¡Arriba Lantigua!

William Lantigua has become a pariah statewide but in Lawrence, the Teflon mayor is fighting for four more years.

“Who are you?”

Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua is not happy to see a reporter in his downtown campaign headquarters, much less one who has dropped in unannounced and is busy snapping his picture. The Essex Street storefront, bustling with volunteers on a Friday afternoon before the preliminary election, quiets down. The mayor stops stacking envelopes into a plastic tray. His face displays no emotion, but his commanding baritone says it all. He is annoyed. Very annoyed. Brushing aside the reporter’s question about his campaign, Lantigua returns to the mailing. “Take all the photos you want,” he says. “But I won’t comment.”

Any Massachusetts politician up for reelection with half of Lantigua’s troubles probably would not want talk to a reporter, either. Where to start? The dustup over failing to resign his State House seat immediately after becoming mayor in 2010? Two recall attempts? The indictments of his former chief of staff, his current deputy police chief, a police officer, and a city parking garage attendant who worked as his photographer? Lantigua’s own appearance before a grand jury? State income tax liens? Allegations of campaign finance irregularities?

Problems don’t seem to stick to Lawrence’s mayor, William Lantigua.
These problems would have crippled a lesser politician. But this is Lawrence, and Lantigua’s problems are viewed differently here. Where the rest of Massachusetts sees a never-ending spectacle of scandals and questionable decisions, Lantigua’s Immigrant City supporters see a campaign of innuendo and falsehoods orchestrated by a news media determined to end the political career of the first elected Latino mayor in Massachusetts.

The preliminary mayoral contest on September 17 was not about the city’s future. It was a referendum on a controversial mayor. No one in Lawrence thought Lantigua would lose, and he did not disappoint, finishing first and pulling in nearly 50 percent of the vote in a six-man race.

In public, Lantigua oozes confidence. His nonchalance about his very real troubles has alienated many Lawrencians and most of the Bay State political establishment. How­ever, that defiance has made him a hero in a city that is roughly 75 percent Latino. “Because of all the scandals that have been in the media, people outside Lawrence have a different sense of what is happening here,” says José Alfonso García, a close political ally of Lantigua who works for the city’s schools. “Inside the city of Lawrence, it’s totally different. The image that Mayor Lantigua has, the support that he has, is incredible.”

Lantigua, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1974, has been on the Bay State’s political radar for a little more than a decade. But for more than 20 years, the mayor has been a community hero to many Latinos, especially Dominicans, Lawrence’s largest Latino ethnic group. He greets his Facebook friends and Twitter followers with “¡Hola, familia!” (“Hello, family!”). He has been known to take money out of his own pocket to help a person or their relatives through a tough patch. The charismatic 58-year-old is a regular fixture in barbershops and city stores. Lawrence residents even get birthday cards from him.

“He is the person who looks after us and cares for us like family,” says Lantigua supporter Milagros Williams in Spanish.

Channeling Curley
City Council vice president Dan Rivera, Lantigua’s opponent in the final election, says each individual incident fits into a broader pattern. “This is James Michael Curley,” he says. “I don’t know why people are shocked; this is not new to American politics.”  

“Tell me the mayor of a city that has not made mistakes,” says Isabel Melendez,
the mayor’s campaign manager.

Indeed, to understand Lantigua’s hold on Lawrence, think of him as a modern-day heir to the colorful and controversial four-term mayor of Boston. Curley, a proud Irish-American son of the city, attained folk-hero status in the early 1900s by breaking through the Brahmin stranglehold on political power in the capital city. Like Curley, Lantigua brings a distinctive blend of populism, bluster, and political acumen.

Lantigua is also a symbol to Dominicans and other Latinos in Lawrence the way Curley was to the Irish in Boston. “Curley made his government interesting by acting out the impulses of his core constituency,” writes Jack Beatty, author of The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958), a biography of the mayor. “Similarly, he knew that his constituents wanted to voice their clotted resentment against Boston’s Protestant elite…so he did it for them.”

