With his disarming smile, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera checked his phone for e-mails and texts between sentences. When he resumed speaking, he succinctly summed up his four-year plan for the city he will manage for the next four years: cut crime; oust the drug dealers that plague the streets; increase jobs and attract new businesses to the former textile city; and get thousands of Lawrence residents who do not speak English to enroll in classes.
“We’re going to make Lawrence better regardless of our statistics,” said Rivera, 43, who defeated incumbent William Lantigua by 81 votes last November, ending a four-year mayoral reign that was dogged by headlines of corruption, political struggles, and accusations of nepotism.
Bronx-born, the son of a single mother from the Dominican Republic, Rivera has never met his father. At age 5, he and his three siblings moved to Lawrence, where his mother found work in a mill. Stocky and analytical, Rivera became a Boy Scout, had a newspaper route, and, after graduating from Lawrence High School, joined the Army and was sent to Iraq and Kuwait during Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
He returned home and became the first person in his family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a master’s in business administration from Suffolk University.
Rivera is a marketing manager by trade, and his work ethic and enthusiasm have been praised by the likes of Governor Deval Patrick and US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Lowell. During her successful run for US Senate, Elizabeth Warren hired Rivera as her statewide senior adviser on Latino affairs.
“He will show the people of Lawrence a path for a more hopeful future,” said Warren, who came to Lawrence to administer the oath of office for Rivera’s inauguration in January. “Dan is realistic enough to know how hard the path will be, but he has the basic optimism he needs to get there.”
Yet, even with the accolades and political connections, Rivera still can be found at night in his office trying to tackle social and economic problems that have been etched into the stoops and triple-deckers of the city since the textile mills closed in the 1950s. Far from the booming tourist mecca of Salem or the MBTA-driven Green Line economic surge in Somerville, Rivera may have the most thankless political job in Massachusetts.
For decades, the city on the banks of the Merrimack River has been mired in a social, economic, and existential miasma, and these days, its statistical profile would give any city leader heartburn. Lawrence’s unemployment rate was 13.9 percent in March — more than double the state average, and second in the state among cities with more than 70,000 people to Fall River (14.7 percent). More than 28 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, compared with an average of 11 percent statewide, according to the most recent US Census figures.
In 2010, the year Lantigua took office, the city nearly went bankrupt and had to borrow $24 million to keep City Hall open. Two years ago, its schools were taken over by the state after former superintendent Wilfredo Laboy was convicted of embezzlement .
In April, a former Lantigua chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for pressuring Lawrence’s waste-disposal contractor to donate a garbage truck to a city in Lantigua’s native Dominican Republic. Other Lantigua insiders who also face corruption trials include a former deputy police chief, Melix Bonilla, and Justo Garcia, who managed a city-owned parking garage.
While some call the prospect of turning around Lawrence a mission impossible, Rivera said he needs time, patience, and people to understand that he is running the city like a business. His business card lists his titles as mayor and CEO. Since taking office in January, he has implemented a dress code for City Hall workers; instituted department head meetings; hired a new comptroller, planning director, and business development director; and, a week after becoming mayor, placed Bonilla — who had been collecting a paycheck but not working since his 2012 indictment — on unpaid leave.
He also worked with Interim Police Chief James Fitzpatrick to create a task force to cut down on robberies, a move that already has yielded results. Since mid-January, reports of robberies have dropped 42 percent compared with the prior four months.
Rivera also has plans to hire eight new police officers to shore up an understaffed department that lost more than 40 officers in the last decade because of layoffs and retirements. The mayor said he believes more police are needed to combat the city’s drug and violent crime problems and change the perception that Lawrence is a dangerous place to visit.
When asked how the city — which is still under a spending freeze that he implemented — would pay for the new police he wants to hire, Rivera said he would not rule out layoffs elsewhere.
“We’re going to prioritize public safety and if that means we have to lay off clerks, or positions that aren’t revenue-driving positions, we’ll do that. The city is not an employment agency,” said Rivera.
“He’s a hands-on mayor and holds people who work for him accountable,” said Fitzpatrick.
Using federal funds, Rivera is planning to add 1,000 additional seats for English as a second language classes, which he said is necessary for people to find work.
He would prefer that residents worked in Lawrence, but said any jobs in neighboring towns would take people off the streets and boost their spirits.
“We have an immigrant workforce that’s ready to work and learn,” he said of residents, 74 percent of whom are Latino, according to census figures.
Rivera said he is working around the clock to lure businesses to Lawrence, and he points to the old mills as sites that can accommodate everything from manufacturing to high-tech startups.
James Barnes, the city’s director of community development agreed, but cautioned that it would take time.
“The future is good, but we have to have a long-term strategy because the buildings are so huge,” said Barnes.
New Balance and Gemline are some of the marquee names that have relocated to the mill buildings, while some others have been converted into doctor’s offices and apartments. Still, according to Marianne Paley, who owns the 525,000-square-foot Everett Mills, which once produced shirts and denim and now is an office center, as much as half of the mills’ total 6 million square feet is vacant. Paley said she thinks that the city’s problems need to be taken into perspective while creating a strategic economic plan.
“These are complex, far-reaching issues,” she said. “My strongest hope is that mayor will be able to have the resources to hire really great people who will be committed to dealing with the issues, because he can’t do it alone.”
On Lawrence’s streets, few wanted to discuss politics and the new mayor with a reporter. Angel Deleon, who is 26, sat with his son on a bench at the common across from City Hall and said he has never voted in a Lawrence election.
“I got laid off last week,” said Deleon, who lost his carpentry job in Gloucester and was unsure how he would find new work.
Nearby, Destiny Rodriguez watched her 4-year-old daughter play. Rodriguez, 24, a single mother who works as a waitress, said changes are needed downtown to bring in additional restaurants, professional offices, and other businesses where people could work for more than minimum wage.
She said she believes people have to take more responsibility for their own lives, and she worries about a city where she said someone can obtain heroin on nearly every street.
“It’s not going to stop unless we all work together,” she said.
Off to a fast start
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera lists the following among his top achievements since taking office in January:
■ Demoted deputy police chief Melix Bonilla to sergeant and placed Bonilla — who faces corruption charges — on unpaid leave
■ Sent eight new candidates to the Police Academy
■ Moved five police officers from desk to patrol
■ Initiated the Armed Robbery Task Force
■ Instituted a citywide spending freeze
■ Endorsed the signing of a teacher union contract in April
■ Hired a new comptroller, planning director, and business development director
■ Increased nightclub law enforcement
■ Implemented a dress code at City Hall
■ Attended President Obama’s State of the Union address Jan. 28 in Washington.