify the vote. And when we certified the vote, two-thirds of the Republicans voted to overturn the elections in Arizona and Pennsylvania. This is within hours of having the Capitol overtaken.

What were the conversations like in that anteroom? I think a lot of people were stunned and unable to comprehend what had happened. [They were] calling family members to calm them down and assure them that they were safe. And there was this expectation that surely when we went back to certify the vote there wouldn’t be any question about it, but there was.

It was such a moment of pride and confidence, though, when we saw you come back, and the vote was certified. There was no question that we felt that we had to do this. I mean, that’s why we were up until 3 a.m.

And then you had to get up the next morning to fly back home. The interesting thing is: I’m in the airport, getting on the plane, and the plane is filled with people that had come to the rally. Now, how many of them were part of the group that came to the Capitol, I don’t know, but they all had Trump regalia and MAGA hats, and I just kind of crouched in my window seat.

Where are we with the investigations today? There are a number of efforts under way. There’s one, by retired General Russel Honoré, that’s looking at the safety of the Capitol. I mean, it was a great opportunity for our adversaries to realize how easy it would be with a significant number of people, especially if you do it in a surprise attack. There’s going to be a hardening of the Capitol, but there’s Cyclone fencing and barbed wire around the U.S. Capitol now. We don’t want that to stand. We’re going to have to figure out: How do we keep the people’s house available to school groups and people who want to come and reflect on the grandeur of our country’s very beginning?

I’ve actually introduced a bipartisan bill that would create a 9/11-type commission to look at violent extremism in the country. We have a serious problem. A 2017 [Government Accountability Office] report chronicled all the lethal attacks that have taken place since 9/11, and 73 percent of them were done by right-wing extremists. So, as much as they’ve been focused on the foreign terrorists, we’ve got to look internally to the domestic terrorists that exist.

Speier, shown with family members and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, is sworn in to her first term in the House of Representatives in 2008. (Photo by U.S. House of Representatives Staff Photographers.)

Sixty-five percent of Republicans believe that the election was stolen despite an overwhelming mountain of evidence to the contrary. But Donald Trump said it was, and social media spread it. What can we do about disinformation? Can we stem the tide? I think we have to. We cannot allow a disinformation campaign to undermine our democracy. And that was the effort that was underway. The “stop the steal,” this idea that somehow there were bags of votes … all of which were dispelled. Sixty court cases — some going all the way to the Supreme Court — and there was no evidence. They had no evidence of widespread fraud. Even the attorney general, who had been a sycophant to Donald Trump, came out [against it]. And [Trump] just kept spreading it.

Every social media platform has a responsibility to prevent disinformation.

Let’s talk a little bit about these social media companies. They’re right in your backyard. YouTube and Facebook are in my district. I continue to believe they have a responsibility to take down false statements. They’re doing a better job around the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of taking down anti-vax statements that are false, but the misogyny continues.

Are these companies too big? We absolutely have to regulate them. For a number of years, I was carrying legislation to get rid of the protection that e-retailers had, where they didn’t have to collect sales tax. It was hurting states and education, because in so many of the states, a large proportion of their budget goes to education. In California, it’s 40 percent. It was billions of dollars of lost revenue. And so, for years, I was carrying this legislation to require them to collect sales tax.

This happens over and over again, but we could get the bill [only] so far, but not far enough. And in the end, it was the Supreme Court that made the decision. It’s very disconcerting that Congress is oftentimes the last to act. The Equality Act today, you should have heard the debate on the House floor. It was, in many respects, repugnant. At least they couldn’t say anything about gay marriages because the Supreme Court has acted on that. If you had a gay marriage bill trying to go through the Congress right now, it would fail.

So yes, we have to regulate them. We used kid gloves in dealing with the internet because it was this fledgling industry. Well, there’s nothing fledgling about it anymore. It’s overtaken so many business enterprises. Section 230 needs to be repealed.

Do you think it’s going to be? I don’t think it would be totally repealed, but I think parts of it will be. I think it’s taken a long time for a lot of congresspeople to really understand the way the internet works. You’d be surprised how many Luddites there are in Congress.

When you first got to Congress, there were 73 women serving in the House. Now there are 118 (voting members). Why is it important to have women in positions of power? Women are more than 50 percent of the population, and yet we’re still only 27 percent of Congress. So our numbers don’t reflect the population. And so, many of these battles aren’t successful because we don’t have the numbers. That changes incrementally, but it’s a very slow process.

We’ve come a long way. Now we’ve got women in Congress who’ve served in the military, who have had careers in very diverse areas, and who garner a lot of respect. So things are changing.

For instance, I started focusing on sexual assault in the military about 10 years ago and I couldn’t even convince my Democratic colleagues to be supportive because they saw it as being unpatriotic if you didn’t support the military’s position on the issue. And then over time, more and more Democrats, and now Republicans, are onboard. I think that finally, after 10 years, we may actually get some resolution to what has been an epidemic. There are 20,000 sexual assaults a year in the military and only 5,000 report for fear of retaliation. Maybe a couple hundred are actually convicted. Why would anyone come forward? Now we’ve had young soldiers get killed. We’ve had some that have taken their lives because the rape was such a scarring experience and the military refused to do anything about it. It’s an example of how you just have to keep pushing forward.

What does it mean to have Kamala Harris as vice president? It’s the future. I love young girls looking at her with this sense of, “It can be me someday.” That’s really what it’s all about. She’s a role model that all young girls — regardless of their ethnic background or race — can aspire to.

 

Speier gathers with veterans and their family members at a press conference in San Mateo introducing the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act in January 2011.

 

Speier speaks to reporters at a press conference following the San Bruno PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion in September 2010.

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