A House committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that would rename Gravelly Point Park after former first lady Nancy Reagan, roiling local residents who are still upset about the renaming of Washington National Airport for Ronald Reagan 20 years ago.
The bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee along party lines over the objections of Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who accused Republicans of forcing the name change despite a complete lack of local support or input.
"I have great respect for Nancy Reagan . . . ," Beyer said. "But this bill is the equivalent of someone coming in and changing the furniture in your house without asking you. First, you would have liked them to ask you, and even if you do like the furniture, you probably would have wanted input since it's your house."
Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax crusader behind the proposed change as well as the airport name change two decades ago, called Beyer's opposition "partisan and tacky."
Despite more than 120 landmarks, schools, roads, boulevards, post offices and one nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named after Reagan, there is always room for more, according to Norquist.
Wednesday's debate revived the heated 1989 fight over renaming the airport, which remains fresh enough in the minds of many local Democrats that they insist on calling it by its original moniker, "National Airport."
Gravelly Point, a strip of federally controlled land along the west bank of the Potomac River, provides local residents a popular picnic spot and an ideal vantage point from which to watch planes take off and land. There's also a volleyball net and boat launch.
"Congress should take direction on this frivolous effort from Nancy Reagan herself and 'just say no,' " Laura Saul Edwards, a Democratic activist from Northern Virginia, said on Facebook.
Christian Dorsey, an Arlington County supervisor, said his visits to the park will be sullied by the knowledge that the land has been reduced to a political talking point. "It should not be used as a platform for people to make political statements," Dorsey said.
The bill is expected to pass the GOP-controlled House and could get rolled into a larger bill to ease passage in the Senate. The bill has 51 co-sponsors, including all seven Republicans representing Virginia.
Gravelly Point is adjacent to the airport. Renaming it the Nancy Reagan Memorial Park would honor the couple at the gateway to the nation's capital, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).
"I cannot think of a more-fitting tribute for the service of a beloved First Lady, while forever cementing a piece of the Reagan Family legacy on the East Coast," he said.
Beyer said he wasn't even given the courtesy of a heads-up from Hice. "While I understand the desire to honor political figures, something like this should not be done without involving the local community," Beyer said on the House floor. "This would be the equivalent of my offering a bill in Mr. Hice's district to rename the Oconee National Forest's campground the Hillary Clinton campground or the Michelle Obama campground."
Beyer accused Republicans on the committee of exerting federal control over local lands, exactly what they rail against when it comes to protecting an endangered species or blocking oil drilling on public lands.
"What they complain about most is what they were doing, " he said, adding that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) carried his congressional district by the largest margin in Virginia. "It's a pretty blue district — not that we don't honor Republicans of years past, but there could have been a lively debate about, 'If you're going to name it after a first lady, which first lady would it have been?'"
But Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said the renaming would be "a fitting tribute to someone who was a dedicated partner to her husband and dedicated so much to the service of our country. Lady Bird Johnson Park is also nearby. It is petty, partisan and disappointing that Rep. Beyer is spending his time battling this modest recognition."
Calling Beyer, who owns Volvo dealerships, a "Toyota salesman," Norquist said renaming a park and blocking local property rights on huge swaths of land are not the same thing.
Norquist said two years ago that about 16,000 people signed an online petition with StandUnited.org to change the name of Gravelly Park.
Referring to the airport name change, Norquist said "cooler heads prevailed."
In 1989, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pushed the bill through Congress over protests from local leaders, congressional Democrats and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Metro and the National Park Service were forced to revise signs at the agencies' expense, although Metro balked at the $400,000 estimated cost and delayed for two years.
Judy Noritake, an architect who chaired the Alexandria parks and recreation commission for 22 years, objects to the renaming of Gravelly Point, but not because she holds anything against Nancy Reagan.
"I have always preferred that our parks reflect something about where they are, their history," she said. "If you name it after someone, you lose that story, you lose it forever."
Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.