New Lawrence mayor says it’s now the people’s turn
DePeña’s politics are a blend of populism and fiscal conservatism
One in a series on newly-elected mayors in the Commonwealth.
LAWRENCE MAYOR Brian A. DePeña is a bit of a throwback. He likes to meet one-on-one with his constituents, holding office hours every Friday from 1 p.m. until whenever the last person leaves.
It’s a mayor-of-the-people approach that has resonated with voters in this community of 89,000 people — 81 percent of whom are Latinos like DePeña. His politics is a blend of populism and fiscal conservatism. Clean streets are a top priority for him, as is holding the line on taxes and moving homeless people out of the city’s parks.
DePeña moved from the Dominican Republic to New York in the mid-1980s when he was 27. He moved to Lawrence in 1989 — by my math, that makes him approximately 60 today. He and his wife Dilenny have seven children and five grandchildren. DePeña owns three businesses, all located on Broadway, and was a top vote-getter in 2015 and 2017 during his successful campaigns for an at-large seat on the City Council.
I sat down with DePeña in his third-floor City Hall office, nearly two months after he took over the reins of the city. As the mayor of a community known as the “Immigrant City,” he is accustomed to constituents who speak many languages. He clearly prefers to speak Spanish and asked that our interview be conducted with an interpreter. It was clear from our conversation that he understands English pretty well, better than he speaks it. He won’t have problems communicating with the vast majority of the city’s residents, who are Spanish speakers, and he insists his more limited English skills won’t be a problem with his English-speaking constituents.
The interview has been edited for clarity and for space reasons.
COMMONWEALTH: You often say your election means “it’s the people’s turn.” What do you mean by that?
BRIAN A. DEPEÑA: When I say that now it’s the people’s turn, it’s directed at the traditional political class, but also at the people, so that folks can identify with my origins, where this new type of leadership comes from.
CW: What’s something you’ve done as mayor that reflects that change in priority?
DEPEÑA: Speaking to the people, to the problems that people have been complaining about directly for a long time without being heard. For example, people complained for many years about dirty streets, homeless people, those who don’t have a roof, who don’t receive help, but there is no control over their activities in neighborhoods either, and they damage them. My first executive order was let’s clean up the streets. We’ve gone ourselves into the poorest neighborhoods with cleanup crews to clean up debris and pick up trash in neighborhoods that nobody paid attention to, and to fix potholes that nobody, no mayor had paid attention to or walked through either.
The second thing we’ve done is every contract that the city signs is reviewed and researched to find out if it’s necessary for the people. And this is very important. For every contract, every project that has gone through since the day I walked into my office, the first thing [we’ve done] was to make sure that we made sure to require, as our ordinance says, that 30 percent of those jobs go to residents of the city of Lawrence. That hadn’t been done for many years.
CW: You’re the owner of two businesses, and I wonder whether running those businesses has influenced how you approach managing city government as mayor?
DEPEÑA: Of course. We came in with a managerial vision, a less political one, based on management and not political favors. In fact, being the owner of my businesses, and by the way, there are three of them, gave me the economic ability to put money from my savings into my campaign versus having to ask for money from interested parties, who simply give you money so later, when you’re in office, they can send you the political bill. That has freed me from a lot of commitments and allows me to make decisions in the interest of the people.
CW: You own three businesses? I thought you owned two, but tell me the three businesses.
DEPEÑA: For more than 25 years, I’ve been the owner of Tenares Tire Services, 348 Broadway; Peña Plaza, 342 Broadway, [a laundromat and a Dunkin’ Donuts]; and DePeña Hall and Restaurant, 272 Broadway.
CW: How are your office hours on Friday afternoons coming along?
DEPEÑA: On those Fridays, we help between 32 and 40 people, approximately. And for those constituents, we have someone to follow up regarding their requests and their needs. And we keep following up with every one of them until we get to the end of it. People wait outside in the hallway, on benches, in the waiting room. And little by little they come in. It’s pretty fast. Ten minutes, no more than 10 minutes.
CW: What kind of problems do they have?
DEPEÑA: Sometimes they’re personal problems. Sometimes they’re problems with the city — abusive actions in the past against our constituents, like fines, abusive fines, as well as inappropriate language directed at our constituents. Sometimes people even come with a family problem or a housing problem. For instance, they want to know how to get help moving from one complex to another because they have a problem with the neighbor or whatever.
People think that their mayor — more so in my case because it’s what I’ve always done in my businesses over 25 years, I’ve always helped them — they think that your mayor can do everything and knows everything.