The parallels don’t end there. Curley tried to hold on to a congressional seat he’d been elected to while also serving as mayor. Lantigua tried a similar tack when he was elected mayor in 2009, announcing he wouldn’t relinquish his state representative seat in the Legislature. He only stepped down after his fellow lawmakers threatened to reject a $35 million state bailout for his struggling city.

José Alfonso García, who works for the city’s schools, says the mayor’s
support is incredible.

During his community activist days, Lantigua became the voice of Latino resentment in Lawrence. At City Council meetings, Lantigua irked councilors by holding up a piece of paper with his telephone number on it, urging people to call him personally if they had problems with government offices. Those actions helped foster a sense of trust among Latinos that Lantigua would look out for their interests, says Isabel Melendez, another veteran community activist and Lantigua’s campaign manager. He brought his activist’s drive into City Hall. For years, Spanish speakers had to bring along an English-speaking family member or friend to help them take care of any business at City Hall. Now, Mel­en­dez says, there is someone who speaks Spanish in every department in the building.

“He’s a fighter,” Melendez says of Lantigua. “There was no one who had the guts like Willy.”

Lantigua’s personal touch with voters plays well among Lawrence’s heavily Dominican population. According to Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York, there is a tradition of clientelism in Dominican Republic politics that some immigrants brought with them to the US: Voters go to the polls expecting that their candidate, if successful, will resolve their individual problems. “Voters, they want results,” says Hernández.

Lantigua gears his political outreach almost exclusively to his Latino constituents. When he wants to weigh in on a subject, Lantigua relies on trusted local Spanish-language media and bypasses The Eagle-Tribune, called the “the Evil Tribune” by some local wags. The regional newspaper has alienated Lantigua and his supporters with its relentless coverage of the mayor’s predicaments. Meanwhile, Boston-based English and Spanish-language newspaper and television reporters who are likely to challenge the mayor usually don’t fare any better in reaching him.

Mayor Lantigua comforts a supporter who recently lost her mother.

Lantigua’s Twitter feeds and Facebook posts are almost exclusively in Spanish. One exception came just before the preliminary election on Facebook, when he posted a new campaign slogan in English, “Keep Calm and Vote Lantigua,” based on a popular t-shirt. A campaign tune in Spanish goes to the heart of the message he drums into his base. Translated into English, one refrain says, “He’s changed the city, the streets are in order. We’re in line with our Mayor Lantigua. The best. Don’t change it.”

Beyond the charm, Lantigua knows how to play bare-knuckled politics. During the first recall petition drive against him in 2011, a list of people who signed the petition mysteriously appeared online. During the second recall drive, some people on the original list, apparently intimidated by the earlier move, refused to sign the papers.

Like all mayors, Lantigua steers some city jobs toward his friends and allies. Like Curley, he sometimes makes appointments with little regard for appearances or a candidate’s suitability for a position. Lantigua promoted Melix Bonilla to the position of deputy police chief and demoted the veteran officer who held the job after Bonilla ran the mayor’s campaign in 2009. Three years later, an Essex County grand jury indicted Bonilla on multiple charges related to an alleged exchange of more than a dozen municipal cars for several others of lesser value owned by a car-dealer friend of Lantigua. On the night of his preliminary victory celebration, Lantigua appeared with Bonilla, who continues to receive his salary while he prepares for a criminal trial next year.

Lantigua is a symbol to Dominicans and other Latinos in Lawrence the way Curley was to the Irish in Boston. To his base, Lantigua’s selections demonstrate that Latinos are getting their due. To critics, the picks are the work of an arrogant powerbroker who hands out positions to less-than-qualified supporters and nominates municipal employees to vacancies on city boards where conflicts might arise.

A lawsuit filed against Lantigua in August by Attorney General Martha Coakley illustrates how the mayor continues to get into hot water. Coakley alleges Lantigua committed a wide variety of campaign finance violations, including accepting illegal cash contributions, receiving donations that exceeded legal limits, having public employees solicit funds on his behalf, and maintaining inaccurate or incomplete records.

