Lawrence’s Rivera facing tough reelection fight
City showing signs of progress, but mayor faces battle to retain his post
Photographs by Meghan Moore
THE MARCHERS PLOD ALONG, wearing matching maroon shirts and holding campaign signs, fronted by the candidate himself, Mayor Daniel Rivera, who waves to onlookers, his gut hanging over pressed khakis. It’s not a very enthusiastic display in a parade that features, by turns, synchronized Latin dancing, beauty queens in chiffon, and souped-up cars blasting Dominican dance music from stacks of speakers fastened to their roofs. The occasion is the annual June parade through downtown Lawrence that crowns the city’s Semana Hispana (Hispanic Week).
And then a familiar figure—slim athletic build, shaved head, cocksure grin, colorful tie—can be seen darting around the Rivera procession, reaching deftly into the crowd to grasp hands and offer hearty hugs, at times doing a shimmy step to the beat. Willy is back. William Lantigua, that is, the city’s colorful—and controversial—former mayor. And judging by the many warm embraces he received at the parade, many in Lawrence are glad to see him.
Whether Lantigua working the crowd alongside the Rivera camp was a calculated bit of trolling or just a coincidence, a rematch may be looming between these two fundamentally contrasting candidates.
But Lantigua is not the only one taking on Rivera. There are currently seven challengers, and political insiders say at least a few of them have a legitimate shot at unseating the mayor—including Lantigua.
This may come as a surprise to outsiders. Not only has Rivera managed to make it through most of his term without any major scandals, but the city has shown some real signs of progress. The school district, which is under state control, has seen a substantial improvement in its graduation rate and test scores. While the city remains among the poorest in the state, the unemployment rate has dropped to about 7.5 percent, still a few points higher than the state average but the gap has narrowed since 2014. Tax collections in the city are up, thanks in large part to tougher enforcement against scofflaws, and its credit rating has been bumped up twice, to A levels, during Rivera’s term.
And yet one would be hard pressed to find many in Lawrence these days who offer anything more than tepid support for Rivera. In a city that is roughly 80 percent Hispanic, Rivera, the city’s second Hispanic mayor, is sometimes seen as being more comfortable in photo-ops with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker than at the neighborhood bodega.
This might be considered a minor liability were it not for a stark reality in Lawrence, one that was masked during the June parade: a sense that violence has spiraled out of control. One now hears immigrants who came to Lawrence seeking stability and opportunity expressing a desire to escape the city. It doesn’t take a skilled political advisor—although Rivera has had plenty of them—to know that such concerns spell trouble for an incumbent mayor.
SECURITY CAMERAS PROLIFERATE
It’s the kind of thing you might expect to find a security guard perched in front of—a massive flat screen divided into boxes, each displaying a live feed from a network of cameras. But this monitor is in the living room of Gustavo Paulino, and the cameras are strategically positioned all around his Lawrence house.
Paulino and his wife, Ivelisse Cornielle, installed the cameras not long after the body of their 16-year-old grandson, Lee Manuel, was found decapitated near the bank of the Merrimack River last November. The media briefly descended on the city to report on what was, even within the established genre of Lawrence crime, a horrific murder. But in Lawrence, Lee Manuel’s killing has had lasting reverberations.
Both Paulino and his wife taught for decades in Lawrence public schools, and they are well-known and respected in the community.
The sense that the mayor and the police could have done more to find Lee Manuel, who lived with the couple and whom they regarded as their son, still weighs heavily on Ivelisse. “I think with this mayor there isn’t a lot of control. That’s my feeling,” she says. “Even the police, I don’t think they respect him at all.”
A high school acquaintance of Lee Manuel has been charged in the murder, although rumors persist that there’s more to the case than authorities have disclosed.
The Paulinos aren’t the only ones who have taken to installing security cameras. They can be seen all over Lawrence these days, even on rundown houses. The anxiety over public safety intensified in April, when there were nine shootings in six days, including two deaths on Easter weekend. That brought the number of homicides for 2017 to six—the number the city typically averages in a full year.
At the next meeting of the Lawrence City Council, a procession of impassioned speakers spoke out against the violence. One was a cousin of a young woman who was fatally shot outside a nightclub a few days earlier. Calling out Rivera by name, the woman said between sobs and in Spanish, “Who is going to give us a hand? It is unjust… We are still waiting on the case of Lee Manuel. They haven’t said anything.”While two city councilors took the opportunity to address some of the residents’ concerns during the public comment period, Rivera only spoke at the end of the meeting, to request that the council meet behind closed doors to discuss a couple of pending legal matters.
To his critics, Rivera’s response in such situations bespeaks a degree of tone deafness. But he insists he understands the community’s concern on a personal level. “I really see the problems of this community through the eyes of a Lawrence kid who grew up here, who knows the struggles, who knows where the problems are. And I don’t need to know the reasons the problems exist because I’ve lived it,” he says.
Rivera, who was raised in Lawrence by a single mother who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, acknowledges that the spate of violence has people unnerved, even if, as he points out, FBI statistics show the city’s overall crime rate has declined during his time in office.