CW: In November, voters rejected by 229 votes a Proposition 2 1/2 override to build the new Leahy School. A lot of people think you still need that new elementary school. How are you going to handle that? Are you going to try and get that school built in some other fashion or are you going to respect the will of the voters.
DEPEÑA: I’m going to respect [the will of the voters] for two reasons, First, the people spoke. And second, I fought against the proposal.. It was abusive, and I viewed it as a lack of sensitivity towards the many poor people here who barely manage to pay their rent with two or three jobs.
And we’re going to prove that without an increase of more than the 2.5 percent, which the law allows, we’re going to build the school. We’re working towards building it. We’re working to get those funds. And one of the first things that we’re doing is to watch the fiscal side, where money is wasted, where money was given out irresponsibly. We’re going to make sure to have prudent, smart oversight of the budget. As a businessman, I’ve done so for many years. We’re going to do the same here, this time, respecting taxpayers’ money, and we’re going to get those resources, plus what we can get from savings in the city.
CW: Can you be more specific about where the money would come from?
DEPEÑA: The funds may come from savings, the savings that the city can have with good fiscal oversight. They may come from loans at reasonable interest rates. We, the city, still have a good credit rating. They may come from other institutions that we’re already talking to, from the state, which may have resources. In fact, some have already offered to help. I can’t provide details because I’m not authorized to do so. I’ve already been in touch with state institutions that are willing to help us get the money.
CW: How much federal money is Lawrence getting under the American Rescue Plan Act, and have you and the City Council determined yet how you’re going to spend that money?
DEPEÑA: Approximately $80 million through ARPA and other contributions from the federal government. At this time, we’re working to make a presentation to the City Council on a spending plan that is smart and prudent and that meets the needs, the real needs of how to spend that money.
CW: And will your phrase, “it’s the people’s turn,” will that figure in your recommendations on how to spend the money?
DEPEÑA: Absolutely, 100 percent.
CW: What year did you come to the United States from the Dominican Republic?
DEPEÑA: That was in the late ‘80s — ‘87, ‘88, around that time.
CW: And how old would were you then?
DEPEÑA: I was about 27, 26 years old. Yeah, 27.
CW: How do you handle language as mayor. Spanish is obviously not a problem as long as the person you’re talking to speaks Spanish. But dealing with people like me who don’t speak Spanish is a bigger challenge. How do you handle that as mayor?
DEPEÑA: Whether it’s some kind of language deficiency or something physical or any other type of limitation that you may have, it must never be an excuse for you to not serve your nation.
CW: I’m not quite sure I understand.
DEPEÑA: [Speaking to the interpreter] He’s asking me how I manage. Well, most of them speak Spanish [here]. I’m going to answer the question more simply, so he understands, okay? English is not my first language. My education was in Spanish. I got my education in my country, where I studied hotel management and worked at a hotel there, the Hotel Caribeño, by the way. In an interview like today’s, I am comfortable that he’s used someone who can speak two languages, but it hasn’t been an obstacle to my being able to communicate. In fact, in my businesses, when someone comes to me [who speaks] English, I help them. I don’t need an interpreter. We can talk person-to-person. In fact, I gave my inauguration speech in both languages. Yes, of course, when I speak Spanish, I feel more comfortable.
CW: But what happens when you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t speak English like the governor, a lawmaker, a union official, people outside of Lawrence? How will you do that? Will you go with an interpreter?
DEPEÑA: For many years in politics, since I was a city councilor for four years, I’ve always spoken with the governor, for example, with whom I’ve had a very good relationship since before I was mayor, and we’ve always spoken without an interpreter. Even in my inauguration speech, I did it in both languages without reading it, and I felt comfortable. When I go to the hospital with my wife, I interpret for her. I was a council member for four years. I spoke at the council — of course, not like others who got their education here do, but I always participated in the council over four years and I did it in English. And when I communicate with the governor or any authority or there’s an event, I always speak English — with my limitations, with my difficulties, but I speak it.CW: So just to be clear, you speak in Spanish when the situation calls for it and you speak in English when the situation calls for it, right?
DEPEÑA: [Speaking English] I don’t speak perfect English. … I’m running my business for 25 years and never I use interpreter when I make orders for my business. When I buy any property, when I make closing for any property, I don’t need interpreter. When I have any case in the courtrooms, I don’t call for an interpreter, you know, because I understand when somebody says something and I try, you know, explain slowly when I speak English. And that’s what I’m doing, you know?