Cesar Martinez sees the city of Lawrence in a better light than he did three years ago, with smoothly paved streets, new parking meters to raise revenues, and a runaway budget deficit wrestled under control. This year, Mayor William Lantigua will get his vote.
To Edwin Rodriguez, things are worse: property taxes are rising and the city’s reputation has been battered by scandal. He wants the mayor out.
The city’s first Latino mayor is facing a divided political landscape this election year after an extraordinary first term marked by state and federal investigations, two recall attempts, and the indictments of two of his close allies on political corruption charges. Last week, Lantigua said he would run for a second term, stunning critics but galvanizing supporters who say the mayor has pointed the mostly Latino city of about 75,000 in the right direction.
“He’ll win for what he’s done,” said Martinez, who is urging his whole family to vote for Lantigua. But, he added, “He has enemies, we know.”
Rodriguez, a Pentecostal reverend who campaigned to recall Lantigua from office, said he does not believe that voters would return the mayor to City Hall. He said he hoped other candidates would come forward soon.
“He’s not going to be reelected,” Rodriguez said. “This time, he can’t win.”
The potential field of candidates is unclear. Police Chief John J. Romero, who has had a rocky relationship with the mayor over budget cuts and other controversies, said he will not run.
“I’m pretty happy with the job I have,” he said Monday.
David Abdoo, a former city councilor who lost to Lantigua in 2009, said he is considering running because people have urged him to. He acknowledged Lantigua has paved streets, but said little has been done to restore the city’s reputation and attract new business and jobs.
“There has been no forward progress to speak of,” Abdoo said. “This is not profiles in great government.”
Another possible candidate is Dan Rivera, a city councilor, but he declined to comment Monday on whether he is considering a run.
Lantigua, a former state representative, defeated Abdoo in a contest that was a historic turnover of power in a city where more than 70 percent of the residents are Latino. Many voters identify with Lantigua, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who came to the United States for a better life.
But Lantigua’s term has been mired in conflict from the start. At first, he refused to resign as state representative and collected two paychecks as Lawrence grappled with a $25 million deficit. He laid off many police officers and then blamed police for rising crime. And, after it came to light that his live-in girlfriend had received federal fuel aid intended for the poor, he said she returned the money because their combined incomes made them ineligible.
Some controversies have faded. With the guidance of a state overseer, the city’s budget is relatively under control. Lantigua also restored some funding to the police department, and now the agency has 120 officers, though that’s still below the high of 161 a few years ago.
Romero said serious crime is down and the city had only two homicides in 2012, compared with 10 in 2011.
But Lantigua has overruled Romero’s requests to place two recently indicted officers, Melix Bonilla and Pedro Lopez, on unpaid leave. They are being paid while the indictments are pending.
Bonilla, Lantigua’s former campaign manager, was indicted by an Essex County grand jury in September on charges of falsely transferring the ownership of 13 vehicles from the police department to an auto dealer close to Lantigua. The grand jury also charged Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s former chief of staff, with using his position to urge an executive with a trash disposal company that worked with the city to donate a garbage truck to a city in the Dominican Republic that had supported Lantigua’s campaign. Bonilla and Degnan have pleaded not guilty.
Lopez, another Lantigua supporter, was indicted in a separate case in federal court on bribery charges.
In addition, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance has fined Lantigua for failing to file reports.
Though Lantigua’s supporters find the indictments and other issues troubling, they point out that the mayor himself faces no charges.
Lantigua did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
He announced his reelection plans Friday in Spanish. He said the controversies gave him strength.
“If anything, it gives me motivation to keep working hard and to prove that I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said.
Brian de Peña, a father of six who runs a tire shop in Lawrence, compared popular support for Lantigua to that of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, reelected last fall on a platform that highlighted social programs for the poor. He praised Lantigua for having the “courage” to ask the state to fix the city’s schools in 2011 .
“Of course he’s going to win,” de Peña said. “He’s paying the debt. He’s paving streets. He’s cleaning them up.”