Helms' legacy debated amid push to name Raleigh building for him
Posted December 6, 2012
Updated May 10, 2013
RALEIGH, N.C. — Longtime U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms is one of the best-known figures in North Carolina politics. He's also one of the most divisive, and a push to rename a Raleigh federal building after him has reignited the debate over his legacy.
Second District Congresswoman Renee Ellmers introduced a resolution in the U.S. House last month to name the Century Post Office on Fayetteville Street the "Jesse Helms Federal Building and United States Courthouse."
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr introduced similar legislation in the Senate this week.
Helms had his local office in the building for most of his five terms in the Senate. The conservative icon died in 2008 at age 86.
Tim Winslow said he likes the idea of naming a building for Helms.
"I was young man in the Navy and I needed help and I wrote him, and he helped me out," Winslow said. "He took good care of his people."
Stuart Turner, on the other hand, said he cannot believe anyone's even considering the move.
"You've got to be kidding me," Turner said when he learned of the effort.
Any politician can be controversial, North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene says, but Helms stands out for his fights against women's rights, gay rights, disability rights, labor rights and especially civil rights.
"To a lot of America, the name 'Jesse Helms' just means racist, and I don't think that's a very good image we want to put out for the rest of the country," Greene said.
An online petition against the bills launched by left-leaning political group Progress North Carolina has already obtained 4,000 signatures.
"A lot of people don't agree with what he stood for. A lot of people are very upset about what he stood for," said Justin Guillory, a spokesman for the group.
North Carolina has changed dramatically since Helms' day, Guillory said.
"We can't just whitewash history. He stood for a lot of mean and hurtful things to a lot of people, and that's not the kind of thing we need on a public building," he said.
No vote has been set on either bill, but Burr said that Helms' service to the state should be recognized.
“Jesse Helms was a transformative figure in our state’s history who placed service to his constituents above all other priorities in his public life," he said in a statement. "Whether they agreed with him on political issues or not, North Carolinians had a dedicated advocate in Washington in Jesse Helms, and this bill will help to commemorate his legacy and his service to our state.”
The National Park Service says the building was the first federal government project in the South after the Civil War. The Federal Building, as it's called in the National Registry of Historic Places, was completed in 1878.
It houses Raleigh's office for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, as well as a post office. The building was renamed the "Century Post Office" in 1978 to celebrate its 100-year milestone.