While mayor, Curley served a five-month stint in federal prison on mail fraud charges until President Harry Tru­man pardoned him. While prosecutors continue their investigations into corruption within the Lantigua administration, the mayor himself has remained largely above the fray, with only a brief, mysterious appearance before an Essex County grand jury in May. Months of probes with no charges filed against the mayor, however, fuel a widely-held belief in Lawrence that state and federal authorities do not have a strong case against him. 

Street paving changed minds
Lawrence is the municipal basket case of Massachusetts, practically a ward of the state. Beacon Hill props up the city’s finances with millions of dollars in state aid, more than any other municipality receives. In 2013, state taxpayers provided 67.5 percent of Lawrence’s revenues. The city has the state’s highest unemployment rate (14.9 percent in August) and about one-third of the city’s nearly 80,000 residents live below the federal poverty level. Because of chronic low performance by the city’s schools and millions of dollars in deficits in past municipal budgets, a state-appointed receiver runs the school district, while a state-appointed fiscal overseer rides herd on the budget and monitors spending.

Street paving, in this case along Mt. Vernon Street, boosted
Lantigua’s political support.

Any one of these issues could have dominated the preliminary election. But none of them did. Instead, street paving in Lawrence was the number one topic of conversation in the weeks leading up to the vote. In the past two years, dozens of thoroughfares have been paved. Mean­while, blue and white signs trumpeting the work, reading “Lawrence Moving Forward/Mayor William Lan­tigua,” have sprouted on utility poles along the way.

Pavel Payano, a member of the Lawrence School Com­mittee who did not support any candidate in the preliminary election, says that the repaving projects gave a huge boost to Lantigua, helping him project the image of a mayor working for the community. “A lot of people… completely hated him,” Payano says of attitudes toward Lantigua. “After they saw the streets paved, they completely changed their minds.”

Most of the money for the work came from state road and bridge funds, but the source of money is irrelevant to the average voter. What matters is that streets have been resurfaced, some for the first time in recent memory. That was reason enough for voters in the city’s poorest Latino neighborhoods, and more than a few in the predominately white areas where he is generally unpopular, to vote for the incumbent.

Though Lantigua did not respond to several requests for comment, Melendez was not shy in defending her candidate and friend. A petite, youthful senior with a fondness for red sandals and gold jewelry, Melendez hosts a local radio program popular among the mayor’s fans called La Voz del Pueblo (The Voice of the People). She peppers her shows with a Lantigua reelection shout-out, “¡Cuatro años más!” (“Four more years!”).

Mayoral candidate Dan Rivera says Lantigua
is not invincible.

Melendez arrived in Lawrence in 1959 from Puerto Rico. She is close to the Lantigua family, so much so that Lantigua’s dying mother told her that she would die “in peace because I know Willy is like your son.” When Melen­dez herself ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 2001, Lantigua was her campaign manager. She helped out when he ran for state representative the next year. 

In her office at Escuela General Donovan, a one-stop shop for adult education classes, voter registration, and other social services that she manages, Melendez outlines Lantigua’s successes. As a state representative, she says, Lantigua succeeded in funneling millions in state dollars into social service organizations like Lawrence Com­munity­Works and Arlington Community Trabajando.

“I believe in the work he’s doing,” Melendez says of Lantigua’s leadership of the city. When asked about the criticism of his tenure, she counters, “Tell me the mayor of a city that has not made mistakes.”

For all the criticism of his tenure, Lantigua inherited a city on the brink of financial collapse. Since the state step­ped in, Lantigua and the city council have produced balanced budgets without dipping into reserves. Lantigua has a good working relationship with Robert Nunes, the state’s fiscal overseer, and the city’s bond ratings are satisfactory.

In 2011, the state designated the Lawrence schools as chronically underperforming and sent in Jeff Riley, a former Boston Public Schools official, to run a multi-year turnaround project. In many communities, that development would be viewed as a major embarrassment. But Lantigua shaped it to his advantage, claiming that he invited the state to take over the district. Most residents continue to hail the move, and recent improvements in MCAS scores are a welcome sign for Lawrence, and, by extension, Lantigua.

Campaign workers hold signs on preliminary
election day in September.

