LAWRENCE — City Councilor Daniel Rivera yesterday took on what may be the biggest challenge of his campaign for mayor: Getting the incumbent to debate.
The effort seemed to stumble out of the gate, as Rivera and Mayor William Lantigua made an effort to avoid each other when their paths crossed at the Relief’s In last night, suggesting there may be too much bad feeling between the two men to get them to share a stage anytime soon.
Lantigua dodged into a bathroom off the front lobby at the firefighters union hall to avoid Rivera as he approached. Rivera, who has become one of Lantigua’s sharpest critics on the council, hustled through the lobby, waiving off a request to wait for the mayor so that the two might pose together for a photo.
The two were at the hall seeking the endorsement of the city’s firefighters union, which had not voted by 10 p.m.
Asked while he waited to meet with the membership whether he would debate Rivera, the mayor only grinned.
Lantigua has won three straight elections — two preliminaries and a general — without appearing at a single debate, including at least two he skipped in last month’s preliminary election, when he topped a field of six with 48 percent of the vote. Rivera took 23 percent of the vote, a second-place finish that put him on the Nov. 5 ballot with Lantigua.
Yesterday, Rivera said he would try to break Lantigua’s record of ignoring debate invitations by offering to hold one in Spanish, bowing to the mayor’s preference for speaking in Spanish while campaigning and governing in a city that is overwhelmingly Latino.
“In English or Spanish, whatever he wants,” Rivera said. “He doesn’t seem to want to debate anybody in any language. I just want to make it easy for him.”
Rivera also offered to steer clear of issues Lantigua may not want to discuss, including: The indictments of several top aides, among them a deputy police chief who managed Lantigua’s last mayoral campaign; and his frequent trips to the Dominican Republic, including one to the DR and Florida after his father died earlier this year that lasted about two weeks.
Taking those issues off the table would allow more time for discussing Lantigua’s record on public safety, education and economic development, Rivera said.
The Eagle-Tribune sponsored one of the debates in last month’s preliminary election, which drew four of the six candidates for mayor, including Rivera. Yesterday, Eagle-Tribune Editor Al White said the newspaper will invite Rivera and Lantigua to a debate before the November election.
Rivera accepted immediately, although details have not been worked out.
Rivera expressed his readiness to debate Lantigua just after the votes were tallied in the preliminary election on Sept. 17, and he repeated it during interviews on Spanish-language radio stations last week. He said he has as not yet contacted Lantigua directly with the invitation.
Lantigua skipped every debate when he first ran for mayor four years ago, including in the general election, when he said his opponent, David Abdoo, “has not earned it.”
“I’m not going to run my campaign by doing what (Abdoo) and everyone else wants me to do,” Lantigua said then. “I’m not traditional.”
Yesterday, the executive director of the Boston chapter of Common Cause, a national good-government advocacy group, echoed the criticism Lantigua faced in 2009 for bypassing debates.
“It’s good for candidates, especially incumbents, to be subject to public scrutiny in different forums,” said Executive Director Pam Wilmot. “It’s one way of holding them accountable for their actions. When they hide from public debates, that gets more difficult. There’s no law against (skipping) a debate and it’s somewhat common among entrenched incumbents, but it’s not good for a healthy election process.”
Rivera said he hopes to have more luck than Abdoo in getting on a platform with Lantigua.
“We should shame him into appearing in public and talking about what he’s going to do,” Rivera said. “We need to force him to do this. He needs to come and tell the people why he deserves another four years.”