LAWRENCE — On a recent Friday evening, Mayor Daniel Rivera and dozens of supporters descended on Lawrence and Park streets, targeting a busy intersection in an attempt to show the strength of their campaign.
But his opponent and political nemesis had already left his mark there, as reflected in his popularity among the bodega owners, whom he claims to know personally, and in campaign signs inviting voters to contact him directly.
“Democrat Lantigua for Mayor,” they read, followed by his cellphone number.
That’s right. Willie Lantigua is back. Yes, that Willie Lantigua — the former state representative and Lawrence mayor who presided over one of the state’s poorest cities under chronic clouds of scandal, all the while thumbing his nose at opponents and the media. This led a news outlet, Vice, to question: “Is William Lantigua the Most Corrupt Mayor in America?”
It’s been four years since Lantigua lost his seat to Rivera by a mere 81 votes (by then, Lantigua had already lost his seat on the state’s Democratic Committee; he later lost his bid to reclaim his seat in the House of Representatives). After two years in the Dominican Republic, the 62-year-old Lantigua has returned from political exile to challenge Rivera again. And he is very much in the race.
“I believe he was not a bad man; he did a lot of work,” said Ana Levy, a decadeslong community activist who is running for City Council.
He was too often scapegoated and attacked by the local media, she added. Now, she points to growing concerns that the city is struggling, that crime and a drug epidemic have taken over.
“The city is not OK,” she said, adding that, under Lantigua, “I just think the city was in good shape.”
In the Sept. 26 preliminary election, a nonpartisan contest that narrowed the field of candidates to a final two, Lantigua captured 3,840 of the 11,660 votes cast, or 32 percent, to Rivera’s 42 percent. In a city that is roughly 80 percent Hispanic, Lantigua remains the charismatic politician who made history as the state’s first Hispanic mayor.
His resurgence has caught the attention of even his fiercest political opponents.
“He’s approachable, he’s likable,” said Kendrys Vasquez, the City Council president, who was a freshman councilor when he took the Democratic State Committee seat from Lantigua in 2012.
But Vasquez, who supports Rivera, adds: “It’s not about being likable, it’s about getting work done.”
The stakes are high for Rivera, who has struggled to contain violent crime and the opioid epidemic during his four years in office. Last Tuesday, police officials vowed to begin closing public spaces at sundown following a spate of violence that left one man dead and another three wounded in separate shootings the previous night. The killing put Lawrence’s murder rate higher under Rivera’s term than it was under Lantigua — a comparison point on which Lantigua has capitalized on in interviews with local media.
Throughout the race, Rivera has sought to tout his work rebuilding neighborhoods and restoring parks — the nuts and bolts of local government functions, as he put it — to reclaim the city “from the dark four years that were Lantigua’s Lawrence.”
He wants residents and bodega owners at Park and Lawrence streets to remember that he was the one who worked to restore their intersection with new sidewalks and other flood-control measures. Lantigua counters that he is the one who best represents the neighborhood while Rivera wastes his time schmoozing with politicians in Boston.
“I’m getting back to my city of Lawrence; that’s where I reside,” Lantigua told the Eagle-Tribune newspaper from the Dominican Republic in December, as he laid out his political plans to run again, saying “my harshest critics are begging me to get back.”
Lantigua, who often shuns interviews with news organizations, did not respond to requests for comment, and he has refused to debate Rivera. (Lantigua declined to debate him in their last matchup or any of his other bids for office.)
But Lantigua’s supporters point to his advocacy on behalf of immigrants and blue-collar workers in Lawrence — as a community organizer, during his eight years in the State House, and when he was mayor. They downplay the scandals that plagued his administration, saying he was a victim of political retaliation and media bias.
Three members of his administration and campaign team were indicted for bribery and stealing city resources, but only one of them went to jail, they argue. Lantigua’s chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, was convicted of pressuring a city vendor to donate a garbage truck to a community in Lantigua’s native Dominican Republic. Lantigua was never indicted. He was called to testify at Degnan’s trial but asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions.
He faced lesser scandals, as well, such as the disclosure that his then-girlfriend, a City Hall secretary, was receiving federal heating subsidies while the two lived together, leading to questions of whether the mayor was cheating taxpayer-funded assistance programs.
They later married, though he has said they are divorcing. He returned from the Dominican Republic recently with his fifth child and a new, decades-younger fiancee, who would be his fourth wife, though it is not clear if he is already divorced.
Also during Lantigua’s administration, the state appointed a financial overseer to help the city bail out of a $27 million operating budget deficit that he inherited. The state also took over the city’s school system and Lantigua was forced to lay off firefighters and police officers — after giving them raises.
But by the end of Lantigua’s administration, the city began to see budget surpluses, his supporters argue.
In a more recent controversy, the Eagle-Tribune newspaper reported earlier this month that the state has seized more than $17,000 of Lantigua’s campaign money because he failed to file finance reports due back as far as 2015. Earlier this year, Lantigua had to vacate his downtown campaign headquarters under questionable circumstances, though he told local reporters that the space was no longer available.
Dalia Diaz, who publishes a local bilingual newspaper, Rumbo, has written opinion articles critical of Rivera, ranging from the city’s sale of land to a city councilor, to Rivera’s lack of fluency in Spanish and what she describes as his unlawful enforcement of parking regulations.
As a columnist, Diaz said, she was equally tough on Lantigua, though she said she also recognized the work he has done for the community, including when he advocated on behalf of taxi drivers two decades ago.
“Lantigua was a born leader — that’s why he won the affection of the public,” she said.
In an interview at his campaign headquarters on Essex Street earlier this month, Rivera did not deny any missteps early in his administration, such as poor hiring decisions.
The firefighters have endorsed Lantigua, and the police officers voted no-confidence in Rivera, though he argues it’s because they still don’t have a contract.
The schools? They are still under state control, but he doesn’t think the state would be willing to give control back to Lawrence under a Lantigua administration.
Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, sent out robo-calls in support of Rivera, a Democrat, days before the preliminary election, and they appeared at a press conference Thursday announcing a new grant.
Rivera acknowledged that his toughest work as mayor — and the target of most of the criticism sent his way — has been responding to the city’s violence, specifically the killings of teenagers. He said he recognizes that he will have opponents, just like he recognizes there will be people who support Lantigua, simply because he is Willie Lantigua.
“He’s like their Robin Hood,” Rivera said, though he added, “except he didn’t give back to the poor.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.