“I think people probably feel less safe today than when I became mayor,” he says. “But it’s not whether or not you’re going to have problems; it’s how we manage those problems day-to-day.”
Rivera points to the hiring of 23 cops, including the first class of all Spanish-speaking officers, during his term. The force remains understaffed, a legacy, Rivera says, of Lantigua’s decision to slash more than 30 positions. “We were given a police department that was decimated in number and demoralized,” he says.
As for the killing of Lee Manuel, Rivera says a review he ordered did find shortcomings in how the department handles missing-person cases. The review itself was cut short after the district attorney raised concerns that it would impede the investigation. “I think everybody’s goal now is to get justice for Lee Manuel,” Rivera says.
Rivera has a strong theory for why the violence has intensified of late: the opioid epidemic. He notes that there were 13 overdoses in the city in 2013; the number grew by nearly 400 percent last year. “And a good majority of them are people who don’t live in our community, are people who come here to buy and use, and they O.D. here and they die here,” he says.
But there’s a reason those people are coming to Lawrence. In late May, federal agents led a raid on what prosecutors say was the largest fentanyl ring in the state, which also trafficked in heroin and cocaine. The vast majority of the nearly two dozen people indicted were immigrants living in Lawrence. One of the alleged dealers could be heard on a wiretap discussing pills, saying, “A friend of mine told me the blue one is good, but it kills a lot of people,” and then chuckling, according to a court document.
William Lantigua points out a trio of sketchy characters who linger near a strip mall on Broadway, the city’s main commercial strip. Drug dealers, he suspects.
Both Rivera and Lantigua see drugs as one of the main drivers of violence in the city, but Lantigua comes across as the guy with his ear to the ground, who can pick out the dealers with his own eyes.
“Public safety affects every aspect of a community,” Lantigua says. “If you don’t have public safety, people don’t feel secure. People don’t come out, they don’t go to businesses; businesses from the outside are not going to come in.”
But Lantigua does not offer detailed policy prescriptions to deal with the crime problem. This was never his specialty; rather it’s the charismatic bond he has with his “familia,” as he often addresses his supporters in Lawrence. More than once during our time together, he was interrupted by people welcoming him back and professing their support for him.
Many in Lawrence believe Lantigua got a bad rap, that he was unfairly targeted by the political establishment within the city and beyond from the first day of his mayoral administration.
“He’s been out of office and there have been no charges against him,” says Dalia Diaz, the editor and publisher of the local bilingual newspaper Rumbo. She counts Lantigua as a friend.
Besides the fact that he was never charged, Lantigua and his backers note that of the three indictments during his administration, only the aide involved in the garbage truck scheme was found guilty.
Still, some of Lantigua’s personal decisions since he left office have again raised eyebrows. There’s the fact that he up and left Lawrence shortly after his loss to Rivera to go back to his native Dominican Republic. And then he returned with a young woman—his fiancé, he says—and their 1-year-old baby. The last we heard, Lantigua had married his longtime girlfriend, Lorenza Ortega, shortly after he left office, a move some critics alleged was aimed at preventing her from having to testify against him.
Lantigua offers a somewhat more heroic version of the latest chapter of his life. He says he left Lawrence to give Rivera a fair chance to succeed, and that his visit to the Dominican Republic ended up being longer than he anticipated after he badly injured his ankle. He stayed in a rural area in the hills near Tenares, which gave him time to recuperate and reflect.
“In the beginning it was tough, but then it helped me to meditate a lot, to read a lot, and also to look within myself,” he says. “I feel blessed. I’ve been through a rough time, very, very rough, but I’m still happy to be back.”
As for his relationship with Ortega, Lantigua said it ended about a month after they were married and that they’re in the process of getting a divorce.
In many ways, Lantigua is back in full form, as his performance at the parade in June made clear. But his campaign is a pretty paltry affair. Unlike other candidates at the parade, with their phalanxes of supporters holding signs, Lantigua was pretty much a one-man show.
The low-key nature of his campaign is probably by design. He still owes a fine to the state for past campaign finance violations. And, unlike several of his rivals, he has yet to file any reports as a 2017 mayoral candidate. He’s obligated to do so as soon he spends any amount of money on his campaign.
“I don’t think I have anything to file because I haven’t had any financial activity,” he says, noting that the few signs and other materials he’s been using are from his previous campaign. “I’m going to open the account once I get clear with the other issue”—the outstanding fine.
NOT AS DOMINICAN
The Merrimack River that runs through the middle of Lawrence has been seen as a socioeconomic boundary between the poorer, grittier north side, where downtown is located, and the south side, which is more suburban and (slightly) wealthier and whiter. That’s where Rivera and his family live, in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood, in a house a stone’s throw from Andover.
For his detractors, Rivera’s remove from the central city is emblematic of a larger disconnect with the struggles of everyday residents—which, of course, is thrown into relief by Lantigua’s common touch.
