Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 6, 2019
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Not known for controversy, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has become a hive of intrigue in the Evers era, in which liberal politics seem to touch even the most benign levels of government.
And not even Packers legend Donald Driver is safe under the new regime, sources tell Empower Wisconsin.
Several media outlets this week reported Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney has been criticized for reportedly trying to push out Kathy Kopp, a longtime member of the Governor’s Council on Tourism. The department also is in hot water for apparently violating Wisconsin’s open records laws, an all-too-common charge lodged against the Evers administration.
Kopp declined to comment for this story, but in an email to Meaney she notes the secretary had asked Kopp to resign her position as early as December. Kopp, a widely respected tourism leader twice reappointed to the tourism council by former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, plans to retire next year as director of the Platteville Area Chamber of Commerce. She’s held that post for nearly 30 years.
“As I indicated to you, I had not thought about resigning early, especially before my duties here at the Chamber are completed,” Kopp wrote in the email, which she shared with some of her fellow council members.
Meaney, in her response to Kopp, wrote that she was disappointed in what she described as Kopp’s “gross mischaracterization” of their conversation and in Kopp’s “choice of this public channel to communicate.”
Multiple sources tell Empower Wisconsin that there was no mischaracterization of Meaney’s intention of getting rid of Kopp, who represents southwest Wisconsin, a region of the state not “diverse” enough for Meaney’s liking.
Officials from the Department of Tourism did not return Empower Wisconsin’s phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.
State Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) in a letter to Meaney expressed his concerns about what he described as the secretary’s repeated suggestions that Kopp resign. He claimed that the requests occurred in several phone calls that Meaney initiated.
Jacque wrote that he is concerned about Meaney’s indication that her criteria for future council appointees “are primarily weighted toward ethnic and cultural diversity, especially as tourism stakeholders outside of Madison and Milwaukee have repeatedly indicated anxiety that tourism investments will increasingly shift to those two largest urban areas of our state.”
Meaney and Evers have said they want to in particular to devote more focus on Milwaukee, site of next year’s Democratic National Convention.
It’s no surprise that Meaney, a longtime Milwaukee resident, would lead the department in a Milwaukee-centric direction. It is concerning to some observers that the nonpolitical agency has become so partisan.
The Department of Tourism these days is populated by plenty of left-leaning partisans. Craig Trost, the department’s comms director, previously served as political director for U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), chief of staff for state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), and as an aide for state Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison).
Deputy Secretary Anne Sayers previously worked as deputy state director of For Our Future, a progressive political action committee, where she pushed issues such as climate change and racial justice. In that capacity, she also led political operations in Wisconsin in which she worked to “build the influence of partner organizations” such as Big Labor, which dumped north of $12 million into For Our Future’s political action coffers in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Jacque — chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development — also raised concerns about tourism’s attempt to elect officers and members of the council’s marketing committees via an online poll. Doing so is a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
“It appears that the Governor’s Council on Tourism may have violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings law, which is deeply concerning to me — even more so as there are revelations that unknown individuals are voting multiple times, and perhaps including individuals who are not supposed to be casting a ballot. It appears that the council’s vote itself was not conducted at a meeting that was properly noticed and open to the public,” the senator wrote.
Kopp and another member were in the running for chairperson of the council.
Tourism leadership also prevented legislative representatives on the council from casting ballots, which also appears to be against the law.
Empower Wisconsin also has learned that the Department of Tourism has decided it will no longer feature Green Bay Packers legend and “Dancing with the Stars” champion Donald Driver in its ad campaigns. Driver, sources say, is contracted to serve as tourism spokesman through 2020.