Seen in East Palestine: Buttigieg, Giuliani and a total political circus
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Pete Buttigieg rolled into this deep-Republican village in his government-issued SUV on Thursday, looking to address the public uproar over this month’s toxic train wreck.
He found a community where the circus had arrived.
Former President Donald Trump had visited the day before, offering pallets of self-branded “Trump Water” and seeking to energize his 2024 campaign. A producer for Sean Hannity was in town later Thursday, buttonholing locals during happy hour at The Original Roadhouse. Rudy Giuliani was in town too, for some reason.
And people living in East Palestine said they were unsure about many things — whether the water was safe to drink, whether to remain in their homes, how to explain their headaches and bloody noses. And what to think about the VIPs making appearances in their hometown.
“They come for an hour or so, and they leave,” said Nora Wright, an assistant director for area nursing facilities, describing the “publicity stunts” by visiting politicians. “They don’t find out how we feel.”
“I don’t trust the government,” said Joe Botinovch, a self-employed flower shop owner who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but is shopping for a different candidate now and likes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He, too, hasn’t enjoyed the sudden burst of attention from former presidents and presidential candidates.
“The only presidents I want to see are dead presidents in my wallet,” he said. “They’re using East Palestine like China and Russia and the U.S. are using Ukraine. It’s a proxy war.”
Buttigieg, who offered a public mea culpa for not speaking up about the derailment sooner, said he could tell how frustrated people here are.
“You can sense, when you talk to local leaders and local residents, that they’re getting pretty sick of the politics,” President Joe Biden’s Transportation secretary said in response to a question from POLITICO during a half-hour news conference near the accident site.
The politics showed no signs of leaving, though.
The Feb. 3 derailment by the 150-car Norfolk Southern train triggered a flaming wreck, spewed plumes of black smoke and left lingering worries about the safety of the town’s air, water and soil, along with fierce GOP criticism of how Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation has responded to the disaster. The Biden administration, in turn, has pointed to actions by the Trump-era DOT that weakened safety standards for trains carrying hazardous chemicals — although Buttigieg has expressed hope that Republicans will now embrace tougher regulations.
The unusually persistent glare of national attention has brought a trail of big-name and less-than-famous visitors to East Palestine.
Hannity’s producer, for example, was asking residents whether Buttigieg’s visit had made a difference — though none of them had witnessed it.
Giuliani, who was gathering social media content and audio for his Common Sense podcast, gaggled with local reporters, tooled around town with a crew of hangers-on and met with East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway. (A Giuliani groupie handed a local two $100 Sparkle grocery gift cards.)
Conaway, a registered Republican, also met with Buttigieg. He said he and the DOT leader bonded over their shared experience as Midwestern mayors, and had a “productive meeting.”
Outside a Rite Aid, a TikTok and YouTube user from Columbus who gave his name only as Xkitzo was broadcasting live from the parking lot, with his phone ensconced on a tripod.
The environmental activist Erin Brockovich arrives for a town hall Friday.
None of this has ended the tide of rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding the derailment, Conaway said in an interview.
“There’s continuing misinformation,” the mayor said, calling the municipal water safe to drink. He also dismissed the persistent, unfounded rumor that a controlled burn of the train’s toxic cargo of vinyl chloride — one that produced a large plume and forced residents to evacuate — was unnecessary and reckless. (One local TV report on the incident produced a headline that went viral: “We basically nuked a town with chemicals.”)
“There were only two options,” Conway told POLITICO of the train’s payload. “It was either it blew up or we blew it up.”
Mistrust was not hard to find, though.
Wright, the assistant nursing director and a mother of six grown children, said she doesn’t feel safe in her childhood home, which is within a mile of the derailment site, so she is letting the bank take it.
“If you walk into my house right now, you can smell it,” she said, describing the sulfur-like odor that lingers from the controlled burn. Her chest hurts. She has a sore throat. “I try to not spend too much time here.”
Wright also won’t drink the water here, even though Environmental Protection Agency leader Michael Regan and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine drank from the taps earlier this week to instill public confidence in the quality of EPA testing.
Neither will Courtney Miller, a mother of two, who lives with the train tracks in her backyard. She rose to viral fame after throwing a rock into a stream behind her house, turning up an oily glisten, and appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox.
On Thursday, she posed with Giuliani and recorded content for his podcast as he visited her home, decorated with “God, Guns, and Trump” and “Fuck Biden — Not My President” banners.
Signs posted through East Palestine’s downtown also capture the divided mood.
“Closed until further notice,” said a construction-paper sign on the door of a knickknack boutique called Mama’s Attic. It added that after the derailment, “my family is trying to pick up the pieces.”
“We are East Palestine,” reads another sign in town. “Get ready for the greatest comeback in American history.”
Buttigieg, who published a 224-page book called “Trust” three years ago, offered some explanations Thursday for why it’s so absent here.
One reason, he said, is the “national ideological layer” that some people have added to the derailment’s aftermath. “And there’s no question that there have been enormous amounts of both information and misinformation injected into this situation, none of which is to the benefit of the community.”
East Palestine is solidly Trump country — in 2020, the former president won 72 percent of the vote in surrounding Columbiana County. The only thing more ubiquitous here than Trump signs are the workers in bright yellow vests who dot the village.
But on this too, not everyone agrees.
Amy Britain, a Democrat and a retired physical therapy assistant, pulled through the Rite Aid parking lot to pick up some donated bottled water. She was happy about Buttigieg’s visit but rolled her eyes at Trump’s, and at the national coverage implying that the former president is the only politician welcome in the village where she grew up.
“We’re a microcosm of what’s going on in the entire country,” she said.
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