By ANDREW MCGINN
The Midwestern work ethic is already legendary, but Nicole Peckumn has been setting the bar impossibly high the past few weeks.
The Jefferson native paused for a moment last week during a conversation from her current office in the District of Columbia — a building within sight of the U.S. Capitol — and quickly added up the hours she planned to submit on her time card.
Roughly 184 hours, she calculated.
For two weeks.
“I’ll submit 184 and get paid for 80,” Peckumn, 41, explained, describing the life of a salaried civil servant at a time of literal death and destruction in her adopted city, a place she loves referring to as the home of democracy for the world. “You work until the job is done, and our job is definitely not done.”
A 1997 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School whose career has been one of strategic messaging amid chaos, Peckumn is the interim deputy communications director for Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, the mayor who has rocketed to national attention in recent days for her stand against the use of federal personnel by the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to confront demonstrators protesting the killing of black Americans by police.
That has given Peckumn an insider’s view as history unfolds.
“Everybody,” she said, “should be very concerned, regardless of their political party, what happened in the District of Columbia.”
Peckumn already had been working seven days a week since March 13 as part of the District’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — an all-hands-on-deck situation involving more than 60 local agencies as residents (the city’s black residents, in particular) were sickened by the hundreds.
“It’s been staggering,” she said, referring to a death toll of 475 as of June 4, with 9,120 cases, in a city of about 705,000 residents.
Then, without warning, the nation collectively erupted in anger at the sight of George Floyd — a black man accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a corner store — being killed on camera by a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
His death was ruled a homicide.
Bowser’s office was suddenly forced to contend as well with some of the worst civil unrest since the 1960s and, to top it all, a brewing constitutional crisis.
“We’re simultaneously handling two events at once,” said Peckumn, whose primary job is to ensure that the messaging emanating throughout the city’s myriad agencies is consistent and accurate, and that their social media content is aligned.
COVID-19 alone was a challenge.
“Public health and science can be hard for the public to understand, especially when you’re dealing with a novel virus no one has seen before,” she said. “There is no playbook that says, ‘If X happens, Y will occur.’”
On this particular day, Peckumn was on her 84th straight day of work.
But no one on the mayor’s executive team is likely to ever forget the events of June 1, 2020.
As Peckumn explained, what happened that day in D.C. should concern every citizen from sea to shining sea.
She admittedly felt queasy watching on live TV as armored federal personnel forcefully dispersed a crowd of protestors — people who, by most reports, had been peacefully standing or kneeling just moments before — with a barrage of pepper balls and smoke canisters in order to accommodate what will likely go down as the decade’s most infamous photo op.
The protestors were cleared so that President Donald Trump could get his photo taken holding up a Bible outside historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged on a previous night by people “with ulterior motives,” as Peckumn put it.
The Associated Press reported that during one of those previous nights of unrest outside the White House, Secret Service rushed Trump to a protective bunker.
He eventually emerged with defiance on June 1, blasting the nation’s governors as “weak” and declaring himself the “president of law and order,” vowing to deploy troops to cities nationwide to quell protests.
Later that day, low-hovering National Guard helicopters dusted protestors in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to intimidate them, blow them away or both.
The events triggered an extraordinary response from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reminded his commanders in a memo dated June 2 that Americans have the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
“Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it,” Milley wrote, noting also that the nation’s joint force is “comprised of all races, colors and creeds.”
The use of low-flying helicopters is also under review by the District of Columbia National Guard, which Trump activated June 1.
Since 1878, federal law — thanks to the Posse Comitatus Act — has explicitly outlawed enforcement of civilian law by the military, which includes the Guard when in federal service.
In order to use the military as law enforcement, it’s believed the president would need to first be asked for help by a state’s governor, then invoke the 213-year-old Insurrection Act.
The military can also be used to enforce federal authority, like in 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched an element of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Ark., to uphold the court order desegregating a city high school.
But the District of Columbia isn’t a state. It’s a territory with limited self-government, meaning that Bowser’s authority can quite literally be Trumped.
“I was appalled by what I was seeing as peaceful protestors were pushed out of the way by federal law enforcement officers,” Peckumn explained. “It was not Metropolitan Police. I want to make that clear.
“You have a right in this country to peacefully protest. When I saw that, my stomach turned.”
The mayor’s office wasn’t sure who the federal law enforcement officers were on D.C. streets.
In a letter on June 4 to Trump, Bowser expressed concern that unidentified units were operating “outside of established chains of command,” despite no arrests the day before. And on June 5, she wrote to the governors of New Jersey and Ohio asking them to remove their National Guard personnel, which had been dispatched to Washington without Bowser’s knowledge.
Since relocating to D.C. in 2016, Peckumn has become an advocate of statehood for the District.
“It’s un-American that people who pay more in taxes than Wyoming and Vermont do not have a vote on Capitol Hill,” Peckumn said. “That’s how the president has been able to take unprecedented action this week.”
Peckumn, who credits growing up in Greene County with instilling in her a core set of values, initially moved to Washington to assist with strategic operational communications for Trump’s inauguration. Big events in the nation’s capital — everything from the Major League All-Star game to the March for Life — routinely activate the city’s emergency operations center, or EOC, enabling coordination and sharing of information across agencies.
By comparison, Greene County activated its first-ever EOC this spring during the pandemic.
“Because the District of Columbia is the home of democracy for the world, we take large gatherings seriously,” Peckumn said. “Democracy starts here.”
“We have First Amendment demonstrations that happen every single day,” she added. “That’s what makes this place amazing.”
Before being detailed to the mayor’s office a year and a half ago, Peckumn was chief of public affairs for the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Her entire career to date has been shaped in some way by crisis.
Graduating from Iowa State in 2002, her class was the first to fend for itself in an economy battered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Peckumn, who hoped to be a sports broadcaster, was just lucky to land a job in the post-9/11 journalism industry at all, working for two years as an assignment manager at Channel 13.
That led to a job with the Iowa Department of Public Health, where her title was “bioterrorism risk communication officer.” (Remember the anthrax scares?)
She still remembers trying to explain that new job to her Grandma Inez Peckumn in Bayard.
“I don’t know what that means,” she remembers Inez Peckumn saying. “You just be safe.”
Grandma Inez is now gone, but she’d undoubtedly say the same thing today.