By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — Four candidates challenging Mayor William Lantigua in next Tuesday’s preliminary election made a public pact last night to stand united in opposing the mayor if he makes it onto the Nov. 5 election ballot with one of them.
“If the incumbent is nominated, I will not support him and I ask each of you to take a pledge not to support him,” local inventor James Patrick O’Donoghue said in his opening remarks at an 80-minute mayoral debate.
“Each and every one of us would make a good mayor of Lawrence, much better than the mayor we have,” he said. His anti-Lantigua pledge drew a burst of applause from the crowd of about 200 at the Performing Arts Center at Lawrence High School.
The mayor declined an invitation to attend last night’s candidate’s forum, co-sponsored by The Eagle-Tribune and CommonWealth magazine. Candidate Nestor DeJesus also did not attend the debate. The top two vote-getters of the six men running for mayor will face off against each other in November’s general election.
State Rep. Marcos Devers, Lawrence firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez and City Councilor Daniel Rivera all answered emphatically that they would endorse the last man standing against Lantigua when questioned by one of the panelists later in the debate.
“I know I’m going to defeat Mr. Lantigua,” boasted Devers, who has failed in two previous campaigns for mayor — including the one four years ago when Lantigua became Lawrence’s first elected Hispanic mayor.
Devers, who became the city’s first Latino mayor — elected by the City Council to finish the final months of Mayor Patricia Dowling’s term in 2001 when she resigned to become a district court judge — then conceded that in the event he loses next Tuesday, “I will support whoever is the one to go against him (Lantigua).”
A panel of three — consisting of representatives from The Eagle-Tribune, the bilingual weekly newspaper Rumbo and CommonWealth Magazine — asked the candidates 18 questions last night. CommonWealth is published quarterly by MassINC, an independent, nonpartisan, public policy think tank based in Boston.
CommonWealth Editor Bruce Mohl served as the moderator. At the outset of the debate, he asked each of the candidates to assess the last four years under the Lantigua administration and what they would do if elected.
Devers said that to assess the four years of the Lantigua adminstration would be “to focus on the disappointment of that experience.” But rather than pinpoint shortcomings of the mayor, Devers said he would outline some of his initiatives.
He pledged to “bring people together” by working with neighborhood associations — a promise made by each of the other candidates during the evening.
Gonzalez, who campaigned for Lantigua four years ago, characterized the Lantigua term as “very poor, very divisive, painful at times.”
“It just started on the wrong foot,” he said. He said he preferred not to engage in negative talk about the administration and instead focus on his own campaign.
O’Donoghue said Lantigua could have concentrated on economic development.
“I’m going to do that. I’m going to create jobs,” he said. As an example, he cited the construction of a metropolitan transit system from Lawrence to Boston.
O’Donoghue also noted that he would not go on vacation constantly “like this mayor and not ever let anyone know he is on vacation.”
Anyone who has read about Lawrence in local news media is well aware of the actions of the Lantigua administration, City Councilor Rivera noted.
“I would leave it that there was a lot of missed opportunity,” Rivera said.
Rivera said he would meet with every neighborhood association in an effort to unify the community. He said he also “would not have taken for granted the role of chairman of the School Committee.” While the city’s fiscal crisis led to layoffs of the Police Department, Rivera said he would have done more to restore the staff cuts.
In answer to a question about how to solve the city’s fiscal problems so a state receiver is no longer involved, Rivera said he would “show a level of responsibility with the people’s money.”
“I’d take the indicted police officers off the city’s payroll,” he said.
Gonzalez said he would hire a professional economic development director. He has been critical of the job currently done by former City Councilor Patrick Blanchette, who currently holds that position.
The mayor “keeps mismanaging” the city’s finances, Gonzalez said.
O’Donoghue said that if elected, the first thing he would do would be to sit down with the state-appointed overseer to get a detailed assessment of the city’s financial situation.
“I don’t believe everything has been made available to the public,” he said.
The next mayor also needs to look at ways to rebuild the city’s tax base, according to O’Donoghue.
“The first thing I’d do as mayor would become the the public relations chief and market the city,” Devers said.
The city needs to do a better job of marketing itself as a place with great potential, Devers said. Other candidates echoed that as a major theme throughout the evening: a need for Lawrence to sell itself on a pool of hardworking local labor and available space in mill buildings.
All of the candidates also expressed concerns about improving “quality of life issues” in the city, particularly the appearance.
Rivera said he would create a “quality of life SWAT Team,” comprised of two police officers, two firefighters and two inspectional services workers to investigate complaints about poorly-maintained properties in the city.
“If your house is visited more than 10 times a month, you have a problem,” Rivera said.
Last night’s debate was videotaped by the Lawrence Public Schools Media Department, assisted by a crew of Lawrence High School students. The unedited video tape will be available on The Eagle-Tribune website later this week.