Rep. Jackie Speier, a staunch defender of women’s rights during her 13 years in Congress, will retire at the end of her term rather than seek reelection next year.
“It’s time for me to come home,” the California Democrat said in a two-minute video posted on social media. “Time for me to be more than a weekend wife, mother and friend.”
Speier, 71, opened the video with a reference to the anniversary of her near-death experience at the infamous Jonestown in Guyana, where Speier, then a Capitol Hill staffer, was shot by members of the Peoples Temple cult in 1978.
“Forty-three years ago this week, I was lying on an airstrip in the jungles of Guyana with five bullet holes in my body,” she said. “I vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to public service. I lived, and certainly it’s been a remarkable journey that has surpassed my wildest dreams.”
Speier’s retirement comes after a series of departures from Democrats, including several of their longest-tenured and highest-ranking members, as the party faces long odds of maintaining its majorities after the 2022 midterm elections.
Speier holds senior positions on the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and chairs subcommittees on both. She also sits on the Oversight and Reform Committee.
Republicans need a net gain of five seats to flip the House, and Democrats head into 2022 with several disadvantages, including the historic midterm trend of voters rejecting the party in control of the White House and a redistricting cycle that favors Republicans overall.
Speier’s decision could feed into the GOP’s attempt to portray Democratic incumbents as despondent about their midterm chances.
“Jackie Speier knows Democrats’ time in the majority is coming to an end, so she made the smart choice to retire,” Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
But her departure is unlikely to provide the GOP with a pickup opportunity. She has consistently won reelection to her Bay Area seat south of San Francisco with more than 75 percent of the vote. President Joe Biden won her 14th District by 57 points in 2020. The partisan makeup of the seat appeared unlikely to change based on the first draft of California’s new congressional map released last week.
Focus on sexual assault
Speier, the chair of the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, has long been a champion of combating sexual assault in the military, and her retirement comes as serious overhauls pick up steam in Congress.
But it wasn’t always that way. Speier first introduced legislation to curb sexual assault in the ranks in 2011. Her bill, the STOP Act, would have removed the handling of military sexual assault cases from the chain of command and created a new, autonomous office to handle such claims. It would take a decade for the legislation to find broad support among lawmakers.
Along the way, Speier shared her own experiences with sexual assault. In October 2017, as an increasing number of women recounted stories of harassment and assault using the #MeToo hashtag on social media, Speier alleged in a Twitter video that a senior staffer had assaulted her when she worked on Capitol Hill.
“I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside,” she said in the video.
But now, Speier’s efforts are getting results. Last year, she introduced legislation known as the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, which had 187 bipartisan co-sponsors.
The bill would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include a standalone sexual harassment offense and remove investigations of sexual harassment and assault claims from the chain of command — a seismic shift in how the military handles such proceedings.
In May, Speier reintroduced the legislation. And in September, House lawmakers adopted a slate of Speier’s amendments to the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that would overhaul the military justice system, including establishing an independent committee to review prosecutorial decisions in sexual assault and harassment cases.
In the Senate, lawmakers are considering similar proposals in their version of the NDAA. One, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would change how the military makes prosecution decisions on most felonies. The other, led in the Senate by Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., would task new, independent prosecutors’ offices with handling sexual crimes in the ranks.
‘Sense of urgency’
Speier’s sexual assault disclosure was not her first personal revelation made to underscore the stakes in a political battle. In 2011, she announced on the House floor that she had undergone a second-trimester abortion two decades earlier, after she was told the baby would not survive. She used the experience to buttress her argument that such decisions should be made solely by women and their doctors.
She has also pushed for equal pay and more women-owned small businesses in government contracting, and against nonconsensual pornography, often called “revenge porn.”
Speier’s career in politics began while she was a freshman at the University of California, Davis, when California Democratic Rep. Leo J. Ryan offered her an academic internship that became a job on Capitol Hill. Speier accompanied Ryan on a trip to Guyana to investigate reports of human rights abuses in Jonestown.
While Ryan’s party helped defectors board a plane to leave Jonestown, cult members opened fire on them, and Ryan and several others were killed. Speier had to undergo 10 surgeries and still has two bullets in her body.
The Jonestown nightmare, and other personal travails, gave her what she calls a “sense of urgency” in both life and politics.
Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.