Nelson Edward Peacock
As assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Nelson Peacock keeps Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apprised of congressional concerns and issues. His friends say his smalltown background and politically involved family prepared him for the
‘It’s amazing how a little town like McCrory and Fayetteville and the people I met gave me everything I needed to get where I am.’
WASHINGTON — From a Woodruff County town of less than 2,000 to the halls of power in the nation’s capital, Nelson Peacock learned long ago that he wanted to be in public service.
It wasn’t that he ever saw himself in Washington — in fact, it seems far more likely that family, deep Arkansas roots, a certain sense of complacency and the Razorbacks could have easily kept him in Arkansas. But once he got to Washington in 1998 on a bit of a spontaneous urge to check out what was pulling so many fellow Arkansans, Peacock, now 42, quickly determined he was meant to stay.
At the time, Bill Clinton was in the White House, Peacock’s younger brother, Denver, was doing advance work around the world for the president and Hillary Clinton, and Peacock was practicing law in Little Rock. He felt as if he was watching a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass him by.
“It took me a little while to wake up and realize I had this great opportunity. ‘What am I doing?’” he asked himself.
The fact that the two brothers ended up a part of what was for many fortunate and ambitious Arkansans the whirlwind years of the Clinton presidency was not sheer happenstance. Peacock’s family’s political involvement goes back to his earliest memories. He grew up a child of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
Peacock was born in Fayetteville to Joe Nelson Peacock, who was then pursuing a law degree at the University of Arkansas, and Ann Reed Peacock, who taught at Farmington and Bentonville high schools. Upon the elder Peacock’s
graduation, the young family set up shop in McCrory — population 1,535 at 2009’s count — and opened the Peacock Law Firm. His mother wrote the title insurance, and until she died last year at 63, McCrory remained the Peacocks’ family home and gathering place.
Joe Peacock had been reared on a ranch in the even smaller town of Beedeville, in neighboring Jackson County, and Ann Peacock grew up on a strawberry and cotton farm in Bald Knob in White County. The couple met at a horse show. She was the rodeo queen; he was a barrel rider.
Nelson Peacock calls his childhood in McCrory “uneventful.” He was an athlete who excelled in basketball and golf. The Peacock boys were sociable, inviting friends over to play on the almost full-length football field they marked off on a lot adjacent to their house and hosting basketball games into the night. With the only dining-out option in town being a Tastee Freez, they were accustomed to family meals around the table at home.
Peacock did well in school and majored in business at the University of Arkansas, then followed in his father’s footsteps through law school in Fayetteville. “That was really the only place I was ever going to go because my parents went up there and loved it.” He was on track to become an Arkansas lawyer. THE CLINTON CONNECTION
In 1974, when Nelson Peacock was 5, Joe Peacock ran for the state House of Representatives and went on to represent McCrory for eight years; today, he is a member of the Arkansas Parole Board. In 1978, Bill Clinton launched a successful gubernatorial campaign, and Ann Peacock became a dedicated, lifelong supporter. She served as a regional campaign manager, campaigned and raised funds for him through each subsequent race, and ultimately saw both of her sons work for President Clinton. Clinton spoke at her McCrory funeral last year.
“We knew the Clintons ever since I was a little kid,” Nelson Peacock says. “I remember him coming to the house with the state trooper. Denver and I would go out and play in the state trooper’s car. Obviously, we had no idea that he was ever going to become president.”
Or as Denver Peacock elaborates on behalf of his modest older brother, “Obviously, we didn’t know back then that some day the family connection would lead to opportunities for both of us to serve our country working for a president from Arkansas — and in Nelson’s case, he’s now served in two presidential administrations.”
When he first moved to Washington, Nelson Peacock enrolled in the George Washington University School of Law for a master’s of law degree. School gave him the flexibility to travel to do advance work for the president when called, as did his first federal appointment as deputy director for intergovernmental affairs at the Justice Department. In that role, he coordinated the relationship between Attorney General Janet Reno and law enforcement and other officials at the state and local levels, as well as the interest groups that worked on their behalf.
Peacock’s friends from Arkansas agree the department was a good place for Peacock to start.
“I have always thought Nelson had a strong sense of right and wrong, a feeling of what is justice, what side to get on, so I’ve always respected that about him,” says former state Rep. Will Bond, a friend of Peacock’s since law school and today the Democratic Party of Arkansas chairman.
When Peacock first moved to Washington, he and Jan Williams, then working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were roommates. They had been friends since college.
“Once he got into Justice, he knew how to work well with the career people, which is key being a political appointee,” says Williams of Little Rock. “He’s a proud Arkansan, he’s never gone up there and tried to hide being from Arkansas. I think a lot of people don’t do that.”
‘As far as being better prepared, it’s night and day compared to where we were.’
On the other hand, in some ways Peacock’s friend Bond is surprised he has lasted as long as he has in Washington.
“Nelson used to be an avid duck hunter, and they don’t do a lot of that up in D.C., so I’m not sure I thought he’d ever leave Arkansas.”
FROM CLARK TO BIDEN
As tends to happen with political jobs, when Al Gore lost the presidential election to George W. Bush in 2000, Peacock and most of his colleagues in the Clinton administration lost their jobs. Together with his former boss at the Justice Department, Brian de Vallance, Peacock tried his hand in the private sector, seeking to develop a technology that would assist law enforcement personnel in staying better connected. The venture didn’t pan out, so, enticed by the chance to make good on a dream of working for a presidential candidate from Arkansas, Peacock headed up advance work in New Hampshire for retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign.
“I always felt a bit cheated because I didn’t get in on the ground floor with Clinton,” he recalls. “I wanted to give that a shot, so I did.”
