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City County Building Re-naming

County Executive Joe Parisi, at the podium, announces plans to rename the City-County Building after former President Obama. Flanking Parisi are, from left to right, county Supervisor Al Matano, former County Board Chair John Hendrick and county Supervisor Tim Kiefer. 

Madison and Dane County leaders are hoping to inject a note of inspiration into the seat of local government by renaming it after the only president who ever set foot near it.

At a Thursday press conference, County Executive Joe Parisi announced the effort to christen the structure known for 60 years as simply the City-County Building as the President Barack Obama City-County Building.

“Barack Obama was the JFK of our generation,” Parisi said at the steps of the seven-story edifice. “He deserves to be honored, and he deserves to be recognized, not only for his accomplishments, but for his commitment to civil discourse and respect, both for those with whom he agreed and for those with whom he disagreed.”

Parisi was flanked by county board members, one of whom was Supervisor Al Matano, who proposed the idea.

“This is reference in large measure to the fact that President Obama visited this building — as far as we know the only president who ever did,” he said. “And he visited Madison numerous times.”

Matano said the measure would recognize Obama’s eight “totally scandal-free” years, the “style and grace with which he served, and the somewhat personal connection he developed with our community.”

The building that would honor the former president’s quiet dignity is, however, somewhat lacking in presidential stateliness.

Sitting like a Soviet relic on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the 1956 structure that would bear Obama’s name features a stark black marble one-story facade above which hovers a corrugated protrusion of stained concrete. Looming over that is a flat shoebox of more concrete and aluminum-clad windows. The interior is home to numerous indistinct bureaucratic offices, topped off by two floors of jail space so run-down that the sheriff himself calls it an abomination, and which county officials are at pains to do away with.

Former County Board Chair John Hendrick noted that if the measure passes, it would be the first time a local seat of government had been named for Obama.

Rather than renaming the building, Matano said that measure would actually lend to the building its first real name, given that the current moniker of City-County Building is so generic as to be virtually no name at all.

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Matano plans to introduce a resolution to name the building at Thursday’s County Board meeting. A companion resolution will be introduced to the City Council by Ald. Samba Baldeh two weeks down the road.

Parisi rejected the notion that naming the building after a Democratic president during bitter partisan times could be seen as a jab to Republicans, whose legislative leaders would be able to glimpse a sliver of the building named for their arch-rival from the Capitol’s south-facing windows.

He pointed out buildings named for other partisan officials, such as the Tommy G. Thompson Commerce Center, named for the long-serving Republican governor, and the Risser Justice Center, named for a Democrat.

"While I certainly didn’t agree with Gov. Thompson on all of his policies, I frankly think that the facility that’s named after him is well-deserved,” he said.

Naming the seat of local government after Obama, moreover, is an apt reflection of the values of the community that the building serves, he said.

“When you look at Dane County and Madison and the overwhelming support for President Obama that was displayed not only in election results but in the numerous times he came here, the massive crowds who turned out to see him, I think this is a fitting gesture,” he said.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.