East Palestine Crisis Tests a Trump-Backed Senator

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — As Donald J. Trump criticized the federal response to the train derailment that has shaken this Ohio town, there was one leader in Washington he praised repeatedly — the man he helped propel to Congress, Senator J.D. Vance.

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

While a fight brews between Democrats and Republicans over the role of the federal government in the derailment’s aftermath, Mr. 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 calling on federal officials for more oversight and met with some of the residents most affected by the derailment and chemical spill. But he also has joined far-right Republican figures in depicting the deep-red village in northeastern Ohio as a forgotten place, taking a page from Mr. Trump’s grievance-politics playbook.

“I grew up in a town that was neglected by the national media and was affected by a lot of dumb policies,” Mr. Vance said in a brief interview, as he briskly left the firehouse on Wednesday. “I worry that unless we keep the pressure on the federal policymakers and the corporations that caused this problem, a lot of people are going to be forgotten and left behind.”

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

For Mr. Vance, the response to the derailment could serve as a pivot point. It is the first major crisis in his tenure as a newly elected senator and it has provided him with the chance to show the voters who viewed him with skepticism during his campaign that he has not strayed far from his humble Ohio roots.

The derailment has also given him an opening to tap into 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 been victimized by the politics of the left.

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

In a red state that Mr. Trump won in both 2016 and 2020, many residents in East Palestine and its surrounding towns were not following the national back-and-forth over the government response as they worried about the potential effects of the spill. But they had followed Mr. Vance’s attempts to bring attention to their plight on local media outlets and approved of his handling of the crisis, even as some said there was more work to be done.

The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation.

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

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

When he returned to Ohio, he was initially viewed 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 Republican primary in May 2022, more than three dozen Republican county and state committee leaders urged Mr. Trump in a letter to not endorse Mr. Vance. They questioned his Republican credentials and noted he had often denounced Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Mr. Vance has been a sharp critic of the Biden administration on inflation and border policies, largely falling in line with Republicans pushing for isolationism as the answer to loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

As residents coped with the derailment, Mr. Vance sent letters to the company that operated the freight train, Norfolk Southern, asking it to broaden its criteria for reimbursements to residents beyond a one-mile radius of the derailment zone.

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He has worked with Republicans and Democrats — including two of the region’s top Democrats, Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania — to call on federal public health officials to provide resources to help the state monitor people’s health. They have also pressed federal environmental agencies to monitor the hazardous 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 creek near the derailment site, releasing a video in which he used a stick to stir a filmy substance in the water that he described as evidence of possible contamination.

“I’ve just been doing a lot of talking to people on the ground here,” he said, speaking to reporters in downtown East Palestine last week. “Obviously, I am more concerned about the public safety component of this here. Is the air breathable? Is the water drinkable?”

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

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

He said later that he believed Mr. Trump’s presence would help keep the pressure on federal officials to take action. Asked about criticism from the White House on the Republican opposition to rail safety measures, Mr. Vance said attempts to politicize the issue would not help East Palestine 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.

Mr. Vance and other Republicans have subtly evoked white disaffection by portraying a largely white, rural and conservative area as neglected by federal officials. On a Fox News interview this month, he accused Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, of focusing on “how we have too many white male construction workers” instead of talking about the frequency of train derailments and railroad safety.

On Wednesday, he rejected the notion that he was playing to racial grievance. “I don’t know how I am doing that or anybody else is doing that,” Mr. Vance said outside the firehouse. “This is a community that has been affected by the problem, and they deserve help.”

At the same time, far from East Palestine, Mr. Vance has used his brief 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, Mr. Biden’s nominee to the Federal Communications Commission, for playing into “this weird racialization of American political rhetoric in the last few years.” And in his campaign ad on the border, he criticized Democrats for calling people racists because they wanted to talk about Mr. Biden’s border policies and the impact those policies were having on the opioid crisis, which has ravaged largely white, rural parts of the industrial Midwest and across the nation.

East Palestine residents 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 hub of Youngstown, near the Pennsylvania border. Now, the village of 4,761 in a red county Mr. Vance handily won has been under the national glare.

The crisis has spurred complicated feelings among residents about the necessity of government oversight, but many said federal agencies should take on a greater role holding Norfolk Southern accountable.

In interviews this week, several residents said they had developed coughs or odd rashes, and some had farm animals die. Ms. Miller and her husband, Chase Miller, said that they had lost two chickens and three rabbits and that more farm animals had fallen ill. One of the main side effects of a gas released, vinyl chloride, they read, is cancer.

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

Her husband added, “My biggest worry is that they are going to forget about Negley, they are going to forget about the local towns where the water runs to.”

State and federal officials have said that they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water, and tests are continuing.

Leaving a grocery store with stacks of water bottles on 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 did not want to drink the municipal water.

Mr. Foster had watched the video of Mr. Vance stirring the waters in the creek. He said the senator he had done a good job of calling attention to his and other residents’ concerns.

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

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