After Clark withdrew from the race, Peacock learned from Hunter Biden, who had worked in the Commerce Department under Clinton, that his father, then-Sen. Joe Biden, was hiring staff for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The job was perfect for him, Peacock says. Again signing on to work for someone he knew was wellregarded in Washington but had no way of foreseeing would become vice president, Peacock became senior counsel for Sen. Biden, which involved legislative work in subjects that had become integral to Peacock’s career: law enforcement, crime and homeland security. He also worked on intellectual property rights and patent reform issues and the confirmations of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. Hanging on his wall at the Department of Homeland Security today is the accomplishment of which he is most proud: shepherding the passage of the PROTECT Our Children Act (Providing Resources, Officers, and Technology To Eradicate Cyber Threats), which President George Bush signed into law in 2008.
“That bill is probably my crowning achievement,” Peacock says. “It’s a bill about going after child predators and was actually featured on Oprah. Most of the work there didn’t bear any fruit legislatively, but that’s just the way it is; it’s hard to get something passed. So we were really lucky to get that through.”
Vice President Biden acknowledges Peacock played a significant role in the bill’s success.
“Nelson was an invaluable asset to my team on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Biden said. “During his five years as my senior counsel, his political and legal insights were essential in creating and passing numerous bills, including the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008. It is no surprise that the effective leadership and passion for public service he demonstrated while on my staff has led him to further success at the Department of Homeland Security.”
Through his friendship with Hunter Biden and growing relationship with Joe Biden (including campaigning for him for two weeks in Iowa during the 2008 presidential campaign) Peacock says he became close to the family. He has taken the train to the Biden home in Wilmington, Del., for celebrations and to brief the senator. Peacock says he is grateful for the chance to have worked for Biden.
“You become part of their extended family; you just believe in the cause,” he says. “It was great to work for him because he had so much bipartisan credibility that when he came out and did something, everyone kind of knew that it was coming from a good place.”
Perhaps the bipartisan perspective Peacock so appreciates was contagious. Three years ago, he married Susan Sheybani of Mission Viejo, Calif., at the time a communications director for the National Security Council and previously an assistant press secretary for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. Their wedding fell on the August 2008 weekend bookended by the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
“I’ve said that a California Republican is about like an Arkansas Democrat,” Peacock says. Today, she is an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm, where her clients include the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the undersecretary for defense intelligence. In April, the couple welcomed a daughter, Lily Ann Peacock, named after his mother. HOMELAND SECURITY Toward the end of Biden’s term in the Senate, Peacock’s portfolio increasingly encompassed homeland security, including port and rail security issues. As Joe Biden was moving into the vice president’s office, Peacock served on the transition team for incoming Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, appointed while serving a second term as Arizona governor. Peacock had remained close with Brian de Vallance, his former boss at the Justice Department, and then-Gov. Napolitano’s director of federal relations. At Homeland Security, de Vallance became her senior counselor.
Peacock says he was attracted to the opportunity of working directly with a cabinet secretary, particularly Napolitano, whom he knew and admired. In March 2009, he joined the department as deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs, and in August 2010, President Barack Obama appointed him assistant secretary for legislative affairs.
In this role, he serves as liaison between Congress and Napolitano, to whom he directly reports. He is the first point of contact for members with homeland security-related concerns, and he often accompanies the secretary on travel to districts and meetings with members as her principal advisor on relevant legislation and members’ interests.
“He is a great leader and brings a sense of calmness and focus to a department that can quickly be pulled in thousands of directions,” says Michael Stroud, a deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs. “Nelson is able to assess situations and present cogent and coherent, as well as politically practical, solutions to the problems faced by the department. I would also say that Nelson’s faith in other people’s abilities is what makes his team do the best they can for him — they don’t want to let him down.”
Napolitano says Peacock’s job demands that he juggles the tasks of working directly with lawmakers key to certain issues and appropriations, preparing her and other staff for giving congressional testimony, and keeping up with the 108 congressional committees that have oversight over different components of the department.
“He has a very good sense of how to rank things in terms of importance, how to strategically approach large issues and how to work that line between the executive branch and the legislative branch, how to build a bridge across those things,” Napolitano says.
With today’s 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Peacock has been preparing Napolitano for congressional hearings evaluating the department’s improvements in preparedness.
“We just issued a report on 10 years since 9/11, and it has all the things that this department has done that would have prevented a 9/11 attack if we had had this in place then,” he says. “As far as being better prepared, it’s night and day compared to where we were.” In particular, he says, different people and different agencies with different information are significantly more adept at connecting the dots in data.
Sept. 11 continues to factor into the daily work of the 230,000 Department of Homeland Security personnel.
“For us, 9/11 is the reason this department was created, completely,” Peacock says. “None of us would be here working and doing the work that we’re doing without it.”
Last month, Peacock was able to bring his Arkansas and Washington lives together. Napolitano spoke at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and afterward had dinner with Peacock and his family and longtime friend Gov. Mike Beebe — the two were governors at the same time.
“It was a bit surreal in that my two worlds rarely collide,” Peacock says. “In D.C., I do a type of work that I feel is completely foreign to my friends and family back home, so this helped, I suppose, put a little context into what I do for them. Having that experience with my dad was the best part of it.”
Peacock says he doesn’t let football season go by without catching a Razorbacks game. And when he can’t make it home, he has a circle of Arkansans to call the Hogs with in Washington.
“If there’s a better or a more serious Razorback following in the mid-Atlantic, I’d be highly surprised,” says Rob Walker, who was special assistant to Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater during the Clinton administration and a college classmate of Peacock’s. “It’s something, especially up here, we all share. We kind of take pride in the people from Arkansas.”
So does Peacock: “It’s amazing how a little town like McCrory and Fayetteville and the people I met gave me everything I needed to get where I am.”