By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — Last Tuesday wasn’t the first time that ballots in a hotly contested mayoral race were locked away in a sealed vault in the basement of City Hall and kept under 24-hour guard by Lawrence police for safe-keeping in case of a recount or court challenge.
It happened 20 years ago, after Mary Claire Kennedy beat former Lawrence Mayor Lawrence LeFebre by just 11 votes in what may have been the city’s closest mayor’s race ever.
Then-Interim Mayor Leonard J. Degnan Jr. took no chances that somebody might tamper with the ballots. He ordered the vault sealed with wax and instructed the city clerk to surrender his key to the vault’s inner door to the Election Division office. Degnan tried to have state police take custody of the ballots because both local police unions had endorsed LeFebre. But he said at the time election officials told him state police couldn’t be used to protect ballots in a municipal election.
The recount didn’t make any difference in the election outcome. Kennedy still became the city’s first female mayor, picking up four more votes from the recount. A lawsuit by LeFebre didn’t change that margin.
Mayor William Lantigua has until Friday to decide whether to seek a recount of last week’s 60-vote loss to City Councilor and Mayor-elect Daniel Rivera. Lantigua narrowed Rivera’s lead down to 57 votes during last Friday’s count of provisional ballots. There are still absentee ballots from overseas to count.
While many political observers are expecting Lantigua to request a recount — especially if he can cut into Rivera’s lead substantially —history isn’t on the mayor’s side, according to Ronald F. Martin, a long-time city official and observer of Lawrence politics.
”Not in my life-time,” Martin answered when asked whether he’s known of any recounts which have succeeded during more than five decades of following city government.
”It’s just mathematics. I just don’t see how you can change that many votes,” Martin observed of the uphill challenge facing Lantigua.
“I know people who have had recounts with far larger margin separating them from the other candidate. Most people might say he should hang it up, but it is a hard decision. And if his supporters feel they want him to do it, he does have an obligation. It’s a hard decision to make,” he said.
Former Lawrence Mayor Michael J. Sullivan questions the public resources and time that have been devoted to Lawrence election recounts over the years.
”I think politicians are quick to do it on a close election and they don’t really understand that it won’t change the result,” he said in an interview last week.
”In the modern day with electronic ballots, 99 percent of the votes are tallied as soon as the voting ends. The additional provisional ballots as well as some absentee ballots might move a small number one way or another, but usually it goes with the main trend,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, who served two four-year terms prior to Lantigua’s election in 2009, didn’t run again because of term limitations. He said he doubts Lantigua can hang his hopes on a recount.
”Lantigua vs. Rivera was basically a 50/50 split,” Sullivan noted. “Absentees and provisionals will usually end up around the same split, so it is very difficult to change the results of an election due to a recount,” he said.
Ex-mayoral candidate Ralph L. Carrero cited LeFebre’s unsuccessful recount when he decided to accept his 44-vote defeat in the 2001 city preliminary election.
”Several years ago, a former candidate had a difficult time overturning 11 votes,” Carrero noted at the time, after finishing third behind community activist Isabel Melendez, who became the first Hispanic mayoral candidate to make it into a city election final. Sullivan defeated Melendez to capture his first term as mayor.
A few Lawrence politicians who lost closer races also decided not to request recounts.
In 1999, then state-Rep. and City Councilor Jose L. Santiago, who lost a close race for the third and final at-large seat to Councilor Francis J. Kivell, elected not to petition for a recount of his 19-vote loss.
”A lot of my supporters have indicated they want me to concentrate on the State House seat,” Santiago said in an interview after the loss.
However, a number of city councilors who have lost their seats and challengers who got beat in close or not-so-close elections didn’t concede without a recount.
Former City Councilor Barbara Beals-Gonzalez, who was initially appointed by the council in the spring of 2005 to fill a vacant seat in District C, sought recounts in the 2005 and 2007 city elections. But they didn’t help her overturn losses to Jorge Gonzalez in both years. The first recount cut a 41-vote deficit by five votes. Two years later when she challenged a 30-vote setback, the recount cost her one more vote.
In the 2003 election, Councilor-at-large Nunzio DiMarca picked up 10 votes in a recount he requested. But it still left him 50 votes behind Israel Reyes, the next-highest vote-getter who claimed the third at-large seat in the election. The top two vote-getters elected to the council that year — Marcos Devers and Joseph Parolisi — padded their leads, picking up 20 and 11 more votes respectively.
In the 2002 election, then-state Rep. Santiago — the city’s first Latino legislator — lost his reelection bid to Lantigua — an ex-friend and one-time political backer — by 183 votes.
Santiago alleged at the time that hundreds of illegal aliens and nonresidents voted on Election Day, and that ineligible voters stole the identities of registered voters. Santiago also said Lantigua helped people vote improperly by absentee ballot and that city poll workers instructed people to vote for Lantigua. He requested a recount, but the three-hour effort proved fruitless — though it cost the city close to $3,000 for the attorney fees and 15 workers involved in the process.
The allegations that Santiago raised were similar to ones made against him after his victorious 1998 campaign, when he upset incumbent M. Paul Iannuccillo by 49 votes in the Democratic primary. Lantigua was Santiago’s campaign manager at the time.
Iannuccillo charged Santiago won with the help of illegally registered voters, including some registered at nonexistent addresses.
But the recount increased Santiago’s victory margin by one vote, and Iannuccillo decided not to take the case to court.
In the 1999 preliminary election, City Council candidate James Stokes requested a recount after finishing in last place among four candidates in District F race. His 79 votes were 163 votes less than the candidate who won the second spot on the ballot for the final election.
Reyes placed third in the primary race for City Council District D Tower Hill seat, finishing 23 votes behind second place winner Nicholas J. Kolofoles in a five-candidate race in 1997. Marc L. Laplante defeated Kolofoles in the election final.
The city’s Board of Registrars rarely rejects a recount request, McGravey said in his 1999 interview.
”It’s tough not to grant a recount,” said Mr. McGravey, who noted that it’s usually less expensive and less a hindrance to the election process than to allow a candidate to challenge an election in court.
”There’s no minimum standards for granting or rejecting a recount petition,” he said.
So if longtime Lawrence political observer Martin were in Lantigua’s situation, would he petition for a recount?
That’s a tough call, he said.
”You’ve got your supporters to consider,” Martin said, who participated in many recounts when he served on the city’s Board of Registrars.
”Even though in your heart, you don’t think you can overturn it, you do owe it to your supporters. You have to take their feelings into account. They’re the ones who invested a lot of time. The key issue is supporters,” he said.