Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

City Attorney Grant Langley Retiring?

Vince Bobot announces for job, leading to speculation Langley may retire after 36 years.

By - Jun 18th, 2019 12:07 pm
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Grant Langley. Photo courtesy of the Public Information Division - City of Milwaukee.

Grant Langley. Photo courtesy of the Public Information Division – City of Milwaukee.

Grant Langley has served with Milwaukee’s Office of the City Attorney seemingly forever. He began as an assistant city attorney in 1971, just after graduation from Marquette University Law School, won the top job in 1984 and is now finishing his 9th term and 36th year in that office. He is by far the longest serving city attorney in Milwaukee history. 

Vincent Bobot. Photo courtesy of Bobot for City Attorney.

Vincent Bobot. Photo courtesy of Bobot for City Attorney.

But the scuttlebutt in City Hall is that Langley will retire. Now 73, he would be serving until age 78 if he wins another term. The fact that former Milwaukee Municipal Judge Vince Bobot has announced for the seat is taken as a sign that he believes Langley is stepping down. Bobot worked under Langley as an assistant city attorney from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2005 to 2008, and tells Urban Milwaukee “I have a lot of respect for Mr. Langley.”  

Bobot says that “for the last nine months I have asked Mr. Langley his intentions. I’ve asked more than several times. He’s still unsure.” 

Langley tells Urban Milwaukee “I have not made a decision but I am thinking about it. I expect to make a decision soon.”

Bobot considered running in 2016 but once Langley decided he wanted another term, “I honored that and decided not to run,” Bobot says.  

Rumors about this generated an entire story in 2015 by Larry Sandler for Milwaukee Magazine suggesting Langley would step down and telling us the five candidates, including Bobot, who could be running in a “brawl” of an election. Some brawl: Langley didn’t retire, none of the five ran for the seat and the city attorney ran unopposed.

Tearman Spencer. Photo courtesy of Spencer for Milwaukee.

Tearman Spencer. Photo courtesy of Spencer for Milwaukee.

So what’s different this time? Milwaukee attorney Tearman Spencer announced on May 21st he was running for the office, and Bobot says, “A lot of my supporters were saying you can’t just keep waiting.” And so one week after Spencer’s press release Bobot issued his own campaign announcement. 

Bobot claims he’s in the race for sure, even if Langley decides to run, but says “I don’t anticipate criticizing Langley at all in this race.” 

Indeed, Bobot’s announcement for the office didn’t even mention Langley’s name, much less question any of his policies, suggesting Bobot has no taste for zinging his old boss. Instead, Bobot trumpets his resume, which also includes 22 years as a police officer and some years as a private attorney, and lets us know that “My family and I agreed that now is a good time for me to return to my first calling in life — public service.”

Unmentioned is that city attorney, with its salary of $147,336, plus a chance to increase the size of Bobot’s city pension, is one of the best paid public service p0sts in town. Bobot has tried before to regain public office, campaigning for mayor in 2004 and failing to get past the primary, and entering the Democratic primary for Milwaukee County Sheriff in 2006, losing a fairly tight race (with 46 percent of the vote) to incumbent David Clarke. Some expect Bobot to drop his latest campaign should Langley run, which Bobot denies. 

Spencer, by contrast, makes no bones about the need for change in the Office of City Attorney. He noted his priorities “would include working with the Police Department, Mayor, and Common Council in a proactive way to develop policies and protocols that will result in better police-community relations, lower the risk of injury and death, and reduce city payouts.” Noting the city has paid out $23 million in claims for police misconduct in the last five years, Spencer says “The city attorney’s office should be more proactive in helping the police protect and serve, not just avoid liability… We should be preventing problems, not just avoiding responsibility.”

Spencer, who is African American, has a compelling personal story. The Milwaukee native earned an engineering degree  “and became an award-winning safety engineer, focusing on transportation infrastructure including dams, bridges, tunnels, and rail and aviation systems,” the release notes. “Spencer was then diagnosed with a degenerative condition that confined him to a wheelchair, and while striving to recover, earned a Masters in Business Administration from Golden Gate University.” He learned to walk again, got his law degree from UW-Madison Law School, and now “operates a successful national law practice, handling real estate and business cases,” the release notes. 

Langley, should he run, could be tough to defeat. He was first elected in 1984 in an upset, beating his boss, City Attorney James Brennan, in a contentious election. He then won reelection four straight times without an opponent, until 2004, when he waxed former Milwaukee County Supervisor Fred Tabak by 63 percent to 36 percent. Four years later, in 2008, Langley won another easy victory, by 59 percent to 41 percent over Pedro Colon, then a state legislator and now a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge.

Tabak hammered Langley for allegedly spending too much taxpayer money on too many high paid assistant city attorneys, and got nowhere with that argument. Colon had the support of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, and launched all sorts of attacks, including that Langley should have done more to prevent police corruption. He even won the vaunted Shepherd Express endorsement for the office, whose editorial offered the ringing argument that “Colon may not have Langley’s 24 years of experience in the position, but who does?” Somehow that failed to win the day for Colon. 

Langley can go years without his name appearing in the news but has recently courted controversy with his handling of the suit against the city by Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown. Anyone who has seen the video of his ugly treatment by the Milwaukee Police is unlikely to be persuaded by Langley’s legal filing claiming “The injuries and damages sustained by the plaintiff, if any, were caused in whole or in part by their own acts or omissions.”  

Considering that both Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales had apologized for the incident, with Barrett saying “as a human being I am offended by what I saw on this video” and Morales saying he had disciplined the officers involved, Langley’s aggressiveness was a surprise. 

Barrett criticized Langley’s legal filing, saying “I think it’s counterproductive for anybody to turn up the heat with rhetoric like this.“

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was blunter in a press release slamming Langley: “Frankly, it is beyond disappointing that given all that we have seen on this incident, the City Attorney would attempt to shift the blame to the victim in order to shirk real accountability.”

And the publication Think Progress blasted Langley’s brief as a blend of “lawyerly obtuseness” and “toddler-like perversities,” which would seem a hard thing to pull off. The story carps that the city attorney “disputes citations of newspaper articles and academic research, lodges objections to Brown’s lawyer’s quotations from body-worn camera video from the night, and tries to reverse Police Chief Alfonso Morales’ own public conclusions about what happened that night. … Langley has many alternative options to the aggressive deny-everything approach he opted for in the Brown suit, as his career working for Milwaukee illustrates. He’s offered settlements many times in civil cases involving the police department.”

Odds are we will hear more on this issue from Spencer in his campaign. In fact, even Bobot now seems to be suggesting a need for change, telling Urban Milwaukee he will be involved in advising the police “in how to follow the law” to avoid such suits. 

“I will be more visible,” Bobot adds. “I want people to know who the city attorney is and what the the city attorney does.” 

All of which sounds like a criticism of Mr. Langley. 

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

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