"Cesar Chavez" ship angers GOP congressman

Detail of Brett Cook's portrait of Cesar Chavez, part of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit "Portraiture Now: Framing Memory," in Washington through Jan. 6, 2008. (AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery)
AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery
cesar chavez, art
Cesar Chavez, the labor leader depicted in this portrait, is being honored by the Navy.
AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery

Updated at 5 p.m. ET

Conservative Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California is criticizing the Navy's decision to name a ship that is currently under construction after Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist.

Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran, released a statement Tuesday saying that the Navy's decision to name the ship after Chavez "goes right along with other recent decisions by the Navy that appear to be more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy's history and tradition."

Hunter says he learned about the plan to name the ship after Chavez from Navy officials. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is officially announcing the name of the ship today, when he visits the company building the ship, General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO). The cargo ship is currently under construction in San Diego, a city partially represented by Hunter.

NASSCO spokesman James Gill said the company suggested naming the ship Cesar Chavez in honor of its majority Latino workforce and location in a traditionally Latino neighborhood, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

After Hunter released his statement, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California released her own statement commending the decision.

"I applaud Secretary Mabus for continuing the Navy's rich tradition of naming these supply ships after pioneers, explorers and visionaries by honoring Cesar Chavez, who worked tirelessly to promote fair working conditions and equal rights for all Americans," she said. "This is a fitting tribute to Chavez, who served in the Navy, and follows the Navy's recent decisions to name other supply ships after American visionaries from Medgar Evers to Amelia Earhart to Lewis and Clark."

Chavez was a Navy veteran who enlisted at age 17 and served from 1946 to 1948. Hunter (whose father, former Rep. Duncan Hunter, Sr. was known in part for his hardline stance on immigration) said in his statement yesterday that if the Navy wished to recognize the Hispanic community's contributions to the U.S., there are many other choices.

He gave the examples of Marine Corps Sergeant Rafael Peralta, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for action in Iraq, as well as John Finn, a San Diego resident who won the Medal of Honor for his service during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter, told Hotsheet that "Chavez is quoted as saying that his time in the Navy was the worst two years of his life. And his background as a labor activist is hardly a qualification for naming a Navy ship after him."

"Congressman Hunter's point is that there are other individuals far better suited to have a ship of this type named after them," Kasper continued. "We are talking about a ship under construction in San Diego, which has a long and proud naval tradition. Chavez does not reflect that tradition--particularly given his strong feelings about his own service."

On the website for United Farm Workers -- the labor organization Chavez founded -- Chavez' biography says that "in addition to discrimination, he experienced strict regimentation" in the Navy.

Even some of Chavez's admirers question the decision to name a Navy ship after him, CNN reports.

"We're talking about a person who believed in nonviolence -- the absolute core belief was nonviolence," said Randy Shaw, the author of the 2008 book "Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century."

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck seized on the news on his radio program on Wednesday, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters points out, asking whether the next ship would be named the "USS Stalin or the USS Margaret Sanger." Sanger was a turn-of-the-century birth control activist.

Update: Hunter sent Mabus a letter today urging the Navy to still consider naming a ship after Peralta, even though the Navy remains committed to naming a ship after Chavez.

Naming this latest ship "after anyone other than hometown hero Rafael Peralta misses a valuable opportunity to honor the service and sacrifice of a U.S. Marine who was wrongfully denied the Medal of Honor," Hunter wrote, noting that Peralta received the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor in the Marine Corps, for his Iraq service.

"Even with this class of ships dedicated to visionaries and pioneers, there is no better choice than Sergeant Peralta for his service and sacrifice," he said.