David Torrisi, a former state representative from North Andover who served in the Legis­la­ture with Lantigua, says he was “great at getting earmarks” into state spending bills. But Torrisi, who represented several Lawrence precincts, is less certain about Lan­tigua’s skills as a chief executive of a mid-sized city. “When it came to managing a $240 million operation, yeah, I think a lot of us had doubts that he had the capacity to do that,” he says.

Lantigua’s supporters see a powerful double standard at work. They take pride in a Latino leader who they see guiding his city through the turbulent waters of municipal budgets and school crises, while the news media largely ignores the mayor’s success stories. Instead, reporters pillory him almost daily about missteps. Meanwhile, say Lantigua backers, there is little dwelling on misdeeds during the administration of Lantigua predecessor Michael Sullivan, a white politician whose former director of in­formation technology quietly pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges involving millions of dollars with little further scrutiny from journalists.

Whole new ballgame
There are rumblings of dissatisfaction with Lantigua, but roughly 3,000 votes separated him from Rivera in the preliminary election. Lantigua won nearly 48 percent of the vote. Of nearly 37,000 registered voters, about one third turned out, an impressive number for a municipal election. Rivera reeled in 23 percent and won three precincts in south Lawrence, where most white voters live. Lantigua took the city’s other 21 precincts.

Rivera thinks Lantigua can be defeated. “The media wants to write the story that he is invincible,” Rivera says. “He’s just not.” He points out that 20,000 voters did not turn out and that Lantigua’s opponents received a combined 6,251 votes, 52 percent of the tally, to the mayor’s 5,737 votes. “That’s his number,” says Rivera. “He’s got nowhere to grow.”

“You can’t be just the mayor of paving streets. We need more cops and more jobs,” says challenger Dan Rivera. Rivera, who is half Dominican and half Puerto Rican, was born in the Bronx in 1970 and came to Lawrence as a child. He served in the first Gulf War and later earned a MBA from Suffolk University. He has an easy-going manner compared to the intense Lantigua, and enjoys delving into broad public policy issues. Rivera fashions himself as the “good government” reform candidate with a command of such issues as municipal finance. (He chairs the city’s budget committee.)

Rivera’s hope is that the young voters he’s courting turn out the way they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The problem for Rivera is young voters are not likely to be as enthused for a mayoral race as they were for a historic presidential contest. Rivera also will have to get white anti-Lantigua voters who stayed home in the preliminary election to come out for the final. And he needs to persuade Rep. Marcos Devers’s supporters that unseating Lantigua won’t backfire on them. Devers came in third in the preliminary election and, along with two other runners-up, pledged to support whoever opposed Lantigua in the final. That decision may earn Devers a Lantigua-backed opponent should he run for reelection next year.

Rivera knows he has plenty of work to do, but feels voters want change. Some Lawrence insiders say the qualities that have made Lantigua popular in sections of Lawrence have hurt the city’s reputation beyond its borders. That poor reputation, the insiders say, means the city has less appeal for outside investors looking for new opportunities. Instead, those investors migrate to more politically stable Merrimack Valley communities such as Haverhill or Lowell that offer many of the same benefits, without the drawbacks of an erratic mayor.

 “You can’t just be the mayor of paving streets,” Rivera says of Lantigua.  “We need more cops and more jobs.”
But few people in Lawrence are talking about cops or jobs or schools. It’s all about Willy Lantigua, who is making his last hurrah. (Under the current city charter, a mayor can serve only two consecutive terms.)

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Richard Padova, who teaches geography, history, and government at Northern Essex Community College, says the controversy surrounding Lantigua doesn’t faze his political supporters. “We’ve heard of Teflon presidents like Reagan. I guess he is a Teflon mayor,” Padova says. “He has a committed base of supporters; they seem to be unshakeable.”

Many people think the only way Lantigua can lose in November is if he is hit with an indictment at the eleventh hour. Yet even that would not necessarily make any difference. “I don’t think that he is going to be indicted,” says García, the longtime Lantigua supporter. “If an injustice like that happens, we are going to re-elect him anyway.”