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'King Airport' doesn't take off; Plan to name BWI for civil rights leader draws official shrug


WASHINGTON -- A Connecticut congressman believes he's found the perfect place to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but it's not in his own Nutmeg State. And it's not in King's native Atlanta.

The most fitting site to rename for the slain civil rights leader, who was born 70 years ago yesterday, is Baltimore-Washington International Airport, says Republican Rep. Christopher Shays.

"I asked him, 'Why not do it in Atlanta?' " said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican whose district includes much of the airport's grounds in Anne Arundel County. "It's something that popped out there, not from left field, but from outside the stadium."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said, "Congress needs to be careful about going around naming airports in other people's states and districts."

Shays has been shopping his proposal among Marylanders on Capitol Hill as a prelude to formally asking Governor Parris N. Glendening next week to rename the airport. The reaction has been underwhelming.

"The governor believes that the best way to recognize Dr. King is not naming airports after him but by taking actions to protect the rights of every individual," said Don Vandrey, a spokesman.

Renaming BWI would require passage of legislation by the General Assembly and approval by Glendening.

Other than standard oversight and safety issues, the federal government has no direct authority over the administration of the airport itself, which is run by a state agency. But Shays told Gilchrest it was time to remedy a historic slight: There is no major American airport named after King.

Shays told Gilchrest Thursday that the Washington area had two airports named for Republicans: former President Ronald Reagan and John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the only other major airport in the capital area, he said, BWI should be named after King.

Gilchrest said he is open to the idea and looks forward to a Tuesday meeting with other officials to discuss it. Shays has called other Marylanders, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat whose Baltimore-area district includes a slice of BWI. Cardin could not be reached for comment yesterday.

No official has supported the Shays proposal.

One key state legislator had little patience for the proposed King International Airport.

"Charity ought to begin at home," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, an influential Baltimore Democrat. "Maybe they ought to rename the New York airport.

"Baltimore-Washington International Airport is a very appropriate name. It denotes its proximity to two of the major metropolitan regions. It is a great marketing tool which has allowed the airport to remain viable."

BWI, which opened in 1950, was originally owned by Baltimore and called Friendship International. It was renamed by the state in 1973 in an effort to draw more travelers from the Washington area to the airport.

Dispute in Washington

Shays' proposal follows a dispute over naming an airport last year. Congress voted last year to rename Washington National Airport for Reagan, over the objection of the metropolitan agency that oversees National and Dulles International airports. The issue gave conservatives and liberals in Congress the opportunity to continue their decadelong argument over Reagan's legacy.

Bradley International Airport in Hartford is named after a military flier who died in an crash at the airport in 1941. Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta is named after a former mayor.

A veteran of 11 years on Capitol Hill, Shays is a moderate Republican known for splits with his party. He openly opposed GOP leaders on the impeachment of President Clinton and on campaign finance reform.

'Good intentions'

He also has a knack for attracting media attention. His agonizing over impeachment at a town hall meeting in his district won front-page coverage in newspapers across the nation and a spot on the ABC television show "Nightline."

Although Shays had no comment on the airport proposal, he stirred up plenty of talk. Most Marylanders interviewed, including black officials who consider themselves walking in King's footsteps, hesitated to embrace it.

"I would be a little harsher in my words if it were any [Republican] other than Shays," said Cummings, who serves on the House Government Reform Committee with the Connecticut lawmaker. "He's a nice guy. I have to start off thinking that his intentions are good."

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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