It took nearly three weeks for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to go 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.
But it took less than three days for “Mayor Pete” to travel to Philadelphia and hold a news 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 said. “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? He was asked that question at Monday’s news 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 Democratic Party.
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, a Democrat, 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. Biden has 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.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican, 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. “I’m pleased to see that Mayor/Secretary Pete visited the I-95 site so quickly. 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.”