SHE’S ON TOP
If Terrorists Attack the City, She’s DC’s Field Marshal—and She’s No Shrinking Violet.
THE FIELD MARSHAL WHO WILL MAN-age DC's response if the nation's capital is attacked strides into a Senate committee room. She is in her uniform: long black jacket tailored at the waist and vented in back, black hip-hugging pants, black heels.
She surveys the scene. The police chief and fire chief, both of whom answer to her, are in dress blues and brass. The mayor, in trademark bow tie, is seated at the witness table. She confers with a colleague, applies lipstick and blush.
Margret Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice—a Charlie's Angel in the guise of a bureaucrat—is prepared for battle. Today she's on familiar terrain. She's here to defend the District's request for $250 million to prepare for terrorists armed with chemical weapons. She testifies with precision, a slight smile curling the corners of her mouth. The numbers and proposals roll out in comforting tones.
During the hearing, before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on DC, Mayor Anthony Williams turns to Kellems and tells the members, "She is the field marshal, the ultimate person responsible for making all this happen—she's doing a great job."
But if terrorists attack downtown DC, Kellems will find herself in a real battle, trying to manage a metropolis in chaos. Can a 35-year-old lawyer who never carried a gun and never served a day in law enforcement, who came to government through consulting, be the field marshal for DC's response to a terrorist attack?
Senator Mary Landrieu, who chairs the subcommittee, wonders whether the FBI and the CIA will report to her. "Who will be the senior authority at the joint-operations command center?" the Louisiana Democrat asks. The mayor points to Kellems.
After the hearing, I ask Landrieu who will be in charge. "It's an important question yet to be answered," she says. Even Kellems is uncertain about the field-marshal moniker, but she sounds certain should there be another attack: "We're ready."
TONY WILLIAMS HIRED MARGRET NEDelkoff Kellems in 2000 to manage a dysfunctional array of public-safety agencies, from police and prisons to fire and forensics. At nine o'clock on the morning of September 11, she found herself managing a city threatened by terrorist bombers.
She was at home on a conference call. The TV was on mute when she saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. "I have to go," she told the people on the phone. "Stay where you are. We are under attack."
She phoned her husband, Kevin Kellems, who had just started working at the Pentagon as director of strategic communications.
"Have you seen what's happening in New York?" she asked.
"We're watching it," he said. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know yet," she said. "I'll call you."
A car had come to their house in Kalorama to take her downtown. On the way, her pager went off. It was police chief Charles Ramsey.
"The Pentagon has been hit," he said.
"How bad?" she asked.
Speeding to police headquarters with lights and siren blaring, she tried to raise her husband by cell phone but couldn't get through. She went to the joint-operations command center on the fifth floor, where officials of the police and fire departments, the FBI, and the Secret Service were gathered.
Word was that three more airborne planes were unaccounted for, perhaps headed for Washington. Kellems spent the next hours watching TV screens, talking to the mayor at the city's emergency command center, and coordinating the evacuation of downtown DC.
The screens showed flames shooting from the side of the Pentagon where one of the airliners had hit. Kellems wondered if she would see her husband come out. People asked her about him, but she brushed them off. She was thinking about deploying cops and firefighters.
"I had to put my husband out of my mind," she recalls. "I could not be part of the situation."
Meanwhile, Kevin Kellems's office in the Pentagon had filled with smoke. He walked out of the building and along the bank of the Potomac River, crossed the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, and walked through the snarled traffic to police headquarters to find his wife. Police stopped him. He finally got through to the top-floor command center. It was noon. Out in the hall, they hugged and talked for a minute. She got him a ride back to the Pentagon and returned to work.
The city's response got mixed reviews, but Kellems claims victory. "They shut down the federal government without telling us," she says. "There were 200,000 people trying to leave downtown. In less than three hours, we had evacuated the city."
The day after the attacks, Tony Williams told Kellems to clear her calendar and set up a task force to prepare the city's response to an attack. A week later she and Chief Ramsey were in New York getting pointers from Mayor Rudy Giuliani's top lieutenants.
