Taking the Pulse of the 2016 Milwaukee Elections

Breaking down the latest news in the 2016 race for Mayor, City Attorney, and several aldermanic seats. Plus: state Sen. Lena Taylor chimes in on the mayoral race.

A political drama could unfold soon in Milwaukee: A veteran African-American leader may shake up a citywide election by challenging an entrenched incumbent.

But it won’t be state Sen. Lena Taylor taking on Mayor Tom Barrett, despite reports she was flirting with a bid. Instead, insiders expect former state Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler to run against City Attorney Grant Langley.

That’s not to say that Taylor is entirely satisfied with Barrett and Langley. In fact, she said in an interview, “The mayor is doing a horrible job on many fronts,” particularly in confronting urban poverty and the plight of the black community, while the city attorney’s office deserves “someone more engaged.”

Nonetheless, Taylor says she’s turning down supporters who encouraged her to seek citywide office, opting to stay in the Legislature instead of taking on either Barrett or Langley.

Earlier this year, the smart money was on Langley to retire after a record 32 years as Milwaukee’s top lawyer. He was even believed to be grooming a successor: Then-Deputy City Attorney Danielle Bergner, lured back to city service after a stint in the private sector. Others — including Butler, Taylor, former Municipal Judge Vince Bobot and Ald. Tony Zielinski — might have run against her, but most would not have challenged Langley.

But all that changed in August, when Bergner returned to private practice. With no other obvious successor within his office, insiders say Langley is now leaning toward seeking a ninth term. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Butler confirmed he is seriously considering a race and expects to decide soon. He was elected to the municipal and Circuit Court benches before then-Gov. Jim Doyle appointed him to the high court — and before now-Justice Michael Gableman thwarted Butler’s bid for a full term in a nasty 2008 race.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s decision leaves Aldermen Bob Donovan and Joe Davis Sr. as Barrett’s most prominent announced challengers in the Feb. 16 primary. Campaign finance reports show that, as of June 30, Donovan and Davis were almost evenly matched in dollars — which is bad news for both of them. Donovan’s $38,743 and Davis’ $36,414 would be ample cash for an aldermanic race, but those sums were dwarfed by Barrett’s $636,197. Fundraising likely would have been an issue for Taylor as well, particularly this close to the election.

Donovan needs money not only to run for mayor, but also to seek re-election to his Common Council seat. Davis says he’s giving up his seat to focus on his mayoral campaign — a point underscored by longtime aide Sherman Morton’s candidacy to succeed him. In the race for what is likely to be the only open seat on the council, eight candidates have emerged so far, led by Morton, former Barrett aide and two-time County Board hopeful Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson, and community activist Tracey Dent, a two-time state Assembly candidate.

In other council races, the most formidable challengers fall into four groups:

Courthouse refugees: Insiders expect Supervisor Khalif Rainey to join the three candidates already facing Ald. Willie Wade, and Supervisor Martin “Mac” Weddle to add his name to Ald. Robert Puente’s six opponents. Both Rainey and Weddle would take a roughly 50 percent pay cut if they won re-election to seats that will become part-time after the 2016 balloting.

Recycled politicians: Former Ald. Angel Sanchez is expected to mount his fifth race for the seat that he won just once, now held by Ald. Jose Perez. Other familiar names include ex-private detective Ira Robins, a former lieutenant governor candidate moving from Elm Grove to challenge Ald. Nik Kovac; attorney Andrew Shaw, a former mayoral candidate now opposing Ald. Bob Bauman; and street preacher David King, who’s lost several state and federal races, taking on Puente.

Streetcar fighters: Despite streetcar opponents’ vows to put up conservative opponents against every alderman who voted for urban rail transit, they haven’t gotten too far beyond restaurateur Christopher Wiken’s bid to unseat Ald. Terry Witkowski. City building inspector Michael Olen, a onetime Republican Assembly candidate, is facing Council President Michael Murphy.

Backlash liberals: Two of the council’s more conservative members face challenges from the left. Donovan is trying to fend off Milwaukee Public Schools aide Justin Bielinski and state Rep. Josh Zepnick (whose campaign could be hampered by a recent drunken-driving arrest), while Zielinski is opposed by former School Board member Meagan Holman.

All those challenges don’t necessarily add up to big council turnover. Most incumbent aldermen are hard-working campaigners with more money in the bank than any of their challengers. But facing some colorful opponents, their road to re-election could well be both bumpy and scenic.



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.