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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Capitol Balloon

It seems to be human nature for groups to adopt mascots. Some of these last a long time and become honored symbols, like the badger that first appeared on our state seal in 1852. Others are short-lived but deeply cherished, like the heart-shaped balloon that demonstrators released inside the Capitol dome in the spring of 2011.

Gov. Walker introduced his administration's budget proposals on Friday, February 11th. The first large protest occurred the following Monday, which was Valentine's Day, when students from the University of Wisconsin marched up State St. with red helium balloons and signs reading, "Please don't break our hearts." They left thousands of valentines in the Capitol to show how much they love their university, whose budget was to be slashed under the proposal.

Some demonstrators released heart-shaped helium balloons that day. Most quickly deflated and sunk to the floor, but one of them remained up at the very top of the dome. Protesters began to look for it every day and informally adopted it as a mascot. Some said that its unusual tenacity – helium balloons usually last just a few days, but this one survived for months – symbolized their own persistence.

Interest in the balloon became so widespread that one protester launched a Facebook page devoted to it. Recollections, musings, photos, and videos accumulated there. The page owner told Odd Wisconsin that, "The Capitol Balloon is 'one of us!' It is the observer of all that happens in Our House [the Capitol]. Its heart-shape is emblematic of the collective feeling folks have for Our House, and for the link of the first days in Feb to now — Our Heart is in Our House."

Jon Rosenblum of Madison radio station WORT aired a report on the Capitol balloon and its fans. Security officers told the reporter that at night when the building is closed and the air cools down, the balloon descended to the level of the first floor balcony. But every morning as protesters, visitors, and lawmakers filled the space with hot air, the balloon ascended to its usual location. That report can be heard here.

With the cooperation and assistance of the Capitol Police, the Dept. of Administration, and individuals on all sides of the issues, the Society gathered many documents and artifacts about the Walker administration's 2011 proposals and the protests that followed. The story of the balloon and the importance that certain people attached to it have become part of Wisconsin folklore. Maybe not on the scale of Old Abe or the Hodag, but remembered by many, nonetheless.

:: Posted in Curiosities on June 16, 2011
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