Santana: Could Orange County Voters Decide the Fate of John Wayne Name on Airport?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

John Wayne Airport located in Santa Ana.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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Orange County voters could be asked this year to decide for themselves in a ballot initiative whether John Wayne Airport should remain named after the iconic actor who died in 1979 but has since ignited a firestorm of controversy over his views on race and sexuality.

Editors’ Note: This column has been updated.

In what may have been the first salvo of the 2020 local election cycle, OC Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño last week immediately reacted to an Oped published in the Voice of OC by local Chapman University Professors Fred Smoller and Mike Moodian calling for a renaming of the airport due to views expressed by Wayne in a 1971 published interview with Playboy where he defended White supremacy and was critical of Native Americans and LGBTQ relationships.

“The most significant reason to rename the airport is that Duke was a bigot,” wrote Smoller and Moodian in their June 23 Oped.

“Wayne’s white supremacist—and anti-gay and anti-Native American—views came to light again when a 1971 interview he did with Playboy magazine went viral in early 2019. Wayne’s racist comments prompted newspaper columnists Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times) and David Whiting (Orange County Register) to call for Wayne’s image to be removed from the airport.

Whiting cited Wayne’s quotes in the Playboy interview:

“We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

“I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves.”

“Now, I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can’t play football with the rest of us,” Wayne is quoted as saying.

Smoller and Moodian argue Wayne doesn’t fit modern Orange County.

They wrote, “The swaggering actor represented Orange County’s rural origins and conservative ideology. Like Wayne, many people came to the county from the Midwest and from modest financial backgrounds. Through hard work, grit, and determination (and huge federal contracts), they built successful companies and political careers.”

Smoller and Moodian note that “By 1979, the county’s rural past was long gone. Shopping malls, tract houses, and freeways replaced orange groves, packing houses, and two-lane roads. Nevertheless, Wayne’s rugged individualist image and hard-right opinions were appealing to OC’s business-casual dressed “cowboy capitalists.” The statue was also a potent symbol of who was in charge.

“Since 1979, however, sweeping changes took place in the county. The population has shot up 67 percent. Most important, Orange County has become increasingly diverse. In 1979 more than 78 percent of the county was Anglo; today, we are a “majority-minority” county. Non-Hispanic Anglos make up slightly less than 40 percent of the population. Surveys we conducted in recent years reveal a county that has become more politically moderate. In 2016, for the first time in 80 years, the county voted for a Democrat for president, and voters will do so again in November. Today Democrats have a 39,000 voter registration edge over Republicans, and there are no Republicans in the House of Representatives from Orange County.

Additionally, according to our most recent Orange County Annual Survey results, 79 percent of county residents see the county’s increasing ethnic diversity as a source of great strength. A strong majority across all party lines agree with this sentiment. Orange County today is much different from the county that embraced the John Birch Society and Save our State (Proposition 187) and once endured private security guards at polling places in an effort to deter Latinos from voting,” wrote Smoller and Moodian.

Their Oped took off across social media, with more than 6,000 Facebook shares since publication, and story mentions across the world.

“John Wayne in no way represents Orange County today and its thriving communities of color,” wrote Smoller and Moodian, adding “His name and image should certainly not be part of people’s first and last impressions when they fly into and out of our innovative region. The Board of Supervisors should change the airport’s name to Orange County Airport and they should remove Wayne’s statue—a monument to white supremacy—from the main terminal, a prominent place and a focal point of our community.”

After reading the professors’ Oped, Briceño contacted them and co-authored a resolution, which the Democratic Party immediately endorsed, calling on county supervisors to consider the name change.

In the the emergency resolution passed last week, “The Democratic Party of Orange County condemns John Wayne’s racist and bigoted statements, and calls for John Waynes’ name and likeness to be removed from the Orange County airport, and calls on the OC Board of Supervisors to restore its original name: Orange County Airport.”

“I thought it would generated some traction but I never thought it would do anything like this,” Moodian told me about the viral nature of the Oped.

“I don’t see this as a Democrat or a Republican or liberal vs. conservative issue,” Smoller told CNN, whose reporters reached out after the Oped was published. “It’s about universal values: Racism is wrong. It should play no role in America. John Wayne’s own words provide the most powerful reason this civic honor should not be bestowed,” Smoller told CNN. “John Wayne Airport is Orange County’s confederate statue, its ode to white supremacy. If Mississippi can remove the confederacy from its flag, then Orange County can remove images of John Wayne from its airport.”

Ironically, I would note that the airport already has an alternative name – some would say its real name – which is what the Federal Aviation Administration called the airport in 1939 — it’s federal designator, SNA – for Santa Ana, named after the closest largest city at the time.

