Ex-Ryan Aide Ready To Take Seat

Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:54pm

Former California state Sen. Jackie Speier (D) won a special election Tuesday to fill the late Rep. Tom Lantos’ 12th district Congressional seat with 78 percent of the vote. That answered the only question that had remained in the race: whether, as the heavy favorite, Speier would win enough votes to avoid a runoff with her nearest competitor, Republican Greg Conlon.

Conlon garnered just 9 percent of the vote, so as a result, Speier flew to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and her swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for today.

Speier is a familiar personality in California politics, having first run for Congress in 1979 after her boss, then-Rep. Leo Ryan (D), was murdered during the People’s Temple cult massacre in Guyana.

Speier, who was with Ryan during the attack, sustained five bullet wounds and spent 22 hours waiting for help on the airport tarmac with a handful of other survivors. She had been working as Ryan’s legal counsel, and they had traveled to Guyana on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of human-rights violations at the People’s Temple in Jonestown.

Speier reportedly had two bullets still in her body when she ran for Ryan’s seat in a special election and eventually underwent 10 surgeries.

Speier said in a statement that her first run partly was in memory of Ryan.

“It was therapy. I didn’t want to be a victim the rest of my life,” she said.

After losing that election, she won a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, where she served for six years. She then served 10 years in the state Assembly and in 1998, she was elected to the state Senate. There, she represented San Francisco and San Mateo County, but she left in 2006 because of term limits.

Speier lost a Democratic primary for lieutenant governor of California that year, finishing in second place with 39 percent of the vote, compared with California insurance commissioner John Garamendi’s 43 percent. She then worked as an attorney at the law firm Hanson Bridgett LLP.

Speier announced her candidacy for Lantos’ vacated seat in mid-January after Lantos announced that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and would not be running for re-election.

“Perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay to Tom is to say Congressman Lantos was a great American,” Speier said.

Several politicians offered statements Wednesday congratulating Speier on her victory.

“Congresswoman-elect Speier is a strong leader and will be a committed advocate for the families of California’s 12th District,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Speier, 57, is co-author of a book, “This Is Not the Life I Ordered: 50 Ways to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Keeps Dragging You Down.”

Her first husband, Steve Sierra, was killed in a car accident, and Speier raised her two children, Stephanie and Jackson Sierra, by herself for eight years before marrying Barry Dennis, a San Mateo investment consultant, in 2001.