It took nearly three weeks for U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make time to come to the scene of a Feb. 3 toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just minutes from the Pennsylvania border.
Former President Donald Trump, hauling thousands of bottles of “Trump Water” along the way, made the trip before Buttigieg did.
But it took less than three days for “Mayor Pete” to travel to Philadelphia and hold a press conference at the site of the I-95 bridge collapse, letting affluent suburbanites know he was on the job.
“This tragic crash is having an outsize impact on commuters and goods moving up and down the I-95 corridor,” Buttigieg told the press. “It’s a key artery for the movement of people and goods. That’s why it’s important to get this restored quickly.”
Why did Buttigieg clear his calendar for a Philly visit after waiting so long to show up in rural, red-state Ohio? DVJournal asked him that question at Monday’s press conference.
“When I went [to East Palestine], I decided to break from the precedent, the norm, that generally transportation secretaries don’t go to active response sites,” Buttigieg said. “Part of what I found was important — especially when you saw all the politicization and misinformation that the people of East Palestine had to deal with — is that we’re just in a new world in terms of the importance of presence to help make sure everybody understands what is happening, the coordination that is happening, the teamwork that’s happening.
“And so, in the same way that I value the ongoing conversation that I have with people I spend time with on the ground in East Palestine, I value the opportunity to be both on the ground and coordinating over the phone with everybody who’s involved in the [Philadelphia] response.”
Buttigieg’s claim that his learning curve covers the disparity was met with skepticism. Critics argue the slow response in East Palestine was more evidence that rural, largely White communities are a low priority for the East Coast elites who dominate the Democratic Party.
In February, CNN reporters tried to downplay criticism of Buttigieg’s absence. “Former President Trump is going to Ohio today,” reported CNN anchor Poppy Harlow. “East Palestine, to be specific, the site of the toxic train wreck in a county where he won more than 70 percent of the vote in 2020… the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, hasn’t been yet. Trump capitalizing on that?”
The Washington Post noted at the time that Trump carried East Palestine with nearly 70 percent of the vote. It quoted former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (D), “who said that what he described as the slow response from the federal government reinforced the idea that officials in Washington don’t care about voters in Ohio.”
“You want to show the people in that community … that when something like this happens that their government is able to react in an effective and efficient way, in an immediate way,” Ryan said. “The feedback we’re hearing from the community, people in the community, is that nobody cared.”
On the other hand, Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold along the Acela corridor and a large contingent of Black voters — a key part of the coalition that made Biden his party’s nominee and, eventually, president. Biden, who at age 80 rarely travels for politics, has already made multiple stops in the area since taking office. And he is scheduled to appear in Philadelphia on Saturday, where he will receive the AFL-CIO’s endorsement.
The class divide and partisan politics are obvious, Republicans say.
“Pothole Pete continues to play politics as he flirts with battleground state Pennsylvania while turning a blind eye to solidly red Ohio,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Rachel Lee. “Buttigieg’s political aspirations have long been clear, and voters know exactly where his true priorities lie.”
State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) took issue with Buttigieg’s claim that he had to appear in person to address “politicization and misinformation.”
“The genuine fear and concern from the residents affected by the train derailment were never about politics or ‘misinformation,’” Mastriano said. “My Senate committee (veteran’s affairs and emergency preparedness) held the first hearing in the nation to hear testimony from those folks. They expressed fears that they may never feel comfortable living in their communities again.
“I’m pleased to see that Mayor/Secretary Pete visited the I-95 site so quickly,” added Mastriano. “But it shouldn’t have taken him over 20 days to come to East Palestine to tour the disaster zone and hear the concerns of the residents.”
Kim Bedillion, president of the Pennridge Area Republican Club, noted Buttigieg’s lack of experience and what many see as a troubled record ionthe job. “One would hope that Secretary Buttigieg’s relatively speedy response to the I-95 overpass collapse when compared to his three-week delay in visiting East Palestine is not politically motivated, but considering that East Palestine has a Republican mayor and Philadelphia is decidedly Democrat, politics may very well have played a part.”