By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — William Perocchi and Daniel Rivera grew up poor in the same city housing project, raised by single parents and, given their impoverished beginnings, facing a life of long odds and limited expectations.
Perocchi went on to top jobs at General Electric and the DoubleTree hotel chain, retiring at 42 in 1990. A few months later, Peter Ueberroth, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, enticed him back to work organizing a deal to buy Pebble Beach Resorts and its world-famous golf club in California. Today, he’s part owner and CEO.
Rivera was on a different trajectory. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Iraq during the first Gulf War, then went on to a short career in government and a longer one in marketing.
The two met for the first time at a South Broadway restaurant last fall, where over breakfast Perocchi expressed distress over the “dysfunction and divisiveness” he said had overrun his former hometown.
Rivera, running for mayor, laid out his vision for the city.
Perocchi flew back to the West Coast.
But as the election approached, Perocchi, one of the wealthiest men in a community famous for luxury, returned to an indigent city known for corruption and crime to wave signs on street corners and knock on doors for Rivera, who was facing another set of long odds and limited expectations as he took on a charismatic incumbent who had built up an air of invincibility.
Rivera edged William Lantigua by 60 votes of 15,200 cast on Nov. 5. When Lantigua demanded a recount, Perocchi wrote what may be the biggest check ever in Lawrence politics — $26,000 — to hire the team of lawyers an d pay the other expenses that would help Rivera hold on to his microscopic margin through the recount.
Perocchi wrote one check more after the recount, for $5,000, to help with the expenses of Rivera’s inaugural gala on Jan. 4.
Massachusetts election law does not limit what individuals can give to a candidate’s special accounts for post-election expenses such as recounts or inaugural events, although individual contributions to a candidate’s campaign organization are capped at $500 a year. Perocchi gave the maximum to Rivera’s campaign last year, as did his wife, brother, sister and the vice president of his golf club.
Reached last week in California, Perocchi would not comment on the $33,000 he and his family gave Rivera in pre- and post-election contributions, which came to light recently in Rivera’s financial disclosure forms, or say why the city remains on his mind three decades after he left it except to say that he still considers Lawrence his home. He owns no property in the city, but has an oceanfront house in Seabrook, N.H., that he said he visits regularly.
Otherwise, he pointed to a letter about the campaign he wrote to The Eagle-Tribune, published Oct. 30.
“This may be an unusual letter because I am a resident of Pebble Beach, Calif., not a resident of Lawrence,” Perocchi’s letter began. He noted that he grew up in the Lawrence Stadium Courts public housing project until leaving – at about the time Rivera was moving up from the Bronx, N.Y, to the housing project with his single mother — to earn a degree at the University of New Hampshire and then launch the business career that brought him to Pebble Beach.
“Until recently, I have always been proud of the city I grew up in,” Perocchi said in his letter. “However, things have changed considerably in the last few years. In California, or when spending time back here, I run into people all the time who grew up in Lawrence. When the topic of Lawrence comes up, it is always the same reaction: one of hopelessness, dismay and anger.”
Perocchi’s letter did not mention Lantigua, but said if Lawrence were a business, “you would fire the CEO.”
Lantigua did not return a phone call to comment.
Rivera, 43, said he knew little about Perocchi, 56, until their breakfast meeting last fall.
“I knew he was a famous guy from Lawrence who grew up in the projects and did well,” Rivera said. “He thought he could be helpful here at home. He had the same sentiment a lot of people had, that we really needed to make a change in this community.”
The new mayor acknowledged that $31,500 is a sizable contribution from a single person, but said Perocchi has no financial stake in Lawrence.
“It’s a best case scenario,” Rivera said. “When you have someone with no vested interest in the city, and whose track record is only one that helps the city, then those concerns can be lessened.”
In 2003, Perocchi wrote a far bigger check to bring another change to Lawrence. The $1 million check helped rebuild the run-down Boys & Girls Club building on Water Street, where Perocchi spent much of his youth after his mother died in a car crash when he was 9 and his father became permanently disabled when hit by a falling branch while working as a laborer for the city.
An uncle, Paul Perocchi, was a Lawrence District Court judge for 22 years, until he retired in 1985. Another uncle, Steve, was a football coach at Lawrence High School.
Both Perocchi and Rivera emphasized that Perocchi has no business interests or investments in Lawrence. Rivera also said he has no plans for a golf vacation in Pebble Beach.
“What I do cannot be considered golf,” Rivera said.