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Give Helms building the Helms treatment

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor

Naming buildings for people can be dicey.

That’s especially true if the person being honored is still alive. A Colorado sheriff named Patrick Sullivan was held in the Patrick J. Sullivan Jr. county jail when he was arrested last year on suspicion of giving a man meth in exchange for sex. Paul Biane, a county supervisor in California, was honored with the Paul A. Biane Library before he was charged with accepting a bribe as a public official and seven other counts.

Even people whose death prevents them from doing embarrassing things can spark a fight. Like Bob Walton. One of the loudest, angriest Mecklenburg County commissioner meetings of recent decades, in 1996, centered on whether an uptown county building (which housed some of the county’s Youth and Family Services division) should be named after the late Walton, who had been convicted of assaulting an 18-year-old male in a sexual encounter. Bob Walton Plaza still stands at Stonewall and McDowell streets.

Now there’s a push to name a building in downtown Raleigh the “Jesse Helms Federal Building and United States Courthouse.”

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Helms, a U.S. senator from North Carolina for 30 years, is anything like Patrick Sullivan, Paul Biane or Bob Walton.

But a U.S. courthouse? Named for the man who made a sport of blocking qualified nominees from serving on the federal courts? Say it isn’t so.

For the last decade or so of his Senate career, Helms blocked every single nominee from North Carolina to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as many slated for the U.S. district bench. As a result, when Helms retired North Carolina had no judges on the 15-member court, though as the largest state in the circuit, we should have had at least three. Instead, appeals involving N.C. law were decided for years without a single judge from North Carolina participating.

The push to rename the Century Post Office building comes from Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., of Dunn, who filed the proposal last week. It’s a bit odd Ellmers wants “U.S. courthouse” in the name at all; the federal trial courts for eastern North Carolina are in the Terry Sanford Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse a few blocks away. The building in question houses a post office and two federal bankruptcy judges. In a wonderfully ironic twist, one of those two judges is J. Rich Leonard. Leonard was one of the qualified judges whose appointment Helms blocked not once but twice, to both the federal appeals court and federal district court. Wonder how he’d feel about working in the Jesse Helms courthouse?

Courthouse or not, naming any prominent public building for Helms would spark controversy. Enshrining a person’s name on a building involves a dose of mythology, scrubbing his record clean, remembering only certain aspects of his career. To be sure, Helms won election to the U.S. Senate five times and is a hero to many conservatives for his stances against big government and his approach to foreign policy.

He also was proudly homophobic and fought efforts for racial equality. He opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and staged a 16-day filibuster to block a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. He once called UNC the “University of Negroes and Communists.”

That might not be enough to keep Helms’ name off the federal building. Heck, the late former Sen. Robert Byrd, a one-time KKK member, has plenty named for him in West Virginia.

But a Jesse Helms federal courthouse? That’d be like the John Edwards Center for Ethics.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com.
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