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Naming a public site after a former elected official makes a symbolic statement of presumed permanence.
This is so even if many of us will always say the Triborough instead of RFK Bridge, the 59th Street rather than Ed Koch Bridge, or the Brooklyn-Battery and not the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel.
Now, a humbler proposal has surfaced to name the visitors center at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge after James Buckley, the 89-year-old former U.S. senator.
The suggestion has ironically become a side issue in the scrap for the very seat Buckley once held.
This week, Rep. Robert Turner (R-Rockaway Point) announced he would introduce a bill to arrange this honor for Buckley, a committed wildlife protectionist who in his term from 1971 to 1977 co-sponsored legislation creating the Gateway National Recreation Area.
Gateway today includes the refuge, which adjoins Turner’s Brooklyn-Queens district.
Buckley, brother of the late writer and editor William F. Buckley Jr., won the Senate seat with 2.2 million votes on the Conservative Party line alone, in a three-way race against Democrat Richard Ottinger and the incumbent liberal Republican, Charles Goodell.
Since Buckley’s time, Democrats have held the seat. On June 26, Turner competes in a statewide Republican primary for a nomination to that post against Wendy Long, the Conservative Party nominee, and Nassau GOP Comptroller George Maragos.
Asked about potential foe Turner’s proposal, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said through a spokesman: “We’ll decline to comment on his latest stunt.”
Gillibrand allies said that her attention has been focused on major farm legislation and that Turner never contacted her about carrying the measure in the Senate.
New York State Republican chairman Ed Cox urged Gillibrand to support the naming, saying in a news release that Buckley served “admirably as a senator, federal justice, undersecretary of state ... and president of Radio Free Europe,” yet “nothing in New York has been named for him, which some might see as a double standard for conservative Republicans.”
Long’s camp then took a shot — not at Gillibrand, but at Cox & Co. Campaign adviser David Catalfamo said Long would be “the first to sign on to any effort to honor Senator Buckley,” but that the latest statement was “nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to use the Republican State Committee as a proxy for Congressman Turner’s struggling campaign to reach conservative voters.”
For his part, Maragos Thursday called the clash “a distraction that should not be a political issue. We should be focused and talking about the economy and creating jobs and achieving energy independence and education.”
Former Sen. Buckley, now a Connecticut resident, hasn’t publicly addressed the matter, though members of his family and former staffers are promoting the honor. And Buckley still has admirers on Long Island who have known him for decades.
“A brilliant guy and a gentleman,” said Ray Bertolino, who’s interviewed Buckley several times in recent years on his program on WHPC radio (90.3 FM) based in Garden City. “Always modest, with a wry sense of humor.”
Former Nassau GOP Rep. John LeBoutellier called Buckley “my kind of conservative” — who he said has always made arguments based on reason and geared toward solutions.
Below is a video of Buckley in 2010 giving a law lecture on federal governance.