Controversial New Mayor Takes Over Troubled Lawrence

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The new mayor of Lawrence will give his inaugural address Monday in English and Spanish. The majority Hispanic city made history this fall when it elected the state's first Latino mayor, but Dominican-born William Lantigua is also controversial. Many residents say they are willing to overlook Lantigua's idiosyncrasies, hoping he can fix this troubled city.

For the last six years, Willy Lantigua has served as a state representative from Lawrence, one of the state's poorest cities. He took the unusual step of opening an office away from the State House, in downtown Lawrence.

He and his staff helped people there with constituent services, and he was surprised to find that most of their problems were local.

"[They had] problems that have to do with the office of the mayor and the city council, but yet they come to me," Lantigua says. "So, if 90 percent of the issues that I deal with have to do with city hall, and I have to call so many people who sometimes don't even answer, why not be the mayor? Why not be the boss and make those issues go away?"

State Rep. and Mayor-elect William Lantigua meets supporters at his district office in downtown Lawrence. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)
State Rep. and Mayor-elect William Lantigua meets supporters at his district office in downtown Lawrence. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

Lantigua — a native of the Dominican Republic — is tall and lanky, and typically wears sleek suits. He's handsome with a closely shaved bald head. When he was first elected, he wore a long, bushy beard, but got rid of it when elderly voters didn't like it.

And that might be one of the only obvious moves he's made for political expediency.

"One thing about Willy: Willy is his own man," says Richard D'Agostino, assistant attorney for the city of Lawrence.

D'Agostino has been friends with Lantigua for years and says the new mayor makes decisions based on "conviction" and not by "holding his finger in the air to see how the wind is blowing."

People in Lawrence have gotten a fuller picture of Lantigua's maverick side since he ran for mayor.

During the election, Lantigua skipped all public candidate events. He ticked off the local newspaper by refusing to give interviews. And now that he has the job, Lantigua has really shocked some constituents: He wants to be both mayor and state representative.

"It's easier for me to get an appointment with the governor, the speaker [of the House] or any of them, than it will be for a new member coming in that nobody knows," explains Lantigua.

And Lantigua will need those appointments. Lawrence is counting on getting a loan of $30 to $35 million from the state government so it doesn't go bankrupt. One Lawrence city councilor says Lantigua is actually saving the city money by keeping his job at the Statehouse. This way the city doesn't have to pay for a special election to replace Lantigua.

While some politicians and Lantigua supporters can justify the new mayor's unorthodox decision, residents are less understanding.

Inside Camilo's Barbershop, more than a dozen men waited for a hair cut. Many of the men there say they supported other candidates in the primary, but voted for Lantigua in the end because they wanted to finally see a Latino represent Lawrence, where more than 70 percent of residents are Hispanic.

Speaking in Spanish, Jorge Orellano says he's counting on Lantigua to make the city more inclusive.

"I think he should focus on one thing, and that's the city of Lawrence," says Orellano.

Outside a nearby sports bar, owner Jimmy Sarcione shovels snow. Sarcione is counting on Lantigua to improve the image of Lawrence so more businesses and residents will locate here. But he's not bothered by Lantigua doing both jobs.

"If that was me, I would try to make as much money as I could," says Sarcione. "People that have a problem with that are probably just jealous."

Inside the bar, Lou Desalle said Lantigua is greedy by taking the two jobs, especially in a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. At the same time, he's willing to give the new mayor a chance.

"You can't do any worse than any other mayors in this city have."

That's the sentiment of many Lawrencians who seem to have a low bar for leaders. The new mayor, Willy Lantigua, is inheriting a fiscal mess that apparently could have been avoided. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue issued warnings as far back as 2008 that if the city didn't cut costs it would go bankrupt.

Whether he holds one office or two, Lantigua's confident that he's ready to take on the difficult task of getting this city back in the black.

This program aired on January 4, 2010.


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