William Lantigua’s election as mayor of Lawrence four years ago had huge symbolic value: he was the first Latino mayor elected anywhere in Massachusetts, but his tenure has been turbulent.
Lantigua initially refused to leave his job as State Representative. He was also sued by Attorney General Martha Coakley for campaign-finance violations, weathered two recall attempts, and seen several close associates indicted on corruption charges.
Now, Lantigua is facing a tough challenge from Lawrence City Councilor Dan Rivera, who claims the mayor’s image problems keep him from governing effectively.
“When you can’t get industry to come in here and talk because you’re toxic, can’t get can’t get state and federal leaders to take a picture or bring a check for any special program, that’s a problem for us,” Rivera said.
“Sixty percent of every dollar that comes to this community comes from federal [and] state people,” he added. “We need that. So if you can’t do that, you can’t protect us in those ways, you can’t be our mayor.”
But Rivera has another critique of Lantigua, one that’s more subjective and emotional. He claims Lantigua’s public relations woes make Lawrence’s residents look bad.
“It’s awful to have somebody who’s so arrogant and not like us,” Rivera says. “’Cause that’s not us: we’re churchgoing, hardworking, honest, upfront—not, you know, egomaniacs.”
Whether those arguments will sway Lawrence voters is an open question. Rivera points out that, in the mayoral primary, Lantigua got less votes than his five opponents. And some of the people we met in Lawrence agree that it’s time for a change.
Case in point: Maria Serrano-Montero—who says that that after voting for Lantigua in 2009, she’ll be backing Rivera on November 5.
“I think the city needs change,” Serrano-Montero explains. “I have nothing against Lantigua personally. I just feel my vote counts, like anybody else’s, and I have the right to ask for change. The future of Lawrence is looking grim.
“The school systems are in the worst condition ever since he took over,” she adds. “I just don’t know--I don’t want to say he created the problem. I just don’t think he contributed to making it any better.”
Jennifer Lora is another former Lantigua supporter who plans to vote for Rivera. She says that when she tried to get information from Mayor Lantigua about home foreclosures, his office wasn’t responsive.
“There was no one to speak to,” Lora recalls. “They said, ‘Call the bank, call HUD.’ But in reality, we should be able to speak to our mayor.”
When WGBH spoke with Lantigua at his campaign headquarters, though, he didn’t sound like someone who feels threatened. In fact, the mayor said that his political position may actually be stronger than it was when he was first elected four years ago.
Referring to a political map of Lawrence, Lantigua gestures to the precincts he won in the mayoral primary (colored purple) and the three precincts carried by Rivera (colored red, and clustered in South Lawrence). Even in those red areas, Lantigua said proudly, his own support is surging.
“In two, we tripled the number, in one we doubled the number [of votes] we received in 2009,” Lantigua said. “Which means the people who reside in that part of the city – they had doubts when I first came into office – they’ve seen the work that I’ve done so far. And I have their confidence: ‘You know what, he’s not the person we thought he would be, a mayor just for the north of the city or for this group or that group.’”
“I’m a mayor for the whole city,” Lantigua added. “Before my days are over, you’re gonna see all this city the color purple. And I don’t mean the movie-- I mean the map of the city of Lawrence.”
Lantigua said that’s because Lawrence is making strides--from newly paved streets to a succession of balanced budgets to a recent credit-rating upgrade. (Those balanced budgets, it’s worth noting, came under a state-appointed receiver who credited Lantigua for his efforts.) Lantigua’s pitch to voters is simple: forget how you feel about me, and look at what I’ve actually done.
“Regardless of whatever personal reason or own feeling you might have, look at it from the management point of view,” he said. “Have I managed the city well over the last three and a half years?”
For Lantigua backers, that message is potent political fuel.
“He’s a good man,” said Joseph Rosario, who works for the city’s Department of Public Works. “He’s done a lot for Lawrence. The streets of Lawrence have never been so clean.”
“Mayor Lantigua is a person who is very straight,” added Jose Felix, a tax preparer who says he regularly urges his clients to back Lantigua. “He is honest. You don’t see that kind of politician these days.”
If the Lawrence mayor’s race has a wild card, it’s the recent endorsements of Rivera by Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas and Senator Elizabeth Warren. While that could boost Rivera, it could also spark a backlash if Lawrence voters bristle at outsider involvement. Either way, Lantigua says the impact of such endorsements is limited.
“I have the people of Lawrence, the residents, endorsing me--the barbershops, the beauty parlors,” he says. “Those are the people who really cast their vote.
And tomorrow, those people may give Lantigua a second term as mayor.