Daniel Rivera grew up in Lawrence public housing, the son of a single mother. His older brother was deported after running into trouble with the law. His family subsisted on food stamps and his mother’s factory wages.
From these humble beginnings, Rivera charted a path that on Saturday will take him straight to Lawrence City Hall. Senator Elizabeth Warren will swear in Rivera as mayor in a ceremony in the high school he attended more than two decades ago.
“Did I ever imagine it? No,” Rivera, a 43-year-old city councilor, said in an interview this week. “My story has really been about community always really helping me. Being part of a team.”
Rivera, an Army veteran more likely to poke fun at his weight than dwell on his accomplishments, said he aspires to build the kind of community in this immigrant city that propelled him through high school and college. The effort starts on the first day: Rivera asked people to bring blankets to his inauguration ceremony to donate to the needy. That night he will celebrate at a $50-a-plate gala at the Elks club. Sunday there will be free ice skating, with free skate rentals, on the Campagnone Common, followed by an interfaith prayer and concert.
Inauguration day is also the moment that Rivera steps out of the long shadow of his predecessor, William Lantigua, the charismatic and controversial politician he defeated in November by just 81 votes.
Lantigua, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, like many in the mostly Hispanic city of 77,000 people, was Lawrence’s first Latino mayor and a former longtime state representative. Lantigua portrayed himself as someone who better understood the immigrant city, but his administration was dogged by state and federal investigations and the indictments of several supporters.
Rivera said he hopes to “manage expectations” in a city that is facing serious hurdles. During the last four years, the city’s finances and the schools were placed under state oversight. Lawrence’s most recent unemployment rate is almost 14 percent, double the state average. And almost 29 percent of the residents are living below the poverty level, compared with 11 percent statewide.
“I think he’s going to find that the easy part was to win the election,” said Brad Jones, who ran Rivera’s Boy Scout troop when Rivera was growing up in Lawrence. “The hard part is to make the changes that he needs to make.”
Rivera represents the next generation, the son of an immigrant who grew up speaking more English than Spanish. But he said he also has a deep understanding of the challenges facing immigrants and their children — and he is an example of how to surmount them.
“I really do feel like I’m connected in a way that Willy never was,” Rivera said. “I know what it was like to grow up in these streets.”
Rivera moved to Lawrence when he was 5 from the Bronx, one of four children born to a single mother from the Dominican Republic. He did not know his father. His older half-brother fell into drugs and other crime and was deported more than once; his brother was born in the Dominican Republic, while Rivera was born in the United States.
His mother was a seamstress who made suede outfits in a factory. Now ill and living in North Carolina near his two sisters, she spent what little money she had on her children, from Rivera’s Boy Scout uniforms to her oldest son’s legal fees. For years, they lived in housing projects on Market Street, relying on food stamps and government cheese.
Rivera jokes that he was never “brave enough to be a bad kid,” but Jones, his former Boy Scout troop leader, said Rivera worked hard to keep himself on the right path. In a phone interview, Jones recalled the young Rivera bounding through the door at St. Mary’s High to join Troop 16 with such enthusiasm that the troop elected him their leader.
“He could have been the kid on a Norman Rockwell picture who wants to be a Boy Scout,” Jones said.
When Troop 16 disbanded, Rivera found another troop. Then he became a squire at the Knights of Columbus. In high school, in awe of Vietnam veterans, he was a cadet in the US Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol.
When he graduated from high school, Rivera enlisted in the Army and was a military police officer in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf war. After his service, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the GI bill.
Rivera returned to Lawrence and later became an aide to then-Mayor Patricia Dowling. In fall 1998, he made a suggestion that would dramatically affect Lawrence: He asked John Romero, the commanding officer of the New York City Police Department’s 34th Street precinct, to consider becoming Lawrence’s police chief.
Romero had never heard of Lawrence. But the next thing he knew, Romero was a passenger in Rivera’s car and touring the city.
“He really sold me on the city,” said Romero. Dowling urged Romero to stay, and he was widely credited with reducing crime to its lowest levels in decades. Romero would later clash with Lantigua about budget cuts to the police force and he retired last year.
Rivera went on to earn a master’s in business administration from Suffolk University and to run the public housing authority where he once lived. He also served as an aide to former congressman Marty Meehan and later moved to the private sector as a marketing manager.
In 2009, he won the first of two terms on the Lawrence City Council, where he most recently served as vice president and chairman of the budget committee. Two years ago, he married marketing manager Paula King and they own a home in Lawrence.
Among Rivera’s immediate plans as he takes office: to stop the paychecks of two Lantigua allies indicted on state corruption charges. Melix Bonilla, Lantigua’s former campaign manager and deputy police chief, and Justo Garcia, a former employee at the municipal garage, have been on paid leave since pleading not guilty.
Rivera said he will also review positions at City Hall, where Lantigua’s girlfriend, Lorenza Ortega, works, to ensure that qualified people are on the job. He said the state overseer recently rejected an attempt by the outgoing Lantigua to promote three officers because the city could not afford it.
“I see it really as establishing credibility,” Rivera said. “Then we’re going to get to the work of the people.”
Next week, a transition team, which includes former police chief Romero, who has been calling into meetings from his new home in California, will release a report with recommendations for Rivera’s first 100 days in office.
Rivera said his approach to running the city will be similar to his campaign, during which he said he surrounded himself with a highly qualified team. Warren and Representative Niki Tsongas, both Democrats, endorsed him. Boston City Councilor-elect Michelle Wu and former state Democratic Party chairman John Walsh were among his observers during the vote recount.
His chief of staff, Lisa Torrisi, has an MBA and is a director at Lawrence CommunityWorks, a nonprofit c0mmunity development organization in the city.
“This is something that I learned as a Boy Scout — and I don’t want to become known as the Boy Scout mayor,” he said with a laugh. “We’re supposed to leave stuff better than we found it. We’re not going to duck big problems. But we’re not going to let big problems define our agenda.”