Legal Eagles

The 2016 race few people are talking about – city attorney for Milwaukee – could become a brawl.

After electing him to citywide office for some three decades, most Milwaukee voters still couldn’t pick Grant Langley out of a lineup. The city attorney has taken a low-key approach to issues as contentious as settling police brutality cases and deciding whether a petition drive can force a referendum on a planned streetcar line. (It can’t, according to Langley.) For all his influence, insiders doubt Langley, now 69, will seek a ninth consecutive term in 2016 after a record 32 years as chief lawyer for municipal government and Milwaukee Public Schools. If he bows out, his position could emerge from behind the scenes and into the spotlight, and sources say several prominent lawyers are considering whether to step onto the stage. (Each person below was either unavailable for comment or stopped short of closing the door on a run for city attorney; no one has yet announced a candidacy.)

1. Lena Taylor

Some insiders believe the state senator would enter the race even if Langley seeks re-election. Taylor’s fiery oratory would heat up the campaign, and she brings experience running citywide: In her 2008 bid to unseat then-County Executive Scott Walker, she carried the city, only to lose in the suburbs. To her disadvantage, she’s alienated many of her Democratic colleagues and African-American constituents by siding with majority Republicans to pass concealed-carry legislation, the “castle doctrine” self-defense law, and a reduction of the Milwaukee County Board’s powers.

2. Vincent Bobot

With stints as a municipal judge, assistant city attorney and police lieutenant, Bobot has the broadest law enforcement resume of any potential candidate. As a politician, however, his record is less impressive: He failed to advance in the nonpartisan primary for mayor in 2004 and in the Democratic primary for county sheriff in 2006, when he lost to incumbent David Clarke.

3. Louis Butler Jr.

Appointed by former Gov. Jim Doyle to be the state’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, Butler lost his 2008 race for a full term to conservative challenger Michael Gableman, who relied on big-money attack ads and the business community’s angst over Butler’s pro-consumer rulings in medical malpractice and lead poisoning cases. Later, Republicans in Congress repeatedly blocked President Barack Obama’s attempts to nominate Butler for a federal judgeship in Madison. But the veteran jurist and former public defender could fare better with the Milwaukee voters who elected him to the municipal and circuit court benches (most recently in 2002) and strongly supported him in his 2008 Supreme Court race.

4. Danielle Bergner

The Wisconsin Law Journal and Public Policy Forum have labeled this 37-year-old deputy city attorney a rising star, and she’s impressed her bosses both in private and municipal practice with her ability to negotiate complex deals. Unlike other potential candidates, Bergner has never run for public office and has no political base – a situation similar to Langley’s. He was 38 when he took on (and took down) his boss, then-City Attorney Jim Brennan, after toiling for 13 years as an assistant city attorney.

5. Tony Zielinski

Perhaps the most energetic campaigner in the emerging field, the Bay View alderman and former county supervisor could dip into cash reserves left over from an aborted 2010 race for lieutenant governor. Some observers speculate that if Zielinski runs for city attorney, County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic would seek his Common Council seat as a way to escape the impending 2016 pay cut for county supervisors. Zielinski’s downsides lie in his sometimes-volatile temper and lack of courtroom experience.

‘Legal Eagles’ appears in the April, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.