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Travelers weigh push to rename Las Vegas’ McCarran airport

Updated June 27, 2020 - 8:23 pm

The push to change McCarran International Airport’s name has been reignited as the nation reconsiders the practice of erecting statues or naming buildings after historical figures with a racist or controversial past.

All Democratic members of Nevada’s congressional delegation sent a letter earlier this month to Gov. Steve Sisolak and state legislative leaders asking them to rename the airport and remove a statue of former U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran in the U.S. Capitol.

The letter notes that McCarran fought for workers’ rights and sponsored legislation that helped shape the modern air travel industry. However, his “dark legacy of virulent racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have no place representing Nevada in the United States Capitol,” the letter stated.

That dark history includes McCarran’s work to restrict immigration, including of Jewish people after the Holocaust, a push to block Jewish judicial candidates nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act, which allowed for revocation of citizenship and limits on free speech, the letter mentions.

People are lining up on both sides of the debate, with some saying it’s about time the airport’s name is changed and that, as the country moves forward, there’s no room to have controversial figures representing a city. Others are against erasing history and would rather people learn from the past.

‘Times are changing’

Count Las Vegas local Chloe Riggins among those who think it’s time for the name change.

“I think times are changing, and I think we’re in a different day in age and I think that it’s not acceptable,” said Riggins, who was at McCarran this week returning from a leisurely trip from San Diego. “Racism shouldn’t be tolerated anymore.”

Riggins fully backs the movement sweeping across the nation and thinks it’s time it occurs in Las Vegas. With the city’s diverse population and visitors coming in from around the world, having an airport named after a person with a controversial background doesn’t sit well with Riggins.

“I think that Vegas is a melting pot. It’s a mixture of all kinds of different people,” Riggins said. “It might send the wrong message. (We) could lose out in a lot of business. It’s a really controversial topic right now. I think if they want to keep the casinos going and continue to have a diverse population of people, yeah, they should definitely change it.”

Margaret Jackson and her husband Dave, traveled to Las Vegas from Stockton, California, to “get out of the house.”

She doesn’t want to erase history and is opposed to changing names of government buildings and to the removal of historical figures who have controversial backgrounds.

“I think to remove monuments and remove names is to deny our past,” Jackson said. “We need to learn from our past. We can’t erase our past, but we can certainly move forward.”

Jackson said she understands why people want name changes and monuments removed, but thinks jurisdictions are being pressured to do so.

“I think it’s being forced, but I don’t think we should be bowing to it,” Jackson said. “I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it. As the mother-in-law to a Black son-in-law, I watched what he’s been through his entire life, and I don’t want my grandchildren growing up with those kinds of racial issues. But at the same time, if we erase our past, there’s nothing there to remind us.”

Wait for elections

This marks the third time since 2012 that the call for changing the airport’s name has come up. In 2017, then state Sen. Tick Segerblom proposed in the Legislature to rename the airport after Sen. Harry Reid. Segerblom’s bill didn’t make it out of committee.

Segerblom now sits on the Clark County Commission, which has the ultimate say on the name change as McCarran is operated by the county Department of Aviation. He said he expects to bring the topic up following the elections in November.

“I don’t intend to push it until after the election, to keep it out of election politics,” Segerblom said. “I do think the Black Lives Matter and the focus on Confederate statues and really the congressional request to take his statue out of the Capitol does bring it to the forefront. So it is an issue that we need to figure out at some point.”

Both now, and when the matter was brought up during the 2017 legislative session, Segerblom said he’s gotten more calls and emails regarding the change than any other topic. He said those reaching out are split about 50-50.

“The phones and emails are off the wall,” Segerblom said. “It’s a very controversial thing, but it’s something we need to publicly debate.”

Segerblom is for renaming the airport after Reid, the former Senate majority leader. “You can’t replace what he’s done for us,” Segerblom said.

The county hasn’t tabulated how much a name change would cost, but Segerblom assured that no public money would be spent on the matter.

“We’ll set up a foundation, and there will be no cost to the taxpayer,” Segerblom said. “All the money would be raised privately. Any sign that comes down, we’ll pay for the new sign by this foundation.”

Segerblom said the county has been in talks with proposed backers for a foundation, including various individuals, groups and companies.

“There’s a lot of people out there who have good will toward him (Reid) and would be happy to contribute,” Segerblom said.

Contact Mick Akers at makers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2920. Follow @mickakers on Twitter.

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