Parting Shots

The Shame of Names

Naming public infrastructure for politicians is bogus, even shameful

By Dave Skinner

Before I dive into my topic, with letters to the editor the usual pre-election boilerplate, a suggestion: These letters function mostly as “free ads” for usually-dead-broke candidates, or their opponents. You’ll understand much more by Googling the authors if you don’t already know of them. I mean, when the sister of a former Democratic U.S. Representative from Idaho showers praise on a Flathead Republican – what’s her real motive?

Back to business:

Earlier this spring, the Gianforte Family Foundation (endowed by, yep, current Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a tech billionaire) gave Montana State University $50 million to build a new home for MSU’s Gianforte School of Computing, named such thanks to $8 million contributed in 2016 (during Greg Gianforte’s first gubernatorial run) by the Gianforte family.

Last week’s headline: “Montana State University Students, Staff Oppose Naming Building Gianforte Hall.” Oh, my.

I see “named” buildings or other infrastructure all the time. It’s sometimes annoying, almost never enlightening, and too darn often, just a political sop that bestows underserved credit. For example, in New Jersey, there’s a gigantic, neon-backlit sign proclaiming the “Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station.” The train depot cost $312 million, not one penny of which came from the late senator. How about the billion-something Jacob Javits Convention Center west of Penn Station in Manhattan? Yep, Hillary Clinton was supposed to give her 2016 victory speech under those stunning, and stunningly expensive, glass ceilings.

Sixty miles east of Kansas City, there’s the Ike Skelton Bridge. It’s fifty million Georges worth of pristine four-lane Interstate glory with two 10-mph hairpins providing access. When I crossed this for-real Bridge to Nowhere, I had company: A John Deere tractor.

Nearer home is Helena’s impressive Max Sieben Baucus Federal Building.

But my favorite example is in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The “James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge” proudly arcs across the Yampa River and old Rio Grande coal line on the north side of town. We actually held a community vote between Soul and “New Stock Bridge,” with 26,000 votes and only 10,000 county voters. I voted twice, no ID! I thought it perfect, nobody will ever ask: Who was James Brown?

Sure enough, the Godfather of Soul demanded (and gullible boosters paid) big bucks for his flashy entourage. No concert, it was all over in minutes after Brown yelled “Papa’s got a brand-new bridge!” Which, as with the others I listed, Papa didn’t pay for – YOU did.

Naming public infrastructure for politicians is bogus, even shameful. We should instead memorialize Medal of Honor winners, those who paid the ultimate price for all of us, then work all the way down the ranks to the lowliest deceased veteran before any politician, alive or preferably dead, gets another plaque.

What about memorializing private persons who fund infrastructure for either public or private benefit? Or endow academic departments at “institutions of higher learning?” Their ego and money, right?

When my fellow Montana State alum Jake Jabs, the furniture tycoon, gifted $25 million in 2011, much went to build a new Jabs Hall, which by the way now houses the “Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship.” Who pitched a fit? Nobody I remember. Thanks, Jake.

But now that Greg Gianforte has dropped $50 million smackers so the rest of us won’t need to, a whopping 18 (out of some 14,000 students) declared they have a problem. And university “staff” concerns were fronted by political science professor David Parker, who declared to the Board of Regents that his department colleagues “strongly object” because it might lead to the “perception [of MSU] endorsing Gianforte.”

Professor Parker of all people should know better than that. Any voter with a pulse knows that college precincts nationwide, including Montana State, vote so darn blue, they’re a special shade of pink! Giving $50 million to swing a handful of campus votes would be the stupidest waste of money ever.

So, before they decide, I hope the Regents think to ask: If MSU’s Department of Political Science had been gifted fifty million bucks by the Gianforte Family Foundation, would Dr. Parker and/or his department colleagues “strongly object” to their school being named after the Gianfortes?