By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — Lawrence firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez calls himself “a regular guy” who wants to be the city’s next mayor.
“We can do better. We deserve better — that’s been my slogan,” said Gonzalez, 46, a once-proud supporter of Mayor William Lantigua who campaigned hard to get him elected four years ago. He stood on street corners alongside other Lantigua supporters holding signs for the city’s first-elected Hispanic mayor.
But these days, Gonzalez is holding campaign signs for himself — not the mayor. He is one of five candidates challenging Lantigua in the Sept. 17 preliminary election. The top two vote-getters will appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.
“What drove me to run is that I could not take another four years of the same. Integrity has been lacking in the city,” Gonzalez said in an interview last week.
“I lack the experience of a politician, but what I have is heart. I’m a regular guy, just a hard worker with no political experience,” said the 18-year veteran of the fire department.
Gonzalez announced his aspirations for mayor in May when he pulled nomination papers for the $100,000-a-year job. He actually grew disenchanted with the man he believed would be an excellent leader for Lawrence during the first half of Lantigua’s four-year term — in the midst of ongoing controversy, investigations into corruption and a city fiscal crisis.
Things came to a head in the spring of 2011 when contentious negotiations with firefighter and police unions led to pay cuts, demotions, the layoffs of 40 police officers and 23 firefighters and the closure of two firehouses. Gonzalez was among a group of 20 firefighters and police officers who joined “It’s Your Right,” a committee that sought to recall Lantigua.
The recall efforts failed. So did Gonzalez’s efforts to find a mayoral candidate he could back this year.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Gonzalez said of the unsuccessful efforts to oust Lantigua.
“But I don’t want people to see my campaign as part of the recall. Once I couldn’t find a candidate I could support 100 percent, I ran an exploratory campaign. From talks with my supporters, I saw within me a candidate I was looking for,” he said.
“I know I have the heart, the dedication and the intelligence to put together an administration that is going to represent the entire community — not just a corner of the city or any group in particular. Manny Gonzalez is for every one. I’m running because I want to make a difference. I am doing it from the bottom of my heart, for the betterment of Lawrence,” he said.
Gonzalez’s grassroots, common man’s campaign has drawn support from a few prominent city politicians in Lawrence — including former Mayor Michael Sullivan, who served eight years before bowing out of politics in 2009 because of term limits.
“This is a very important time for the city of Lawrence and this upcoming election will determine the future,” Sullivan said in a recent interview. “Juan Gonzalez is a proven leader as part of the most prestigious fire department in the country.”
Gonzalez’s life story — from poor beginnings in Puerto Rico where he was one of 10 children to path of prosperity in Lawrence where he graduated from high school, got married, raised a family, bought a home and went onto become a firefighter — epitomizes “the American Dream,” according to Sullivan.
“I also respect the fact that he has been helping victims of fires by the Heal Lawrence initiative that helps victims get back on their feet,” Sullivan said.
Former City Councilor David Abdoo, who lost to Lantigua by 1,024 votes in the last mayoral race, has also endorsed Gonzalez.
Abdoo calls Gonzalez the “whole package,” citing his family life, community involvement and public service.
“I firmly believe that Manny is the most qualified person to serve as our mayor based on his diverse life experiences, and his proven service to our city and her citizens. He is a selfless man of integrity, devoid of connections to the past four years of poor public policy decisions at City Hall,” Abdoo said.
Gonzalez said the first thing he will do if elected is to sit down with the future or interim police chief “because public safety is number one on my list.”
“One of the biggest challenges will be to bring back the police to the staffing that it’s supposed to be at. The money is not there, but we got to begin working on that,” Gonzalez said.
“As an elected mayor, I think I can work around that to make things better. I can get together with neighborhood associations and try to get their confidence back and start looking out for each other. And that doesn’t require money. That’s something we can start working on right away,” he said.
Gonzalez said he recently was involved in the creation of the District B Neighborhood Association, which has already held its first meeting.
Citing education as his second priority, Gonzalez said he would strive to attend every School Committee meeting “because I get paid to be the chairman and want to be a part of it.”
That’s why it’s important for the next mayor to be an active participant in ongoing efforts to turn around the Lawrence Public Schools, which recently began its second full academic year under a state-appointed superintendent/receiver, Gonzalez said. He also pledged to get parents more involved in their children’s education.
Economic development is Gonzelez’s third chief concern, but he said it’s really intertwined with his other two priorities.
If elected, Gonzalez said he would hire “a qualified economic development director” to replace former City Councilor Patrick Blanchette, who currently holds that position.
“We need somebody that has a vision to sell Lawrence for what it really is because Lawrence has a lot of potential,” Gonzalez said.
“But I don’t think our economic development director is exploring that potential. Lawrence is so close to the highways, easy access in and out, and available space in so many mill buildings. It’s embarrassing to see developers going to Haverhill, Methuen and Lowell when we have the space and hard working people here and so much potential,” Gonzalez said.
“It really raises the question: Is he (Blanchette) really doing his job? I think we are being shortchanged. In the meantime, let’s work together with what we have here, all the small companies and the small businesses in the city. What do you need to allow you to grow in the community? Because if you cannot keep what you already have here, how can you invite anybody else?”
Gonzalez last week received the unanimous endorsement of The Lawrence Firefighter’s Union Local 146.
“We feel he is the best candidate and his heart is in the right place for the city. He’s the top person for the job because of his roots here and his ability to understand the problems the city faces,” said Firefighter Raymond Kenyon, secretary of Local 146.
BIO IN BRIEF :Born: Puerto Rico in 1966, moved to Lawrence with his family in 1982, where he has lived for more than three decades. He is one of 10 children. Education: Graduated from Lawrence High in 1986 and received his associate's degree in fire science from North Shore Community College in 1997. He has also attended classes at Salem State College, where he eventually hopes to earn a bachelor's degree in education. Work history: A Lawrence firefighter for the past 18 years, received "Firefighter of The Year." In January 2007, the Lawrence Exchange Club recognized him for staying on the job, helping others, even after his own family was forced out of their home during the floods of the previous May. He's been a licensed private investigator for Colleran Investigative Services since 2006. Political experience: First-time candidate for public office; active in the unsuccessful campaign to recall Mayor William Lantigua. Community involvement: Partner in Heal Lawrence, a non-profit relief agency that helps city fire victims recover and relocate; recently helped create the District B Neighborhood Association; has volunteered with the Central and Tower Hill Little Leagues and the Lawrence Legion Baseball Team. He's also done volunteer work for the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence for 13 years. Family: He is married to Gloribel Gonzalez, whom he met 27 years ago while in high school. They are the parents of Juan, 26, Jasmine, 23, and Calvin, 18. They live on Bennington Street.