The Clark County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to strip the name of a “racist” former U.S. senator off Las Vegas’s main airport and replace it with former Sen. Harry Reid, a giant of Nevada politics — and no stranger to controversy himself.
The decision goes to the Federal Aviation Administration for final approval, but commissioners said the time is nigh that Nevada join the movement against racist legacy memorials by erasing Patrick McCarran’s name from the airfield.
And they said they have the perfect replacement politician in Mr. Reid, whose decades-long dominance of Nevada politics culminated with 12 years as the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate.
“You name things in your community after people that represent your community, and to me Sen. Reid embodies the American dream. He came from nothing and became one of the most powerful people in the world,” said Commissioner Ross Miller, who said Mr. Reid embodies that dream “maybe more so than anybody else in the history of this country.”
“That’s the story we want to tell. That’s what we want everybody who comes into Las Vegas to see,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Reid himself had pushed for years to remove McCarran’s name, regularly railing to reporters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about his predecessor’s history.
“Pat McCarran was one of the most anti-Semitic — some of you might know my wife’s Jewish — one of the most anti-black, one of the most prejudiced people who has ever served in the Senate,” Mr. Reid said in 2012.
For years, the calls went nowhere.
But now, with statues toppling and monuments and memorials being recast and renamed, McCarran’s time appears to have come.
“It is with humility that I express my appreciation for the recognition today,” Mr. Reid said in a statement after the 7-0 vote.
Michael Green, a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told the commission that McCarran earned his name on the airport because he was a major pioneer in aviation regulation, but has now squandered it because “he was an anti-semite and racist and he acted to put his anti-semitism into law and government.”
Yet substituting Mr. Reid was a twist few might have seen coming a decade ago.
He was so unpopular in Nevada that he came within a whisker of losing his Senate seat in 2010. Analysts said he survived reelection only because Republicans put up a catastrophic candidate.
Mr. Reid did not seek reelection in 2016, and has since spent his time battling pancreatic cancer and chiming in from Nevada on goings-on back in D.C.
Over his decades in Washington, he amassed a record that included backing the war in Iraq, then fighting against it; shepherding Obamacare through his chamber; and rewriting the rules of the Senate.
For Nevada, he flexed his power to derail a nuclear-waste repository slated for the state, and was seen as an early environmental leader.
He also was a champion of federal funding, shepherding millions of dollars back home for favored projects. That included the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, which Mr. Reid turned into a flashpoint in the debate over government spending by making sure it got thousands of dollars in federal arts money.
Mr. Reid’s controversies went beyond policy.
In 2010, he had to apologize for remarks reported in “Game Change,” a book about the 2008 presidential election, where the authors revealed he’d called then-candidate Barack Obama a “light-skinned” Black man “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Mr. Reid also once held views of immigration policy that would put him squarely alongside some in today’s Republican Party.
Given that history, Victor Joecks, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said Mr. Reid’s name might not be a good fit for the airport.
“This isn’t an attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the words and beliefs of Reid and McCarran. But it does suggest that erasing recognition of someone for his accomplishments over controversy involving something he wasn’t honored for could have unintended consequences,” Mr. Joecks wrote in a column last week.
Yet at Tuesday’s commission hearing, the racial diversity of Reid supporters was striking.
Commissioner William McCurdy II said Mr. Reid built a record of fighting “for immigrant communities, Black communities, working families.”
“I can’t think of anyone that is more deserving,” he said.
The renaming was the hottest topic at Tuesday’s commission meeting, with Reid supporters — many of them political allies or former employees — showing up in force to back him, and a few contrarian residents questioning the whole business.
“If you consider the imagery brought up by the name Harry Reid, I would suggest they’re far from the images consciously promoted by the brand of Las Vegas,” said resident Edward Facey.
One woman suggested calling the airport the Siegfried & Roy Airport, after the famous lion-taming duo that was a fixture of the Las Vegas strip. But the most popular alternative was more basic: Las Vegas International Airport.