Transcript: Rep. Jackie Speier 2008

Interivewing Congresswoman Speier – May 2008

Jackie Speier: Well, you know I started much like you did. I worked on my very first political campaign when I was 16 years of age, and I got the bug. Then life takes its course. I was the first in my family to go to college, but my universe of where to go was very limited. So I applied to two colleges, one was Stanford and one was UC Davis. I got rejected from Stanford. At that point my life was just in such disarray. How I could not go to my number one choice. Life has a way of just making things work out because, and I’m telling you this because you are all going to be part of this process in the not-so-distant future. Had I not gone to UC Davis, I would never have taken this track. Because I was 20 minutes from the state capital, I then became an intern, then became a staff assistant, worked for then-assemblyman Leo Ryan, who became Congressman Ryan. Just goes to show you, there’s a plan, we’re not always privy to it but there is a plan.

Jackie Speier: You probably have read my biography and know that I ran for this office 29 years ago, and lost. It took me a lifetime, a generation to come back here. Lots of things have happened in the interim, most of them pretty exciting some of them pretty sad. But I feel very fortunate to be in the position that I am now, to represent all of you in California, because my job is representing the district, representing California, and being a good steward for the United States of America. I had the opportunity yesterday to fly back from San Francisco on the Speaker’s plane, and it was kind of thrilling because I walked out onto the tarmac and there’s this plane that says “The United States of America.” “Oh my God, this is real!”

Public service is one of the highest callings. It is what has driven me all my life, and I don’t think there is a better profession, job, career than serving the public. I’ve done it all, I’ve worked in the private sector, and I’ve worked in non-profits, but this is really where you can transform peoples’ lives.

I used to say in California, where I was in the legislature, “We’re the sixth largest economic power in the world.” We’ve got 37 million people, and to think that I can come up with an idea and turn it into a bill, and convince a majority of the members in the senate, and a majority of the members in the assembly, and convince the governor, and really can make laws that affect 37 million people, change their lives. That’s huge. Now it’s a bigger scale, and I’m a much smaller fish in a very big aquarium, and time will tell whether I can have the same impact. But I urge any of you that are interested in a career in public service to pursue it. Do not be driven by money because that will not satisfy you over your lifetime. Ok?

So why don’t you ask me some questions.

Rachel Sunberg: I heard that you won the latest election with 78 percent of the vote. The fact that you won hands down was amazing, what do you think it was about your campaign, that made you connect with voters and allow you to win by such a huge margin?

Jackie Speier: In 2006 I ran for Lieutenant Governor of California. In the primary there were three candidates, one was the now Lieutenant Governor, John Garamendi, who had run five times before, there was another woman in the race, and I came within 2.9 percent of the vote of winning that democratic primary. In northern California I was winning by over 70 percent in many regions. I think when that happened, a lot of people would stop me and say, “Oh, my God, I never thought for a moment you weren’t going to win.” There was so much pent up interest in seeing me continue in government that it just made the race a much easier race, it was a very short race, and for all intents and purposes a pretty easy one. But it had a lot to do with what I had done before. I should probably make this point to you, success is never final, and failure is never fatal. You can’t be afraid to risk, you can’t be afraid to fail. I like to tell people that I’m a three-time loser. I lost for congress in 1979, I also lost for student body president in high school, and I lost for Lieutenant Governor. But in each of those experiences I learned so much that really prepared me for the next step.

When I ran for congress and lost, the following year I ran for the board of supervisors in San Mateo county, against someone who had been in office for 20 years. I beat him by 1800 votes, became the youngest member ever to serve on the board of supervisors. Had I not run for congress, and lost, I would not have been prepared. Now, had I not run for Lieutenant Governor, and lost, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity avail itself as it did with such overwhelming support. All the potential candidates that were going to run did polls, and saw that I was pretty unbeatable, so they didn’t run.

Naveen Hattis: So you’ve been here a very short time…

Jackie Speier: About a month.

Naveen Hattis: You were elected from Congressman Lantos, and I was wondering, do you feel like you need to fill his shoes? Do you feel like you need to follow the agenda, the path that he was on, or are you coming into the congress feeling like your plate is open and you can do whatever you feel is important to you?

Jackie Speier: I think it’s many-fold. In many respects I do want to pursue some of the work that Congressman Lantos did in terms of human rights. My lens that I look at human rights from is slightly different from his, in that I think it should be expanded to include women and children. The fact that 25,000 women get raped in the Congo every year is a human rights violation in my book, and I think we should be speaking out in issues like that. We should be speaking out about what is happening in Burma, and what’s happening in China. I will continue in his footsteps, and those are big footsteps to follow because he was the penultimate conscience of, not just the congress, but the world as it dealt with human right violations. I also see my role as being different. He was very focused on foreign affairs. I’m going to be much more focused on domestic policies because I think there are some huge issues right now going on in this country that must be addressed.