KELLEMS IS THE POSTER GIRL FOR THE Tony Williams revolution within the District government. Marion Barry was a master of politics with destructive personal habits who managed the city government into misery. Williams is not known for his political charm, but he is concentrating on hiring competent managers.
Tall and lanky, with long, red tresses, Kellems is a wholesome-looking beauty from the heartland—almost. Her father, a doctor, owned a dairy farm in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. Kellems majored in philosophy at Emory University and came to Washington in 1988.
"Loved it," she says in her brand new office in the John A. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, with a wall of windows looking out on the Commerce Department and the tip of the Washington Monument. "Never left."
She graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center, taking classes at night while working with the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton. The company had begun work on a series of contracts to evaluate the DC police department. Kellems wound up managing the police contract with the financial control board that Congress established to oversee the city. That's when she met Tony Williams, then the city's chief financial officer.
Critics say DC wasted millions on the Booz-Allen contracts for studies that gave the same answers to the same problems that people had been studying for decades. True or not, the contracts put Kellems in a position to become head of the newly formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. When the organization was about to expire in 2000, Mayor Williams appointed her deputy mayor for public safety.
"Historically," she says, "public safety has been a boys' club. I think it has worked well having me instead of another giant male ego."
Michael Rogers, former city administrator and now head of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, says DC's public-safety director is in a tough position. "The police and fire chiefs don't want to report to anyone but the mayor," he says. "But Margret has made a niche for that role."
Says Kathy Patterson, who chairs the city council's judiciary committee: "She can be a forceful advocate. That's different from directing the troops."
The biggest male ego she must direct belongs to police chief Chuck Ramsey, but Kellems has a chummy relationship with him, in part because she helped hire him before Tony Williams became mayor.
When I ask Kellems if she packs a gun, she quips, "Chief Ramsey says I won't pass the psych test."
When I ask Ramsey why she doesn't carry a gun, he replies, "You have to be careful when you start giving a gun to your boss. I did give her a badge."
SAY ANOTHER PLANE DROPS OUT OFthe sky and smashes into the Treasury building. Kellems would head for the joint-operations command center at police headquarters. It is a secure room for officials from the DC police, FBI, and Secret Service. Their "war room" has banks of computers and monitors that can display video conferences with the mayor or video from more than 100 cameras mounted all over DC. They could display maps of the city showing every school, church, and hospital.
"These are live, interactive maps so we can plot the point of impact, show the staging areas, plot the evacuation routes," she says, "all in real time."
Tony Williams would go to the emergency-operations command center in the Franklin D. Reeves building at 14th and U streets, Northwest. He'd probably declare a level-three state of emergency. He and Peter LaPorte, director of the Emergency Management Agency, would direct the civilian response, while Kellems handled the law-enforcement side.
The District is a relatively small city surrounded by two states and confused by a crazy quilt of law-enforcement agencies within its borders. From the command centers, Kellems and other mayoral aides would be in contact with 28 police agencies in DC along with fire and police departments in surrounding jurisdictions.
The fire department would set up an incident command at the site. "We are the only fire department in town," Kellems says. If necessary, she would call in Fairfax County's search-and-rescue squad to find casualties.
The Department of Health would set up environmental-testing equipment at the scene. Hospitals would be contacted. Kellems would call the medical examiner to set up a morgue.
Kellems would have to coordinate bringing in fire trucks from the suburbs, if necessary, while the city was being evacuated. Traffic lights would be set for outbound rush-hour timing. Police and National Guard would be deployed to 120 intersections.
On September 11, DC's communications were abysmal. The mayor was invisible, buried in the command center; he had been ill and was not feeling well enough to face the cameras. He'd been so sick the night before that he was still at home when the plane hit the Pentagon. So it fell to Kellems, city administrator John Koskinen, and Chief Ramsey to go on TV and reassure citizens that the city was safe and the government in control. Kellems became the District's face on TV. Next time, the city promises a steady flow of information by radio, TV, and all other media available.
"We have a plan," Kellems says. "We just have to pull the trigger."
Sounds like Kellems is spending too much time around cops. *