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Embattled tourism chief sells liberal agenda

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 3,  2019

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — Embattled state Tourism chief Sara Meaney insists her motives are driven by data, not politics. 

But the Department of Tourism, at the direction of Democrat Gov. Tony Evers’ secretary-designee, has taken a decidedly left turn — in defiance of stakeholders who want the agency to remain nonpartisan. 

At strategic planning sessions earlier this year, Meaney’s team attempted to paint their social justice agenda as a top priority despite the fact that local tourism leaders said they were more interested in traditional initiatives. 

In a photo obtained by Empower Wisconsin, a chart clearly shows marketing, collaboration, funding and brand development are the top priorities among those surveyed. Yet, Tourism Department leaders emphasized diversity initiatives and work force development in their presentations.

According to the presentation slide, “Respondents believe that broadening marketing reach to international travelers and welcoming a more diverse population to Wisconsin should be the top priority” for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

No, respondents didn’t say that. Tourism officials statewide will tell you the importance of providing a welcoming atmosphere. That is, after all, what tourism is all about. They will tell you that they are doing that now, and they don’t need a state-funded diversity initiative to accomplish their shared mission. 

“Stakeholders would like (Tourism) to help develop a workforce that represents a more diverse population and is trained in welcoming diverse visitors,” agency leaders insist. 

Again, no. Work force ranks at the bottom of the list of stakeholder priorities, according to the tourism slide and to local tourism officials who attended the presentations. 

Critics have voiced growing concerns about the Department of Tourism secretary-designee’s efforts to politicize the apolitical agency. 

In a letter to Meaney, state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) wrote that he is concerned that Meaney’s criteria for future appointees to the Governor’s Council on Tourism “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.” 

“The job of the Department of Tourism is to promote the State of Wisconsin, not to promote a political agenda — checking a racially-based box should not come before qualifications,” Jacque wrote.

State Tourism officials have refused to answer Empower Wisconsin’s questions, but Meaney told Wispolitics.com last month that she is just looking for ways to attract younger and more diverse visitors. 

“This does not mean to the exclusion of the existing base. It means we can do more to attract more people to spend more dollars here,” she told the publication. “That is not a political agenda. That is an economic agenda. That’s how I see my job making the most sense.”

The Governor’s Council on Tourism is expected to meet later this week. A special meeting had to be called, sources tell Empower Wisconsin, to fix October’s botched elections for council officers. Those votes were cast electronically in an apparent violation of state law. 

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