The issues surround healthcare, and the lack thereof, and the fact that people are going bankrupt because they have a healthcare crisis. That just shouldn’t be. I’m concerned about or economy, I’m concerned about the education system, and the fact that higher education is becoming out of the reach of most middle class families. I am concerned about the Iraq war, and I’m going to do everything in my power to get our men and women home quickly. I want to make sure we don’t forget them, because we’re great at beating our chests about the forces, but then when they come home we forget them. Eighteen veterans a day commit suicide. Numbers are astronomical and they’ve grown so much. That is a disgrace on a number of levels. Where are the mental health services? Why aren’t we providing the kind of assistance? This was a preemptive war; we went in in a manner that was egregious on so many levels. We’ve lost over 4000 men and women, we’ve been responsible for the killings of many hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the question is for what? I feel very strongly about getting our men and women home and providing those services long term. I want to see a G.I. bill that’s as robust as it was in 1945, which it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s ironic because some people here are saying, “Well, can we afford it? Well, did you ask that question when we went to war in the first place?” We’re spending about 350 million dollars a day in Iraq. Ok, so that was a long-winded answer to your question.

Student: The first time you ran for congress and lost, how did you deal with that failure? Did you feel you were going to just keep trying?

Jackie Speier: Failing is a very important part of success. When you think of Thomas Edison, he failed 30 times before he invented the light bulb. Abraham Lincoln lost 13 times before he became president. I haven’t brought it here, but I have a paperweight that I keep on my desk that reads, what would you do if you knew you could not fail. When you answer that question it’s very freeing, and it’s very empowering because I think all of us in our lives would do things slightly differently if we knew we wouldn’t fail. Now I remember looking at that paperweight when I was debating whether or not to run for Lieutenant Governor. I knew it was going to be tough, there was another woman in the race, she was going to draw votes away from me even though she wasn’t viable, I was running against someone who had run statewide five times before, and I looked at the paperweight. I said, “Of course I’ve got to run.” It was a great experience. So, you lick your wounds for about 20 seconds and you go on.

Hannah Meade: Do you still have the paperweight?

Jackie Speier: Yeah, I do. I meant to bring it, I still have boxes from my Senate office that I haven’t unwrapped, and I found it in one of the boxes and thought, “I’ve got to take this to D.C.”

Hannah Meade: We’d like to personally thank it at some point.

Bodhi Shaffer: From what I’ve read you are very, very devoted to public service, and what you’re passionate about. I’m wondering what got you in to the life of politics in the first place, what drove you there?

Jackie Speier: Whatever you do in your life, you should make sure you have a passion for it. You should feel it in your gut. You should not take the easy route. You should not do something because your parents want you to. Do what it is that you have a passion about. I got hooked because I worked on a campaign when I was 16. I think you can learn a lot about what you love by interning. If you think you’re interested in business you should go volunteer and work in some company. If you think you’re interested in law, go clerk in someone’s law office. Whatever it is, check it out and see if it really does make your heart sing as some people say. That’s how it happened for me, being in Sacramento as a legislative assistant while I was college was a thrilling experience, to see what you could get done. So that’s how it happened for me.

Andrew Whitaker: As I understand it, many issues which the government is forced to deal with are very complex, and people when they don’t understand something they tend to jump to the wrong conclusions, regardless of what the facts may actually be. Sometimes this makes them angry at politicians, so I’m wondering, how do you explain to them these complex issues, or if you can’t, how do you deal with that anger?

Jackie Speier: You’re not going to make everybody happy in anything you do in life. My job is to represent my district. It also is my job to interpret what I’ve learned about the people I’ve learned in my district, what they would want me to do, because they don’t necessarily always have all the answers. Now I’m struggling with a vote today on the Farm Bill. I’m really troubled by a process here called earmarking. When there’s lots of money that’s being put into bills for specific projects that benefit a small group of people that haven’t been properly vetted. For instance, one Congressman got a “bridge to nowhere,” it’s called, he’s in Alaska, he arranged, I heard over 200 million dollars in an earmark for this particular community, where 50 people live there. They have an airport on their island, but he got funding for a bridge so they could be able to travel from their island to the mainland. Well that’s abuse of the process, abuse of the office, and it’s a waste of taxpayer money. In any case there’s this bill up right now, there’s another vote about to take place, the Farm bill. The Farm bill has subsidies to farmers, and you can get a subsidy up to 40 thousand dollars, even if you made a couple million dollars this year. It makes you think, “Why are we still doing these direct subsidies?” Now in this particular bill there’s also expanded money for nutrition programs, expanded money for food pantries. There’s a provision that I think is very important that I think is going to demand country of origin labeling on all meats and fruits and vegetables. So what do I do? I hate the commodities and the direct payments. I like the other things, and it’s intentional. They put some sweeteners in with some stuff that is unpopular in an effort to convince us to do, what they believe, is the right thing. If I vote for the bill I will make some people happy, if I vote against the bill I make other people happy, but that’s the process that I’ve got to evaluate over the course of the next couple of hours.

