Buttigieg Bashing Over Response to Ohio Derailment Turns Bipartisan

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden called several officials during his trip to Poland on Tuesday for an update on an Ohio train crash that released toxic chemicals after his administration’s response to the derailment has come under fire from both parties.

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Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, called for US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a Democrat, to be fired. Some on the left have also publicly raised concerns. That included David Sirota, a former speechwriter for Senator Bernie Sanders, who urged people to keep pressuring Buttigieg to deliver on his promises.

The administration defended Buttigieg late last week, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying the president had “absolute confidence” in him. Buttigieg has pushed back against some critics, including Rubio, in alleging they had sided with the railroad industry’s attempt to block safety measures.

The White House on Tuesday evening said Biden had made five calls for an update on the derailment of the Norfolk Southern Corp. train and how the Environmental Protection Agency was holding “Northern Southern accountable.”

On his list were EPA Administrator Michael Regan; Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine; Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Bill Johnson, both of Ohio; and Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania.

The criticism of Buttigieg, from the right and left of the American political spectrum, underscores the fact that he is in an unusual position for the head of the Department of Transportation, which is usually an obscure post. He’s now at the center of a firestorm over the derailment at the same time much of Washington assumes the former presidential candidate will again seek higher political office.

There’s never been a secretary of transportation with “surefire national ticket ambitions,” said Jeff Davis, senior fellow for the independent Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank in Washington. That has Republicans trying to damage him and “progressives wanting to ding him up as insufficiently anti-business” before a possible Democratic primary.

Earlier this year, Buttigieg also faced political attacks from both sides for his agency’s handling of an air travel meltdown around Christmas involving Southwest Airlines Co.

Now the issue is the crash involving the Norfolk Southern train that derailed while carrying hazardous materials on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, setting off a fire with smoke across town and worries from the community. The Biden administration has come under increasing pressure amid reports that residents have been dealing with headaches, lingering odors and deaths of animals.

“Shifting blame and avoiding responsibility — a Buttigieg special,” Representative Brian Babin, a Texas Republican, tweeted Tuesday. “Under his supervision, our transportation industry is in complete disarray. I will be holding him accountable.”

Rubio took it a step further, saying in a tweet that Buttigieg is incompetent and should be dismissed.

In a reply to Rubio’s tweet, Buttigieg essentially called him a shill for the railroad industry and asked him to toughen safety rules and fines. He declined to comment further, the DOT said.

Former supporters of Sanders’s presidential campaigns who see Buttigieg as potential candidate likely to run in the mold of Biden have also called out the transportation secretary, even as he announced plans on Tuesday to call on railroads to protect workers who report safety issues and expedite their introduction of safer tanker cars.

“After two weeks of scrutiny, he’s gone from silence, to ‘I’m constrained’ to ‘I’m a fighter!’,” Sirota tweeted Tuesday. “Seems the pressure is working. Keep it up — it’ll be necessary to force him to actually deliver on this rhetoric.”

Buttigieg also called on Congress to boost the maximum fines the department can impose on rail companies for violating safety regulations and to increase spending to expand hazardous materials training for first responders.

He has rejected suggestions that he is aiming for a future political run, including recently swatting away speculation about himself running for a US Senate seat in Michigan that is expected to be open in 2024 with the planned retirement of Senator Debbie Stabenow. He dismissed some of the latest criticism he has received about the Ohio derailment as “just politics.”

“I can’t help but notice that some of the people who hastened to be on TV talking about this have sided with industry when industry was trying to block or weaken rail safety standards,” Buttigieg told reporters on a call Monday.

He added there is an opportunity in the wake of the Ohio derailment “leaving aside the politics for anyone on either side of the aisle to join us in raising the standard of accountability and safety.”

“If folks are serious about this, Republican, Democrat or Independent, I will work with them to raise the bar and the rest is just politics,” he said, noting he has plans to visit plans to East Palestine soon.

--With assistance from Lillianna Byington and Justin Sink.

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