Jackie Speier reflects on her storied legacy and what’s still ahead

‘Everyone is writing my epitaph, but I’m not done yet’

As someone who has spent her career working to amplify the voices of women, I’ve long admired the work of Congresswoman Jackie Speier. From her relentless fight against military sexual assault to her iconic, personal speeches on the House floor about abortion and harassment, Speier will leave behind a powerful legacy when she leaves Congress next year.

But she’s not done yet. “Everyone’s writing my epitaph,” she told me with a laugh when I asked her what she hopes her lasting impact will be. On the heels of her retirement announcement, I caught up with Speier to hear more about her accomplishments, the biggest issues still facing her district, and what she’s most excited to do next.

You’ve made incredible strides for women throughout the course of your tenure. What do you hope lawmakers accomplish in your stead? Well, I’m not done yet. There’s still work ahead. The work we’ve done on the status of women in the military, and taking their cases of sexual assault out of the chain of command, is poised to be incorporated in the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s a huge step in the right direction. I’m interested in making sure there’s a plan for compensation for those who are assaulted in the military. There’s an expectation that service members are going to be safe in their barracks and on their bases.

Do you feel confident that other female leaders will carry the torch? There’s an extraordinary group of young women leaders who blow me away. They are confident, strong and articulate, and they have their own agendas that they want to see. We have lots of incredibly capable women serving in the House and I’m excited to see what they do.

This week, the House passed the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill after months of negotiations. Is there anything in the legislation that specifically advocates for women? We made it clear early on that we wanted universal pre-K and a major expansion of child care. We need to put the infrastructure in place so women go back to work and garner the kind of income to meet the needs of their families. It’s a very expensive proposition in the Bay Area and California: about 30% of income goes towards child care costs for a family of four. The pre-K component will benefit 6 million kids across the country, with a savings of $8,000 per child per year. I hope to play a part in implementing all of that in the Bay Area.

Your district encompasses the southern part of San Francisco and the Peninsula. What are the area’s biggest unresolved issues, and what do you hope your successor can accomplish? We continue to have issues on sea level rise. The transportation quagmire continues. I was successful in getting funding for the Baby Bullet, which took 50,000 vehicles off Highway 101 and 280 before the pandemic. We still have a whole series of overpasses that have to be built, which are expensive. And I’m very concerned about the San Francisco Bay estuary. It’s the largest estuary on the West Coast, but we get a pittance compared to places like the Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. I certainly want to make a case for that and hopefully protect it into the future.

You joke that everyone is writing your epitaph, and that there’s still more to do. Why the decision to leave? There was a lot of shock when I made the announcement. Under normal circumstances I would have continued to serve, but I’m not the only one in the equation. I have a spouse who’s been extremely supportive, but I’m a weekend wife and a weekend mother and a weekend friend. It was time to come home and be engaged. I don’t know what that looks like exactly, but I still have a voice, and I intend to use it.

You’re leaving in the midst of one of the most divisive eras in American history. I’m anxious about what’s happening to this institution. I see the toxic and virulent nature of the discourse as deeply troubling. I’ve made a point to say that this is a fragile democracy. It’s very important for us to be vigilant, protective, and not take it for granted. I will continue to sound the alarm if I see us somehow spiraling into an abyss.

What has governing during such a turbulent time taught you about compromise? I’ve worked across the aisle on lots of legislation. It takes time. When I first introduced the military sexual assault bill, nobody supported me, not even Democrats. Now, 10 years later, it’s a bipartisan issue. You have to be in it for the long haul. Educate colleagues and make examples of opportunities that arise. When the MeToo movement occurred, I felt like that was an opportunity. I tried to get sexual harassment training in place before the movement, and I was laughed at. Not only do we do that now, but we have empowered victims of sexual harassment to be represented by attorneys.

As an Armenian American, what have you helped to elevate for the Armenian community during your time in Congress? We’ve had two really profound things happen. One was to have the Armenian Genocide Resolution passed by the House and Senate, which identified the genocide of Armenians in the early 20th century by the Ottomans and Turks. Our government historically tiptoed around that because it felt like Turkey was an ally. But right is right, and it got passed. This year, the president of the United States for the first time recognized April 24 as the time when we memorialize the Armenian Genocide. We’ve also been able to augment foreign aid to Armenia.

You still have a year left. When your term is over, what are you going to do first? I have no idea! I probably want to go on a vacation. Those are few and far between. Since it’s a year away, I have time to plan it. I’ve never been to Greece — I’d like to do that.

cschwartz@sfexaminer.com

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