Alexa Rosendale: From our research, and also just from our time here with you so far, I’ve noticed that you seem to speak your mind openly and do what you think is best. I was wondering if it ever backfired, or resulted in an unexpected way.

Jackie Speier: There’s lots of times when it probably has backfired, in a manner of speaking. When I was in the legislature, I worked on, I’ll talk about two issues. One was financial privacy. I thought that your financial information, and that of your parents, when they filled out an application for a credit card, or for a home loan, was for that purpose. The fact that these financial institutions, where they’re taking that information and selling them to third parties, didn’t make sense to me. I introduced a bill that said, “You’ve got to ask the consumer whether or not they want their information shared.” You can’t just do it without their consent. Well, the bill went through the process a number of years, and it always will get stuck in the assembly. Some of my colleagues there were uncomfortable because 90 percent of the public doesn’t want their financial information sold, but they wanted to appeal to the banks, and the credit card companies, and the insurance companies because they get campaign contributions. So they wanted to help them out, but they didn’t want to get hurt in their districts, so they started saying, “Well, if someone else was carrying the bill, it would have gotten through.” If someone else was carrying the bill they would have watered it down so it wouldn’t really do anything, and then everyone could be happy about it.

In the end I actually got the bill through the process and got it signed into law, but only after I threatened an initiative. And another time I was taking on the prison guards union, because I’m really troubled by the fact that we’ve got a 170,000 students at the University of California, and 170,000 inmates in sate prison, and we spend five times as much money on the inmate in state prison as we do the students at UC. Do you think that is right? Prison guards got a pay raise over five years of 37 percent; the professors at UC got a pay raise of two percent during that same time frame. So I took them on! I wanted that contract renegotiated, and I wanted them to not be running things in the prison system, and they didn’t like that. So they had their hand in that campaign that I was involved in for Lieutenant Governor. Didn’t have their fingerprints on it, but everyone believes that they were responsible for keeping that woman in the race that took about 17 percent of the vote.

Hannah Meade: Through our research we have noticed you have been dealt some pretty interesting cards in life, and I’m wondering, have you gained strength from those defining moments, or how have you dealt with them?

Jackie Speier: Oh they absolutely form who I am. At 28 I was shot and left for dad on a tarmac in Gyana, and when I survived I made a commitment to myself that I would never take another day for granted, and I would live every day as fully as possible, and I would dedicate my life to public service. Now fast forward, when I was taking on the prison guards union, and all my colleagues were saying, “Hey Jackie, we think it’s great that you’re doing it but we’re going to stay as far away from you as possible,” I said to myself, “You know, I’m in the best position to take them on because I’ve looked death in the eye.” Once you’ve done that you’re just not afraid. At another point in my life, my husband was killed in an automobile accident when I was pregnant with our second child, who is this one right there. A young driver ran a red light and careened into my husband’s car, and he was killed. So all of a sudden I was a widow with one five and a half year old son, and another on the way, and my husband had let his life insurance lapse, so I was within three months of personal bankruptcy, and I had to somehow pick myself up again.

Hannah Meade: That’s the title of your book, “This is not the life I ordered.”

Jackie Speier: 50 ways to keep your head above water when life keeps dragging you down, that’s right.

Bodhi Shaffer: I have a follow-up to that. Like you said, once you’ve looked death in the eye with the absence of fear, has that helped you do anything that you didn’t think you could do before?

Jackie Speier: Absolutely, because that’s why I say you can’t be paralyzed by fear, do not let it overtake you. I have been very lucky in my life, and these experiences where I’ve been tested have only helped me, because you just need to keep putting one step in front of the other.

Jasbir Nijor: So what is life’s statement you have for us?

Jackie Speier: I’ve just given you 20 minutes of it! Make sure that your reach exceeds your grasp, make sure that you try to achieve what you think you’re not capable of achieving. We’re absolutely able to do almost anything we put our minds to. I’ll tell you, when I was working as a staff assistant in the state assembly, I dreamed about becoming a member of the legislature but I never really thought I had what it took. We all have those little naysayers, sometimes they’re in our own families, sometimes they’re our friends. They say, “You don’t want to do that, or you can’t do that,” just listen to yourself, and one of the most important things you can do you with your life is be authentic. There will always be people that are going to try and shape you into something else. The most successful people, in my opinion, are people that are authentic. And don’t be afraid to fail!

Ward Maillard: You’re going to do really well here.

Jackie Speier: You’re going to do well! You’re really very impressive young people, really.

Students: Thank you.