By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Members of Congress typically avoid the messy entanglements of local politics.
But, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas yesterday plunged into the mire of Lawrence politics when she endorsed City Councilor Daniel Rivera for mayor, which she said is her first reach into a local campaign that she could recall since she left for Washington in 2007.
Tsongas did not mention the incumbent William Lantigua in the prepared statement she issued announcing she was backing Rivera. In a follow-up telephone interview, she deflected attempts to get her to assess Lantigua’s leadership or even to say his name.
“This is very much about the future,” Tsongas said when asked for her impression of Lantigua’s first term. “(Rivera) is a strong candidate who’s demonstrated his commitment to the city.”
The endorsement is a reversal for the three-term representative from Lowell, who three years ago said critics should give Lantigua’s “very new administration a chance.”
“The administration is working hard to get the city out of it,” Tsongas said in a published interview 10 months into Lantigua’s first term, referring to a fiscal crisis Lantigua inherited that ended when the state gave the city permission to borrow up to $35 million to cover earlier budget deficits.
Lantigua returned the favor in 2010, when he endorsed Tsongas for re-election. She won 78 percent of the vote in the city against Republican Jonathon Golnik. Last year, when she faced Golnik a second time, Tsongas increased her margin in the city to 85 percent.
In all, Tsongas received 17,914 votes in her Lawrence landslide last year, more than any of the dozens of candidates for any office on the ballot. That number could erode if Lantigua is re-elected and Tsongas runs for a fourth term next year without the support of Lantigua, who commands an impressive get-out-the-vote operation.
Four years ago, a few prominent politicians from outside the city made endorsements in the race for mayor, including then Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who endorsed Lantigua over David Abdoo.
Murray, who resigned as lieutenant governor last year and now heads the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, did not return a phone call seeking to learn if he would make another endorsement this year.
Gov. Deval Patrick did not endorse in the 2009 race, but attended Lantigua’s inauguration.
“It’s an unusual race,” Rivera said about Tsongas’s decision to choose sides. “We’re talking about the next 10 years of education, jobs, public safety. When you have an unusual race, you’re going to have unusual things happen.”
Rivera and Tsongas said they worked together on several projects in recent years. Tsongas credited Rivera with helping defeat a redistricting effort that would have cleaved Lawrence from the vast Third Congressional District she represents.
Rivera credited Tsongas for helping Northern Essex Community College open a campus in Lawrence. Rivera is on the college’s board.
Rivera worked for former Congressman Martin Meehan as an economic development specialist but left the job before Meehan gave up the seat in 2007 to become chancellor of UMass Lowell. Tsongas succeeded Meehan to the seat.
Meehan credited Rivera with helping deliver federal resources to Lawrence.
Meehan yesterday said through a college spokesman he does not endorse political candidates.
Tsongas, Rivera and Lantigua are Democrats. Mayoral elections are non-partisan.