The East Palestine crisis is testing a Trump-backed senator

Late.  JD Vance (R-Ohio) delivers remarks as former President Donald Trump looks on at the fire station in East Palestine, Ohio on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

Late. JD Vance (R-Ohio) delivers remarks as former President Donald Trump looks on at the fire station in East Palestine, Ohio on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — As former President Donald Trump criticized the federal response to the train derailment that has rocked this Ohio town, there was one Washington leader he repeatedly praised — the man he helped drive to Congress, Sen. J.D. Vance.

“JD Vance has been incredible,” Trump told reporters and local officials Wednesday at an East Palestine firehouse as Vance stood behind him.

As a battle rages between Democrats and Republicans over the federal government’s role in the derailment’s aftermath, Vance, 38, has been at the center of it all. Some of his actions have been the conventional response of any seasoned politician. He has drafted letters urging federal officials for more oversight and met with some of the residents most affected by the derailment and chemical spill. But he has also joined far-right Republican figures in portraying the deep-red village in northeast Ohio as a forgotten place, taking a page from Trump’s book of policy complaints.

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“I grew up in a city that was neglected by the national media and was affected by a lot of stupid policies,” Vance said in a brief interview as he safely left the firehouse Wednesday. “I am concerned that unless we keep the pressure on the federal policy makers and the corporations that caused this problem, many people will be forgotten and left behind.”

The White House has pushed back at such criticism from Republicans, accusing both the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers of dismantling Obama-era rail safety measures that were supposed to prevent episodes like the East Palestine derailment. And at least one media critic has accused Vance of fanning the flames of white grievances by attacking the Biden administration as deserting white Americans.

For Vance, the reaction to the derailment could act as a turning point. It’s the first major crisis of his tenure as senator-elect, and it’s given him the chance to show voters who viewed him with skepticism during his campaign that he hasn’t strayed far from his humble Ohio roots .

The derailment has also given him an opening to address a theme that first brought national attention to his Senate ambitions: speaking up for working-class Ohioans, many of them white, who he has suggested have fallen victim to left-wing politics.

In one of his first campaign ads, he played straight to white grievances, looking at the camera and asking voters a question: “Are you racist?” He argued in the ad that Democratic voters were “flooding into this country” through uncontrolled borders, echoing “the great replacement theory,” the far-right notion that immigrants come to America illegally to usurp the political power of native-born whites voters. .

In a red state that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020, many residents of eastern Palestine and its surrounding towns did not follow the national back-and-forth over the government’s response as they worried about the potential effects of the spill. But they had followed Vance’s efforts to raise awareness of their plight in local media and approved of his handling of the crisis, though some said there was more work to be done.

“I think a lot of people are watching him right now to see how he handles it,” said Kayla Miller, 31, who owns a farm in nearby Negley. “I think he genuinely cares about our situation and cares about our city.”

Vance, a venture capitalist turned first-time politician, became an in-demand voice of the white working class after the publication of his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which explored his family ties to Appalachia and traced his path from humble origins in southwest Ohio to the military and later to Yale Law School.

When he returned to Ohio, he was initially seen as an outsider. He was funded by Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire, and had spent much of his time in San Francisco after leaving his home state. Ahead of the state’s May 2022 Republican primary, more than three dozen Republican county and state committee chairs urged Trump in a letter not to endorse Vance. They questioned his Republican credentials, noting that he had frequently denounced Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Vance has been a sharp critic of the Biden administration on inflation and border policies that largely fall in line with Republicans pushing for isolationism as the answer to the loss of American manufacturing jobs.

As residents weathered the derailment, Vance sent letters to the company that operated the freight train, Norfolk Southern, asking it to expand its criteria for reimbursements to residents beyond a 1-mile radius of the derailment zone.

He has worked with Republicans and Democrats – including two of the region’s top Democrats, Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania—to urge federal public health officials to provide resources to help the state monitor people’s health. They have also pushed federal environmental agencies to monitor the dangerous chemical compounds, or dioxins, that the derailment released into the region’s air and soil.

He has met with business owners and affected residents. He also visited a stream near the derailment site and released a video in which he used a stick to stir a film-like substance in the water, which he described as evidence of possible contamination.

“I just talked a lot with people on the ground here,” he said last week, speaking to reporters in the center of eastern Palestine. “Obviously, I’m more concerned about the public safety component of this. Is the air breathable? Is the water potable?”

On Wednesday, Vance reinforced his loyalty to the former president, even as some of Trump’s staunchest supporters now privately worry about his grip on the party and his chances of winning the presidency again. Vance and Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son, accompanied the former president as he stopped at local businesses to shake hands with customers and pass out Make America Great Again hats. In brief remarks at the fire station, Vance thanked Trump for visiting and bringing national attention with him.

“The most important thing we can take from this visit is that we cannot forget the people of East Palestine,” Vance told reporters.

He later said he believed Trump’s presence would help keep the pressure on federal officials to act. Asked about criticism from the White House about Republican opposition to rail safety measures, Vance said trying to politicize the issue would not help East Palestinian residents. According to the website PolitiFact, a rail safety rule repealed as part of a broad regulatory rollback under the Trump administration would have had no impact on the East Palestine derailment.

Vance and other Republicans have subtly stoked white resentment by portraying a largely white, rural and conservative area as neglected by federal officials. In a Fox News interview this month, he accused Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg of focusing on “how we have too many white male construction workers” instead of talking about the frequency of train derailments and rail safety.

On Wednesday, he dismissed the idea that he was playing to racial grievance. “I don’t know how I do it or anyone else does it,” Vance said outside the firehouse. “This is a community that has been affected by the problem and they deserve help.”

At the same time, Vance, far from East Palestine, has used his short time in the Senate to go on the offensive on race, accusing Democrats of injecting it into politics.

This month, he criticized Gigi B. Sohn, Biden’s nominee for the Federal Communications Commission, for playing into “this strange racialization of American political rhetoric in the last few years.” And in his campaign ad on the border, he criticized Democrats for calling people racist because they wanted to talk about Biden’s border policies and the impact those policies had on the opioid crisis, which has ravaged largely white, rural parts of the industrial Midwest and across the nation.

Residents of East Palestine said that before the freight train derailed on Feb. 3, many Ohioans seemed to know little about their hometown, which sits just below the manufacturing center of Youngstown, near the Pennsylvania border. Now the village of 4,761 in a red county, handily won, Vance has been in the national spotlight.

The crisis has spurred residents to have complicated feelings about the need for government oversight, but many said federal agencies should take a bigger role and hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

In interviews this week, several residents said they had developed coughs or strange rashes, and some had pets die. Miller and her husband, Chase Miller, said they had lost two chickens and three rabbits and several livestock had become ill. One of the main side effects of a released gas, vinyl chloride, they read, is cancer.

“So, in five years, will I have liver cancer? Will I be able to see my kids graduate?” she said.

Her husband added: “My biggest concern is that they’re going to forget Negley, they’re going to forget the local towns that the water runs to.”

State and federal officials have said they have not yet detected dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water, and testing is continuing.

Leaving a grocery store with stacks of water bottles Monday, Butch Foster, 76, a farmer and former school custodian, said he refused to leave his home after the spill until federal officials declared the air safe to breathe. But after spending some time outside, he noticed black mucus coming out of his nose, so he didn’t want to drink the municipal water.

Foster had seen the video of Vance touching the water in the creek. He said the senator had done a good job of raising his and other residents’ concerns.

“I just know they have to do more,” he said.

© 2023 The New York Times Company

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