© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Wisconsin's presidential primary and spring general election is April 2, 2024. Here's a guide on Milwaukee-area candidates and information on how to vote.

Meet the candidates for Milwaukee city attorney

Left to right: Evan Goyke and Tearman Spencer
Left to right: Evan Goyke and Tearman Spencer

Milwaukee city attorney is one of the competitive races on the ballot this spring — the election is Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

The city attorney acts as the chief legal advocate for the City of Milwaukee, representing the city of Milwaukee in litigation and providing legal advice to elected officials.

Who are the candidates?

Jump to: Evan Goyke | Tearman Spencer

Incumbent City Attorney Tearman Spencer is running for a second term, four years after unseating Grant Langley, who was Milwaukee's city attorney for 36 years. Spencer, who appears on the ballot as T. Spencer, is running against state Rep. Evan Goyke.

WUWM reached out to both candidates for an interview. Goyke responded to our request for an interview, Spencer did not.

At WUWM, we believe politicians are here to serve you. When they’re running for office, it is part of our election mission to ask them the questions you want answered and share what they believe in. When a candidate does not agree or respond to requests for an interview, we run what we call a “non-interview” to try to outline their positions for listeners.

Goyke's interview has been edited for length and clarity, and Spencer's non-interview covers topics we would have asked about if Spencer had agreed to an interview.

Evan Goyke

Interview with candidate Evan Goyke.

State Rep. Evan Goyke
Courtesy of Evan Goyke
State Rep. Evan Goyke is running for Milwaukee city attorney.

What does the city attorney do and why are you seeking the job?

The city attorney's office is a full-scale law firm for the city as an entity. So, we represent the city and provide legal advice to city actors in almost every capacity. Residents, unfortunately, most commonly interact with the city attorney's office in municipal court [where] we staff as prosecutors — speeding tickets, things like that.

And then, we represent the city when sued, and that could be a car accident, a slip and fall, or a civil rights violation. We provide legal counsel to the various departments, the city government, the city council, the mayor, real estate transactions that involve city financing, city land.

It really does touch just about every operation of city government. Some are really big and public and prominent, and some you probably will never encounter as a resident, but it's a real critical part of city operations.

You graduated from Marquette Law School in 2009 and worked as a public defender until being elected to the state Assembly in 2012. But what would you say to someone who looks at those two and half years of practicing the law in litigation and wondering whether you're the right person to lead the legal representation of about 600,000 Milwaukeeans?

I've never really stopped using my legal education — you never really forget what you've learned or turned your brain off.

And having worked in the state Legislature for the last 11 years, I've worked very closely with the city council. The mayor works with the city attorney's office on crafting legislation, and I've used my legal education in both writing the law and writing it in a way that will be interpreted to the best interest of the city so that we're solving the problem that we're seeking to solve.

I went to law school for a reason. I love politics. I've loved serving in the Legislature, but I cannot wait to get back in the court. I cut my teeth as a lawyer in court. I'm not afraid of getting up and talking to juries. I look forward to staffing the municipal court.

So, for the listeners, once elected, I want to take a shift in municipal court. I want to walk the walk with all of the assistant lawyers in the office, and I cannot wait to get back into court. I'm really excited about it.

How does the city attorney work with other legal bodies, such as the state Legislature, to enact and uphold the law?

The example that I was referencing involved working with the city attorney's office. This was in 2015 or 2016 to combat nuisance property in my neighborhood on 27th and Kilbourn. It was a magnet for criminal activity, and neighbors really organized to try to clean up the corner and make the neighborhood safer.

When I say I fell in love with it, I watched the assistant city attorneys. They were working with residents to try to solve our problem. They tried to do that in court and found that some loopholes in state law prevented them from holding this property owner accountable the way a different business owner would be able to be held accountable. So, we worked together in Madison, and we crafted a new law. We wrote it and passed it, and it actually fixed the problem, and I really loved that because it was creative.

So, the city attorney's office interacts with many different entities.

It's hard to tell you exactly what 2024, 2025 and 2026 will bring. Just know that if these new issues come up, the city attorney will be in the background, helping provide counsel, helping guide, helping litigate, and helping defend to address the problems as they may arise.

What should the city attorney’s office be doing now that it is not?

My focus will be on public safety, and solutions to public safety are many, so you have to have a multifaceted approach. However, the first and most direct response for public safety, to me as city attorney, will be the enforcement of traffic offenses in municipal court. We need to admit the realities of the unsafe conditions on many streets and there are too many people who have had repeated citations that continue to drive.

I fully support the mayor's Vision Zero, which is to get to zero traffic fatalities in Milwaukee. Municipal court and the enforcement of existing traffic laws play an important role there.

But I also look at safety as a broader neighborhood-based. What makes a safe place? And I used the example earlier of the corner that was a magnet of criminal activity. That wasn't a traditional law enforcement response. But in holding that business accountable, we've seen crime go down in my neighborhood on the near west side by double digits. And so I'm really excited to work on the neighborhood level.

We have beautiful, diverse, mosaic of neighborhoods in Milwaukee. It's one of the really unique, beautiful things about this city. And each of those neighborhoods has unique challenges and unique solutions. Some neighbors on the north side may have a different public safety concern than neighborhoods on the east side or south side. And I'm excited to listen to neighbors and help work with them directly.

A component that I really want to address is housing and housing quality. I believe housing quality is a key to neighborhood safety. We have huge portions of our city that pay 30, 40, 50% of their earnings to live in unsuitable conditions. The previous city attorney, Grant Langley, and his administration took a novel approach using an existing law called “receivership" and two notorious slumlords to court, took the properties away from those landlords that were profiting on uninhabitable conditions.

