LAWRENCE — On a warm late-summer evening in a middle-class, south-side neighborhood, Daniel Rivera is waging what he calls his ground war.
Working from a map highlighted with the streets he’ll walk and a database showing the names and voting history of every adult in every home along the way, Rivera heads up a driveway on Mount Auburn Street.
A middle-aged woman responds to his knock at the door, looking a little startled and not very interested.
“I’m Dan Rivera and I’m running for mayor,” Rivera says. “Have you thought about the race yet?”
Undaunted, Rivera launches into a monologue he’ll repeat several times over the next few hours: he’ll bring industry and jobs to the city, hire dozens more cops, fix the schools and repair the city’s battered reputation.
The woman, who asks to be identified only as Kathy, starts to warm up.
“You work very hard,” she tells Rivera. “I see you everywhere.”
The candidate beams. He reminds her that the election is Sept. 17 and turns back down the driveway headed for the next one.
The voter he’s looking for next door isn’t home. He leaves a brochure with her son and makes a request.
“Let her know a chubby guy running for mayor came by,” Rivera — 5 feet nine inches tall and 290 pounds — calls over his shoulder as he turns for the next house.
It’s a political strategy rooted in one-on-one contact and supported by a disciplined campaign organization that Rivera says will help him unseat a charismatic incumbent whose campaign is equally disciplined.
In all, Rivera said he and his volunteers have visited 3,000 homes since he became the first of five challengers to enter the race on Feb. 4 with a promise to remove the “toxic” pale he said has settled over the city over the last four years, brought on by the indictments, scandals and patronage that he says have marked Mayor William Lantigua’s four years.
Rivera waves off suggestions that he supported the mayor for too long.
“When you think about all those crazy things the mayor said early on, I was one of the first to say he should apologize and retract them,” Rivera said, citing Lantigua’s refusal to give up his statehouse seat during his first weeks as mayor and his suggestions that police are lazy and that residents should follow firefighters to make sure they’re on the job.
“As soon as it became clear to me that the mayor didn’t have any real interest to have an inclusive conversation about how to run this government, or that he cared about the results of his actions, then I knew the relationship had to be more adversarial,” Rivera said.
He has evolved into one of Lantigua’s most outspoken critics on the City Council. Last year he was elected vice chairman of the council and chairman of the budget committee. Rivera is giving up his at-large council seat after two terms to run for mayor.
As chairman, he has given a microscopic scrutiny to Lantigua’s budgets, including last year, when he persuaded other councilors to cut about $500,000 from the spending plan Lantigua sent them. He said the cut allowed the city to hire more cops to contain a wave of violence that swept through the city’s nightclubs later in the year.
He is an activist chairman with an expansive view of the role his committee can play on issues beyond the budget. He took his committee on a tour of the Guilmette School following the mold infestation that required a $7 million reconstruction, pushed to move jobs from public works to public safety and hosted hearings about the chaos at several polling places in the 2012 presidential election.
In an interview last week, Rivera wouldn’t say which department heads he might replace, but in other interviews over the last year or so he said at least four would go: City Clerk William Maloney, acting Public Works Director John Isensee, Economic Development Director Patrick Blanchette and Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette (who is Patrick’s brother).
Rivera is less specific about the influence he would try to exert over city schools as chairman of the school committee, a job that falls to the mayor. He did praise the work so far by Jeff Riley, who is running Lawrence schools for the state, including his decisions to reset benchmarks for student achievement and to add incentives for teachers. He offered his own unconventional idea for how he would motivate teachers short of giving them raises he said the city can’t afford.
“It only costs you $1,600 to $1,800 to get a cottage for a week in Martha’s Vineyard,” Rivera said. “Say, if you can move the needle in your subject matter — we’ll get the private sector to pay for it — you’ll get a week in Martha’s Vineyard.”
As a self-described “boy from the projects,” Rivera, 42, was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to a mother who immigrated from the Dominican Republic and a Puerto Rican father he never met. He lived his first five years in a densely packed neighborhood where he said an older brother taught him to get around by jumping from roof to roof.
His mother moved the family to a public housing project in Lawrence in 1976 and went to work in the mills. He left for the Army immediately after graduating from Lawrence High School in 1989 for a four-year tour as a Military Police officer that began just before the outbreak of the first Gulf War.
He was one of the first to cross into Iraq with the Army’s Third Armored Division as part of a three-day expedition that he said “laid the line” for troops to follow into the ground war that routed Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait within days.
He was discharged in 1993 and enrolled on the GI Bill at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where students elected him as a voting member of the university system’s Board of Trustees.
He took several public-sector jobs after graduation, including special assistant to former mayor Patricia Dowling, when he recruited John Romero as police chief (Romero retired last week after 15 years). He also worked as a manager of one of the public housing projects he grew up in and then as economic development director for former U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan.
“He knew how to go out and help businesses,” said Meehan, now chancellor of the UMass campus at Lowell. “He was instrumental in working with (former) Sen. (Ted) Kennedy’s staff to deliver resources for Lawrence, to help expand projects in and around the vacant mills.”
Rivera left government for a career in marketing in 2004. He now works for BirdDog Solutions in Andover, a shipping consultant.
He lives with his wife, Paula King Rivera, in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.
During an interview last week on the deck overlooking his slightly overgrown backyard just before leaving for another evening of knocking on doors, Rivera said he would reunite the Lawrencians he said Lantigua has divided. He cited what he said is Lantigua’s failure to meet regularly with neighborhood associations and his refusal to speak in English to audiences that do not include Spanish speakers.
”It’s not just Anglo (against) Latino, it’s not just Dominicans (against) Puerto Ricans,” Rivera said. “It’s in many ways. As mayor, you’re supposed to bring this community together. No settling of scores. No petty fights.”
Bio in Brief Born: Bronx, N.Y., in 1970. Moved to Lawrence with his family as a 5-year-old. Education: Lawrence High School, 1989. B.A. from UMass Amherst, 1996. MBA from Suffolk University, 2003. Work history: Military Police in the U.S. Army, 1989-1993, including service in the first Gulf War. Special Assistant to former Mayor Patricia Dowling, manager of the Stadium Courts public housing for the Lawrence Housing Authority, economic development director for former U.S. Rep Martin Meehan. Currently works as a Database Marketing Manager for BirdDog Solutions, a shipping consultant based in Andover. Political experience: Elected to the City Council, 2010. Now serves as the council's vice president and as chairman of its budget committee. Vice chair of the Lawrence Democratic City Committee. Community involvement: Member of Board of Trustees, Northern Essex Community College. Treasurer, Youth Development Organization. Family: Married to Paula King Rivera.