By Jack Torry
Dayton-area Congressman Mike Turner says he will fight President Barack Obama’s decision to rename America’s tallest mountain Denali and strip it of the name Mt. McKinley.
“President McKinley was a proud Ohio Republican who was assassinated during his time in office while serving our nation and deserves the recognition Congress previously awarded him. The President’s recent actions to remove his name and undermine a prior act of Congress is disrespectful and I will continue to fight for proper recognition of President McKinley’s legacy,” Turner said.
“I’m sitting on main street in Dayton, Ohio,” Turner told the Post. “I can tell you, the residents of this city are furious.”
Angry U.S. Senate and House Republicans from Ohio plan to send Obama a letter protesting his decision to restore the mountain to its original Native American name of Denali.
Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, whose district includes McKinley’s home of Canton, said lawmakers would ask the White House whether the Obama administration had the legal authority to change the mountain’s name, pointing out Congress in 1917 created the Mt. McKinley National Park in Alaska.
“Some people are saying this isn’t worth fighting for,” said Gibbs. “But I think it’s disrespectful of President McKinley’s legacy.”
Obama’s decision provoked an intense backlash from Ohio Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of West Chester Twp., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and former Rep. Ralph Regula of Navarre, whose district included McKinley’s home.
“He thinks he is a dictator and he can change the law,” said Regula, who retired at the end of 2008 after serving 18 years in the U.S. House. “The law says it’s Mt. McKinley and he can’t change a law by a flick of the pen. You want to change the Ohio River? You want to go around the country and start changing the names of these places because it is politically expedient?”
Regula assailed Obama’s move as a “political stunt” and “ridiculous,” adding that the president “is trying to appease a small group in Alaska who are really hot on this name change.”
“This is just show business,” Regula said. “He’s going to Alaska and he wants to make a big splash up there,” referring to Obama’s three-day trip to Alaska that began Monday.
Although the Mt. McKinley National Park was signed into law in 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson, the White House said a 1947 law provides Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the federal board on geographic names the authority to “provide for uniformity in geographic nomenclature and orthography throughout the federal government.”
When Congress in 1980 added land to the park, lawmakers called the entire area the Denali National Park and Preserve. But the federal board on geographic names continued to refer to the mountain as McKinley.
“The question is whether the mountain itself statutorily retained the name Mt. McKinley after the 1980 name change,” said Trevor Burrus, a constitutional legal scholar at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington. “The answer, I believe, is no.”
“There is no post-1980 statute establishing the name of the mountain as Mt. McKinley,” Burrus said, adding “in the absence” of any guidance from Congress, Jewell and the federal board on geographic names have the power to change the mountain’s name.
Although the change was welcomed in Alaska by citizens, the governor and lawmakers, Ohio Republicans were beside themselves. Campaigning for president Monday in Michigan, Gov. John Kasich said the name McKinley “ought to stay,” adding that “you just don’t go and do something like that.”
Saying he was “deeply disappointed in this decision,” Boehner said “McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army,” leading the nation “to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th president of the United States.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, cautiously defended Obama’s decision saying “this announcement is about honoring the Athabascan people who call Alaska their home and its highest mountain, Denali.”
“President McKinley is a great Ohioan and streets and schools throughout the Midwest bear testimony to his legacy,” Brown said. “I will continue to work with the administration to ensure that future generations of Americans are aware of McKinley’s legacy.”
Historians regard McKinley, a Republican, as an average president. After his assassination in 1901, McKinley was replaced by his more dynamic vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.
(Columbus Dispatch staff writer Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.)