We need to bring back accountability to property owners.

If we are realistic and honest about the conditions in neighbors, we are going to start with quality housing — stable, affordable, quality housing — and build off of that in any neighborhood, in any part of the city. It's universal, it's nonpartisan. I'm not villainizing landlords; it's a difficult career, but we need to hold them accountable. People are paying good money. If there's a restaurant, you would walk in and you would see the health department’s letter A or B or C, and so we need to bring that type of transparency and demand excellence and quality from our landlords.

Following the state budget cycle last summer, some members of the Common Council openly discussed suing the state for what they saw as unfair provisions imposed on the city. However, that lawsuit never materialized. If a similar situation occurred during your term, what would be your approach to working with the state Legislature as the chief legal advocate of Milwaukee?

I know that landscape well, and I have worked on shared revenue and a local option sales tax for years. I was in the room with the Republicans when those provisions were added to the bill. And ultimately, I voted against the bill because of those strings that were attached. I could find no other example in any major metro city in America where that same provision, those same strings, were attached.

But I think it's important to clarify that the city attorney doesn't wake up and decide what policy initiatives they want to endeavor. We are the legal counsel to our client, the city. So, we follow the lead of the city government; I don't set the legal agenda for them. I just help. I want to stay connected and engaged because so many facets of municipal operations are governed by state law. It's important that we have a strong relationship in Madison. I am excited to walk arm in arm with the mayor and the city council members in continuing to push for good policy in Madison.

So, to answer your question, I want to bring Madison to Milwaukee more. I want them to see us and to experience life, and I don't mean just downtown. 

Tearman Spencer (incumbent)

A non-interview with incumbent Tearman Spencer.

Incumbent Tearman Spencer is running for another term as Milwaukee City Attorney.
Courtesy of City of Milwaukee website
Incumbent Tearman Spencer is running for another term as Milwaukee City Attorney.

A tumultuous first term

In 2020, Tearman Spencer won the election for Milwaukee city attorney against Grant Langley, who was Milwaukee’s city attorney for 36 years. In his first year, Spencer announced he would not prosecute all of the 170 tickets issued by the Milwaukee Police Department to protestors who allegedly violated curfew during the summer of 2020. He also recommended a $750,000 settlement in the case of former Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown, who was tased and arrested over a parking violation in 2018.

While on the campaign trail in early 2020, Spencer campaigned against his predecessor’s perceived cozy relationship with the Milwaukee Police Department, and these actions seemed to deliver on his campaign promises while also drawing the ire of the police union.

Within the first few months of Spencer’s term, members of his office left in droves, and his office has continued to be understaffed throughout his term. He blamed the departures on low staff pay, media coverage, changes in workplace dynamics due to COVID-19 and his predecessor’s staff resisting change.

At a press conference in October 2021 explaining the departures, he said he inherited a dysfunctional office from his predecessor.

However, problems continued to mount as Spencer's term continued. In 2022, a former staffer, Namoi Gehling, filed a sexual discrimination claim against Spencer, alleging that he touched her inappropriately. Spencer tasked an attorney working in his office with writing a memo denigrating Gehling's work after she requested to leave Spencer’s office. That attorney resigned, calling the request “an abuse of power.”

Spencer maintained that the allegations were not accurate. However, the Milwaukee Common Council recommended settling Gehling’s case for $40,000. State investigators found probable cause that Spencer violated state labor law by forcing Gehling out of his office because of her allegations against him.

Spencer has not spoken much with the media during his term. At the same press conference in October 2021, he said the media twisted his words. "I want to ask you guys right now to stop harassing my employees. I’m no longer giving you interviews because you do not report them accurately. I will give you a statement if you report it as written, without your changes, because you are not reporting what is being accurately said," Spencer said.

WUWM would have asked him if he still believes low staff pay, media coverage and issues inherited from his predecessor are still to blame for turmoil in his office. WUWM would have also asked Spencer why voters should trust him in a second term.

E-cigarettes and pursuing public good

Spencer’s office has also seen some bonafide wins during his tenure. In 2020, Spencer recommended that Milwaukee join the state of Wisconsin and over 5,000 other states and cities in a class action lawsuit against JUUL Labs, an e-cigarette manufacturer. The lawsuit accused JUUL of knowingly targeting minors in its advertising campaigns. In 2023, it was announced that the city will receive $2.47 million in the settlement, which it plans to spend on campaigns to mitigate tobacco use by minors.

In his 2020 campaign, Spencer said that he wanted the city attorney’s office to be more proactive and not avoid responsibility.

WUWM would have asked Spencer if preventing problems like e-cigarette use by minors would still be a central focus of his office if he wins a second term, and if so, what are some other issues he thinks the city attorney’s office is positioned to address?

Shared revenue lawsuit that never happened

In exchange for being granted the right to raise local taxes, the Wisconsin state Legislature dictated that the City of Milwaukee accept certain policy conditions, which included the mandatory hiring of police officers and the presence of law enforcement on the Fire and Police Commission, the city’s civilian police oversight board.

At the time, there was talk in the Common Council that the city might sue the state over these conditions, alleging that they were an unprecedented attack on the city’s right to self-govern and that these conditions were not tied to any other city in the country.

However, that lawsuit never materialized. WUWM would have asked Spencer why this lawsuit was not pursued. Are there legal reasons the city could not sue the state over this, or was there another strategy behind not pursuing the lawsuit?

Your feedback will help inform our election coverage.

Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
Related Content