WHAT POLITICIAN wouldn’t kill for Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera’s reputation? Walk down the streets of Lawrence with him, as I did earlier this summer, and you’ll hear people call out greetings, in Spanish and English. They ask to take selfies with him. They tell him, unsolicited, “I’m glad you won, man.”
Rivera knows what he’s got. He describes it by making an egg shape with his hands: “A little egg of goodwill, and it could break at any time.”
When you’re trying to reshape a city, you need all the goodwill you can get.
I’ve been thinking about Rivera a lot this political season, as various candidates make their pitches for effectiveness. A successful politician needs a mix of charisma and self-awareness, an ability to manage small steps on the way to larger goals.
Rivera has charisma of the teddy bear sort; he’s less shiny-glamorous than solid and approachable. He knows his rookie appeal stems partly from what he represents: The clean guy who campaigned against corruption, and won. Rivera’s predecessor, the boisterous Willie Lantigua, enjoyed a cult status when he was elected the state’s first Latino mayor in 2009. But Lantigua spent his term mired in corruption scandals, sued by the state over alleged campaign finance violations.
At the time, Rivera was a city councilor with an MBA and a private sector background. Many believed he couldn’t compete with Lantigua’s populist appeal. But Rivera knocked on thousands of doors, his campaign made nearly 40,000 phone calls, and he narrowly won.
Now every politician in Massachusetts wants to bask in Rivera’s good-guy story. US Representative Niki Tsongas took him to the State of the Union address. At an event at the local career center, state Labor Secretary Rachel Kaprelian gushed, “I might be your number one fan.”
Maybe she says that to all the mayors. Probably not. And her support could be useful, because one of Rivera’s goals is to move that career center from its out-of-the-way location to a downtown spot, where it’s more accessible to residents.
This is the actual work Rivera needs to do: change the way Lawrence functions, en route to changing its image. The city is a troubled underdog, where unemployment is high, the schools are in receivership, and drugs are a constant problem. In 2012, Boston magazine called it “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts.”
One of Rivera’s stated goals — which tells you a lot about how he thinks — is to get enough good Lawrence news into the Google cache that the Boston magazine story drops way down in a search. But the most widespread attention he’s gotten so far probably came when he changed the City Hall dress code, requiring ties.
Much more of what he’s done is more important, but less buzzworthy. He lobbied for the Registry of Motor Vehicles office to move downtown. He hired police officers. He created a task force to review abandoned property. He recruited a city planner from Lowell.
“I told her what I tell everybody,” he said. “We have this great opportunity to turn around a city that no one thought could be turned around . . . Somebody could make their bones here.”
To turn Lawrence around would be a feat, but Rivera thinks big. He wants to persuade middle-class families to consider moving here, where a house with a backyard is still affordable. He wants to tout the brick waterfront mills, not for yuppie loft apartments, but for business space.
“If you’re a business in Cambridge or Somerville, move it to Lawrence,” he said. “Go live in Andover. You’d get a better tee time on a golf course in Southern New Hampshire.”
You can’t make that pitch without some serious local pride. Rivera gushes about the locally made products, the mill building that would be taller than the Empire State Building, if you held it sideways. He talks about how “awesome” it was to grow up here: “It was just big enough that you didn’t feel small, and just small enough that you could do something big. That’s still the way I feel about it today.”
It’s that kind of talk that gives mayors, among all politicians, particular charm. You can love your country, you can love your state, but not in the same way that you love your hometown. Turnarounds aren’t easy. Rivera knows that. But he has reason to hope that the goodwill can last.