“He’s very political, very close to Senator [Elizabeth] Warren to (Congresswoman Niki) Tsongas and the governor, and that’s where he likes to associate,” says Diaz, the Rumbo editor, who is a longtime Rivera critic.
The suggestion that Rivera lacks street cred, that he’s not as connected to the Hispanic culture of the city as some of the other candidates, can be heard often in Lawrence. It’s something the mayor acknowledges to an extent. “You know, I’m not as Dominican as everyone is,” he says. “I don’t hang out at the clubs as much as these other politicians do. I don’t go to casinos. I don’t do any of that stuff. At the end of work, I go home and hang out with my family.”
He adds that relationships with outside leaders are vital to the city. “Shame on anyone who wants this job who won’t bring the resources to this community that needs them,” he says.
But while Rivera dismisses the significance of the north-south divide as outmoded, his political fortunes have depended on them. In Rivera’s narrow 2013 victory, he lost in a majority of precincts, but won in the southern neighborhoods, where turnout is far higher than it is elsewhere. In a city where barely more than half of the residents are registered to vote, support in this area counts for a lot.
Former Lawrence mayor Michael Sullivan, who still lives in Lawrence and remains politically plugged-in, agrees that Rivera will have to work hard to win re-election this year. But he maintains that he’s still the odds-on favorite. “I think he’s done a great job, and he’s going to be a very strong incumbent to beat,” he says.
As for Lantigua, Sullivan was more dubious. “I think he’s lost a lot of his support by moving away from Lawrence,” he says.
There is at least one other candidate who could pose a serious challenge to Rivera: Modesto Maldonado, a well-known community leader who was a longtime administrator at the Greater Lawrence Technical School and who has served as a city councilor since 2011. Maldonado speaks a flawless and eloquent English with a rich accent, having grown up in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1964.
“One of the biggest problems of previous mayors is that they have dedicated a lot of time to one particular sector of the city,” Maldonado says. “I believe that all mayors should provide equal service to every part of the city regardless to how politically strong any part of the city is.”
Maldonado, who is close friends with Lantigua, has been a consistent thorn in the side of Rivera, faulting him for arrogance, for alienating city workers, and costing the city millions of dollars in lawsuits brought by former city employees who claimed they were unjustly terminated.
Other candidates in the race may have dimmer chances, but this year’s election underscores the degree to which Hispanics have come to dominate Lawrence politics. Barring any late entrants in the race, the 2017 election will mark the first time in the city’s history that there isn’t a single Caucasian candidate for mayor.
One political newcomer is Jorge Jaime, who came to the United States barely a decade ago from the Dominican Republic. A manager in the city’s public works department, he is taking the admittedly risky step of running against his boss, Rivera. “I think he would like to fire me at this time,” says Jaime, who speaks fluent if imperfect English. “A lot of people think the city deserves someone with a new vision…someone who don’t have nothing to do with the old politics of the city.”
There is one non-Hispanic candidate in the race: William Green, a former city police officer who breaks the mold for candidates in Lawrence—and perhaps anywhere else in America. During his time on the force Green got in the habit of posting YouTube videos of himself decrying corruption in the department and tweaking Rivera. (After multiple attempts, the brass and Rivera were able to oust Green in May over several allegations of misconduct on the job; Green continues to fight his firing.)
Green, who is half-African American and is often taken for Hispanic (he speaks Spanish and is married to a Latina), is running as a Republican in a nonpartisan election. He’s a fierce critic of the city’s status as a sanctuary city and he derides local pols for lacking an appreciation for American values, singling out what he calls the “Dominican political mafia” around Lantigua.
“I’ve been a cop. I’ve bled here,” he says. “These are guys who want to bring a third-world style of government.”
THE WORD ON THE STREET
Mayoral candidates have until August 8 to submit their signatures to get on the ballot ahead of the preliminary election September 26; the two top vote-getters will face off in November. At this stage, many residents are unfamiliar with the multitude of candidates, beyond the two with top billing, Rivera and Lantigua.
At one of the many barber shops on Broadway on a recent Friday afternoon, Robert Brito was awaiting his next customer. Among his patrons he discerned a preference for Lantigua over Rivera, a sentiment he shared.
“When Lantigua was mayor, a lot of people used to see him. You could just talk to him if you see something. You can say only, ‘Mayor, this is happening,’” Brito says. “But Rivera, I only saw him like once and it was in the Andover Market Basket.”
But not all residents are willing to give Lantigua another chance.
“He’s the worst one, he ruined this place,” Luis Colon says. “That’s why everything is like this.”
Colon was sitting on a swing chair in the front yard of the downtown house where he lives, a perch that afforded him a regular view of junkies looking for—and scoring—their fix. He says he has to pick up dozens of used needles everyday around the property.
But Colon doesn’t fault Rivera for the wider societal problem of drug addiction. On the contrary, he feels that Rivera is making a sincere effort, that he just needs to “step up.”“Rivera is doing real, real good, and hopefully he’s going to win and make it better,” he says.
As it happens, that’s Rivera’s modest campaign slogan: make Lawrence better.