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Davis, California

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

UC Davis alumna goes to Washington

When U.S. Representative Jackie Speier was 16, her family got a letter in the mail asking for contributions to Leo J. Ryan’s California State Assembly campaign. Speier didn’t have much money to contribute, but she did have time. She signed on as a campaign volunteer, soliciting support at shopping centers and community events.

Reflecting on that pivotal event in her life, Speier advises: “Don’t wait to get involved – start now. Don’t think you’re too young to make an impact. And don’t feel like you have to know someone to get involved – just knock on your assemblymember’s or congressperson’s door.”


Enrolls at UC Davis

In 1968, Speier enrolled as a freshman at UC Davis, majoring in political science. She said the campus didn’t have the same degree of tumultuous protests that other universities were known for during the Vietnam War era.

“Davis was very laid-back; it was the all-American college experience,” Speier recalls. “It was just like what you saw depicted on movie screens.”

One day Ryan was at the university giving a talk, and Speier took the opportunity to renew their acquaintance. Ryan (D-San Mateo) noted that Speier still had a strong interest in politics and offered her a chance to gain hands-on experience in the field, something he said she couldn’t get in a classroom. The young Davis student began working as an intern for Ryan, who had won his earlier bid for the state Assembly.

“You know early if [politics] is for you,” Speier says. “You’ll either get bitten or you won’t. But if you do, it’s an addiction that lasts a lifetime.”

These early experiences would jumpstart Speier’s career serving as a San Mateo County supervisor, a California Assemblymember, a California state senator and ultimately a member of the U.S. Congress. Today, Speier (D-Hillsborough) represents the 12th Congressional District, encompassing the southern portion of San Francisco and much of San Mateo County.

Speier is a native of the area she represents; she was born in San Francisco’s Sunset District and spent much of her childhood in neighboring South San Francisco.


Becomes Ryan’s Aide

After graduating from UC Davis in 1972, Speier went on to earn a law degree at UC Hastings College of the Law. She later re-joined Ryan for a third go-round, this time as his congressional aide. (Ryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1973.)

As an elected official, Ryan devoted his time to such projects as California prison reform, Congressional oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency and bringing to light the dangers of destructive cults.

The latter issue led him and some of his staff, including Speier, on a human rights investigation in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. It was believed that hundreds of Ryan’s constituents were being held against their will by cult leader Jim Jones.


Survives Jonestown massacre

Ryan’s contingency was ambushed by Jones’ followers, who killed Ryan and four others. Speier was shot five times but survived. That same day, over 900 cult members died in a mass suicide after Jones convinced them to consume a drink laced with cyanide, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Speier was 28 at the time.

“[Jonestown made me realize] life isn’t measured in milestones, but in moments,” Speier says. “It taught me that life is short, that we shouldn’t take it for granted. I feel like I got a second chance at life. It impacts me in everything I do – I don’t want to waste a minute.”


Impact of Congressional Work

As a U.S. Representative, Speier juggles family life with congressional duties. Although she says living a bicoastal lifestyle is a big challenge, Speier strives to make it work.

She returns to the San Francisco Peninsula most weekends to spend time with her husband, her 14-year-old daughter and her son, who attends Stanford University, as well as to serve constituents locally from her office in San Mateo. She’s also found time to return to UC Davis several times, including serving as a Picnic Day Parade Marshal and a commencement speaker.

Speier continues to ensure she doesn’t waste a moment and that everything she does has real import.

“There’s great satisfaction when you get a bill passed – it can help thousands, even millions, of people,” she said. “When an oncologist comes to you and says a bill you passed helped save hundreds of children’s lives, or when a mother tells you she is finally getting child support [because of your bill], that makes life very worthwhile.”


ANNA OPALKA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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