LAWRENCE — Daniel Rivera defeated Mayor William Lantigua by 81 votes after a ballot recount Saturday in the hotly contested Lawrence mayoral race, broadening the margin of his Nov. 5 victory.
Cheers erupted in the school gymnasium where election officials had hand-counted more than 15,000 ballots and William Maloney, city clerk, announced the final results. Rivera won 7,628 votes and Lantigua had 7,547.
“This is over,” Rivera, a city councilor, said in a news conference outside the school after the recount. He added, “We knew we had won when we came in the door. . . . We wanted change and we got it.”
Lantigua refused to concede, however, saying that too many votes were in question, including what he said were more than 100 so-called spoiled ballots that might have swung in his favor.
“I am not conceding. That’s correct,” Lantigua told reporters after he conferred with his lawyer. “Some of our concerns were answered today. There are others that we’re looking to answer in the future.”
According to the secretary of state’s office, the recount is final and Lantigua would have to file a lawsuit to contest the results.
Lantigua would not say if he planned to file a lawsuit, but said he would consider the results and make a decision.
Rivera’s election lawyer, David Torrisi, denied that any spoiled ballots were in play. He said Lantigua’s assertion was “not based in reality,” and pointed out that campaign observers and the city’s Board of Registrars had reviewed the results.
The recount capped a contentious election season in this mostly Latino city of 77,000, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state.
After Election Day, Rivera led Lantigua by just 58 votes. Rivera had urged Lantigua to accept the results and avoid a recount so the city could move forward.
The recount process began Saturday morning when police loaded the ballots into the city’s SWAT vehicle and transported them to the gymnasium at the South Lawrence East Educational Complex, a school serving kindergarten through eighth grade. The ballots had been sealed in a vault and under police guard at City Hall since Election Day.
The secretary of state’s office observed the count, and Rivera and Lantigua had their own observers at each table. The city hired a private law firm to oversee the recount, which took more than six hours.
Afterward, the Lantigua team applauded the mayor and expressed disappointment at the outcome.
“The good work that this man did,” said Rafael Alcantara, 58, a retired shuttle driver and, like Lantigua, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. “People are ungrateful.”
But others were hopeful for Lawrence, saying Rivera is a positive leader who will carry the city forward. Rivera is a bilingual Gulf War veteran whose mother hailed from the Dominican Republic.
Michelle Wu, newly elected to the Boston City Council, was one of several high-powered volunteers who observed the ballot recount for Rivera. She said she met Rivera when they worked to elect Elizabeth Warren to the Senate.
“I saw his work ethic and I know he’ll be a great mayor,” Wu said.
Lantigua, 58, a longtime former state representative, was elected the city’s first Latino mayor in 2009.
But his term was quickly mired in controversy and several top aides have been indicted on public corruption charges. Lantigua has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
A longtime Democrat, Lantigua looked with dismay Saturday at seasoned operatives from his party helping Rivera, including Wu, former state party chairman John Walsh, who resigned last month to run Governor Deval Patrick’s political action committee, and Roger Lau, a top aide to Warren, who had taken the unusual step of endorsing Rivera.
Rivera, 42, is also a Democrat, but Lantigua has been active for decades in helping get out the vote in this mostly Latino city. Lantigua said he helped numerous Democratic candidates prevail in Lawrence, and he is a former member of the state Democratic committee, though he lost his seat last year.
“It’s supposed to be nonpartisan,” Lantigua said, glancing at Walsh as he stood over a counting table. “He’s representing the establishment that we changed in 2009.”
Walsh had supported Rivera, and he declined to comment about Lantigua.
“When you lose, it’s hard,” he said. “But sometimes it’s about the guy who won. . . . Apparently the voters of Lawrence decided it was time for a change.”
State Representative Marcos Devers, Democrat of Lawrence, said Lantigua squandered his first term.
“He didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to be a mayor who would make the community proud,” said Devers, who won his seat with Lantigua’s help, but has since fallen out with the mayor. “To the contrary, he’s been involved in scandals and negative things that don’t help.”
As a city councilor, Rivera has had a rocky relationship with some city unions over the cost of their contracts. But others say he is also someone who could unify diverse groups and interests in the city, which he said is one of his priorities, along with hiring more police officers, creating jobs, and improving the city’s image to attract investment.
Lantigua, who inherited a city with a $25 million deficit, had won praise for balancing the city’s budget, paving streets, and working to improve schools.
On election night, Lantigua kicked some media out of his campaign headquarters.
But Saturday night, the mayor’s well-known charisma resurfaced.
He joked with reporters who asked why the election was so close, saying “You are the experts, so maybe you have some ideas?”
And when one said that reporters would see him again, Lantigua answered, “No doubt about it.”Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti