Denali or McKinley? A Name With a Mountain of Political Clout

  • Ohio's influence kept favorite son's name on Alaska mountain
  • Obama's renaming of peak decried by state's politicians

Ohio is a state used to getting its way.

So when President Barack Obama stripped the name of an Ohio favorite son from a mountaintop 4,000 miles away in Alaska, the state’s powerful congressional delegation was roused from its summer recess to decry the affront.

Ohio’s John Boehner, the speaker of the U.S. House, declared himself “deeply disappointed” after the Obama administration announced on Sunday that the peak formerly known as Mount McKinley, the highest in North America, henceforth would be called by its native name, Denali.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman protested the decision in a series of tweets, saying the mountain’s name was a way to recall the “rich legacy” of William McKinley, an Ohio native and the 25th president of the U.S. who was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who’s running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a tweet that Obama “once again oversteps his bounds.”

The name change, announced in conjunction with an Obama trip to Alaska, was no sudden whim or partisan move.

Tribal and Alaska state leaders have sought it for 40 years, noting the significance of the name Denali to Alaska natives and the fact that McKinley never even set foot in the state. Attempts to change the name to Denali via legislation were repeatedly blocked by Ohio’s congressional delegation.

Ohio long has been a political powerhouse and a battleground in U.S. presidential elections. The state has produced seven presidents, including McKinley. According to the Roll Call clout index, Ohio ranks fifth in influence on national affairs; Alaska clocks in at 32nd.

While McKinley was a Republican, Alaska’s and Ohio’s differences aren’t a matter of party loyalty.

Boehner and Portman are Republicans, as is most of the Ohio congressional delegation. So too are Alaska’s two senators and single representative. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski released a video applauding the decision with the peak as a backdrop.

McKinley was known as the “Idol of Ohio” and promoted protecting U.S. industries with high tariffs for imported goods. Now that he no longer has a mountain in his name, his legacy includes establishing the gold standard as the backing for U.S. currency, acquiring Hawaii as a U.S. territory and helping establish Cuban independence from Spain by winning the Spanish-American War.

Republican strategist Karl Rove will publish a new book about McKinley in November. Rove has stayed out of the Denali-McKinley fray on Twitter, only inviting followers to pre-order the book, “Triumph of William McKinley.”

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