Only in Madison could a quintessential, unforgettable dig at the city’s undeniable quirkiness have a chance at becoming its first official motto.
But, being Madison, there will be debate.
Thirty-five years after former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus declared “Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality,” Mayor Paul Soglin is proposing a more geographically correct version of the jibe to be — as Webster’s dictionary defines it — the formal expression of the city’s goals or ideals.
Soglin, who was mayor when then-candidate Dreyfus offered the poke in 1978, at the time quickly advised a governor’s aide that Dreyfus had it wrong, not because the premise was inaccurate but because the city had grown to 65 square miles.
On Tuesday, Soglin will offer a resolution to the City Council establishing Madison’s motto as “77 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality,” with a provision to change the size as the city continues to grow.
The proposed motto fits a city that adopted the plastic pink flamingo as its official bird in 2009 and uses a 77 Square Miles Ordinance to exile laws no longer enforceable, the resolution says.
The phrase, it says, is popular with bloggers, websites and newspapers, including The Capital Times’ weekly entertainment publication 77 Square.
Soglin said the expression is self-deprecating and actually describes a vibrant citizenry engaged in civic, cultural and intellectual pursuits.
“I find that people have a sense of humor and appreciation for it,” he said.
But some fear the proposal doesn’t live up to the lofty ideals of a motto, such as Wisconsin’s “Forward” or New York state’s “Excelsior” (ever upward) and might perpetuate stereotypes.
“I have a sense of humor. I have my pink flamingo. But I don’t think it’s a good motto to have for the city,” said Council President Chris Schmidt, who intends to vote no. “We’re feeding a meme. This is more harmful than helpful to us.”
Stuart Levitan, a local historian who has long served the city on many committees, said he admires Soglin and likes the idea of a motto but that it should be dignified and inspiring, evoking spirit and style, rather than a joke.
Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau leaders said they appreciate the mayor’s humor and the historical reference but that a motto representing the city should be thought through.
“Maybe this is the mayor’s playful way of bringing up a topic that’s important — branding our city,” Convention and Visitors Bureau president Deb Archer said.
Zach Brandon, Chamber president and a former alderman, agreed a brand is important and joked, “Maybe we should figure out the square footage of the City Council chamber and use that.”
Soglin, informed that some have reservations, said the proposal could be changed from a motto to an idiosyncrasy, which expresses the temperament or mental condition of a particular person or group.
“It’s a statement about who we are,” he said.
The decision will probably take a series of meetings, Soglin said, seemingly half joking and half serious.
“This is Madison.”