Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s response to a toxic chemical spill after a train derailment has put the former small-town mayor under a harsh spotlight previously reserved for Vice President Kamala Harris.
Buttigieg is seen as a top Democratic prospect, swiping a big Harris backer in his home state of California during the 2020 race who also began supporting the former two-time mayor of South Bend.
But the cabinet secretary’s visit to East Palestine, Ohio, more than three weeks after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed, forcing an evacuation, has him scrambling to combat the perception that the crisis is keeping distance
In a video viewed 4 million times, Buttigieg deflected a reporter asking about his response to the spill by claiming he was “taking some personal time.”
“The most important job of anyone in the administration is to look after the big boss, whose pleasure they serve. Sometimes that involves “feel-good” tasks like ribbon cuttings and handing out giant checks in swing states, but more often than not it means taking antibacterial for protection. [President Joe Biden],” said a Democratic campaign strategist. “You have to put aside your personal ambitions, bite the proverbial bullet and do the job you signed up for.”
This person added: “Check your ego, forget about 2024 or 2028 and get the damn job done.”
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In a letter Friday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) urged Buttigieg to increase transparency about the Department of Transportation’s rail safety systems and inspections.
“The people deserve answers,” Manchin wrote.
The senator’s call for accountability highlights how pressure has grown on Buttigieg to include members of his own party.
A skilled communicator whose performance in the 2020 Democratic primary helped bring him to national attention, Buttigieg has been touted as a possible successor to Biden, positioning him as a potential challenger to Harris, the second-in-command of the president
Poised to dole out billions of dollars in federal funding, Buttigieg won applause after Democrats passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The transportation secretary kicked off the campaign and doled out millions of federal dollars to early state leaders for infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, Harris’ allies claimed the hand they had been dealt to the press.
Now the tide for Harris may be turning.
Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.
“Last week was a pretty good week for the vice president,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said, citing Harris’ appearance at the Munich Security Conference, where he accused Russia of “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine in a preview of Biden’s remarks days later. a surprise visit to Kyiv.
And after a tough week, Buttigieg’s reinforcements are on the defensive.
“Buttigieg has taken a lot of bullets for the president on this,” a senior Democrat told Politico as he prepared to visit eastern Palestine under heavy pressure.
Criticism has piled up in recent months, with Buttigieg drawing criticism for his handling of a series of transport-related crises.
Last year, Buttigieg quietly went on months-long paid paternity leave as a supply chain crisis led to bottlenecks and price hikes. Although Buttigieg claimed he was “available 24/7,” emails obtained by the Protect the Public’s Trust watchdog and shared with the Washington Examiner last month showed he dodged a meeting request of a senior Republican senator due to his furloughed status.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had tried to discuss a $1.2 billion infrastructure project, a bridge connecting Iowa to Illinois, records show.
In December, the Washington Free Beacon revealed how Buttigieg was vacationing in Europe as high-stakes rail union contract negotiations threatened a strike with devastating economic consequences.
Buttigieg was in Michigan, an election battleground, attending the Detroit Auto Show and an awards dinner, as then-Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said his team spent “20 hours consecutive” in tense negotiations to avoid a freight strike.
As the Cabinet secretary overseeing the Biden administration’s transportation policy, there are few places Buttigieg can turn to when a crisis erupts.
“In a cabinet job, you have a specific responsibility, and if something bad happens on your watch, you pay a price for it,” said Bannon, the Democratic strategist. “When you’re vice president, you have the whole world in front of you.”
Assurances that Biden will seek re-election in 2024 with Harris at his side have done little to quell speculation among Democrats about his potential successor.
Waves of staff defections, testy media appearances and public relations setbacks have led prominent Democrats to question Harris’ political acumen. Efforts by Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, to silence critics and block potential future challengers to the vice president have not gone well, prompting eye rolls in the White House.
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Buttigieg remains well-positioned to weather the latest round of turmoil, some say.
“Political attacks are like doorknobs. Everyone has a turn,” said Gil Duran, a veteran Democratic operative turned columnist and one-time Harris aide. “Some across the Democratic spectrum fear Buttigieg as a future presidential candidate and want any excuse to unseat him.”
Duran added: “Buttigieg is smart enough to know that this comes with the territory,” crediting the transportation secretary as “one of the party’s best communicators.”