Local Orange County Republican leaders seem to have been caught flat footed initially by the quick pace and viral nature of the Wayne renaming effort, which already seems to have inspired competition online petitions.

Upon hearing about the OC Democrats’ resolution, I quickly reached out over the weekend to see if I could find an official OC GOP perspective.

I called officials like OC Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker as well as Orange County Supervisors Don Wagner and Andrew Do – who is running a re-election bid in the First District this year – but none would engage.

I think they expected, maybe hoped, that the issue would simply go away, die down, as it had before.

Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths, who is running for Congress against incumbent Democrat Katie Porter, engaged on the issue immediately through social media, saying he’ll defend Wayne’s name on the airport saying in a tweet that it’s not going down on his watch.

“Not on my watch,” Raths tweeted. “John Wayne is Orange County.”

By Monday morning, after my column was published, President Trump had joined the mix tweeting out a critique of taking Wayne’s name off the airport.

Orange County Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel also took a stand on Monday morning, sending out a statement supporting Wayne’s name on the airport.

“As an immigrant to our country, I am extremely sensitive to the actions and statements of people who perpetuate and make racist statements. The comments by John Wayne from 50 years ago are wrong and sad from someone who so many people across America hold in high regard,” Steel said in a statement.

“While I have experienced racism first-hand, I do believe that a person should be judged on the totality of their actions and contributions to society which is why I support keeping the name John Wayne Airport,” Steel wrote.

By late Monday afternoon, Whitaker issued a statement as chairman of the Orange County Republican Party calling on county supervisors to keep the name of John Wayne on the airport.

“We can remember the good things that John Wayne did for this nation and Orange County,” Whitaker wrote. “We can and do condemn what he said in that 1971 magazine interview. So, we can also learn from his imperfections. Just like we’ve learned from and about the flaws of many leaders like JFK, FDR, and so on. Iconography is about enshrining the larger ideals of good from their lives, not the flaws. Those goals are best served by keeping our history in front of us, not by destroying it to serve the radicalism and frenzy of the present moment. We owe that, at the very least, to the Americans who will come long after we are gone.

The Supervisors should reject these sideshow calls for removal of John Wayne’s legacy at the Airport, and instead move on with the business of leading us to a more perfect union within in our county.”

Moodian, who was surprised by the intense reaction to the Oped, said the issue is definitely not going away given the ongoing national debate about toppling Confederate  memorials as well as the George Floyd protests that are prompting a re-evaluation of police spending and multicultural education and policies in the United States.

Moodian co-authors a survey about Orange County political attitudes every year with Smoller for Chapman University and says the viral nature of this most recent response to the airport renaming effort says a lot about demographic change across the local region.

“We would have been laughed at if we published this 10 years ago,” Moodian said.

“This shows you the county is rapidly changing,” he added.

In many ways, given that Orange County doesn’t have one dominant city looming over the others like in LA or San Diego, the regional airport is the closest thing to a unifying body for the entire region.

There’s certainly a history of many ballot initiatives in Orange County around the airport, mainly revolving around the unsuccessful bid to move the airport altogether from it’s current location near Santa Ana to South County on the site of the shutdown El Toro Marine Air Base.

Voters ultimately rejected that vision, opting instead for a Great Park on that site.

It will be very interesting to see how our state delegation reacts to all of this, whether they pass their own type of resolution.

Note that State Senator Tom Umberg, a Democrat who represents central Orange County’s 34th District, has in the past talked about renaming the airport after deceased Iraq War Veteran Michael Monsoor, a Garden Grove High School graduate who was recognized posthumously with a Medal of Honor in 2006 for heroism in battle during the Iraq War.

I wonder how our Congressional delegation, now an all-Democrat affair, will react to this and whether they also will adopt any sort of resolution or support a specific option.

Yet the Democrat who is likely to get the most pressure here will be Fourth District County Supervisor Doug Chafee as he sits on the board of supervisors, the body that could just simply rename the airport.

That’s why I think we’re headed toward a ballot initiative.

The simplest, most logical and fair option here will likely be for the board of supervisors and Chafee to punt the issue off their agenda, acknowledging two passionate sides on the issue and opting to allow voters to decide.

For Republicans, placing the issue on the ballot will work for candidates like Raths, whose strategy seems to depend on getting out his conservative base, and also for candidates like Do, running in diverse areas and eager to avoid racial-charged debates — such as a county board that won’t rename and won’t let the public decide.

So again, pencil in the John Wayne Airport naming battle onto the list of races that are likely to tell us a lot about the new Orange County come this fall.