LAWRENCE — The 2014 gubernatorial race now taking shape creates some sticky politics around the state investigation into Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua, who easily cleared a crowded field in the preliminary election for mayor last week.
Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office is among those investigating Lantigua, risks alienating Lantigua supporters in Lawrence in a close election against a candidate like Charlie Baker, who did well in the Merrimack Valley against Deval Patrick in 2010.
Lawrence is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and its voters could be crucial in a crowded party primary and in a close general election. Political watchers are split on how an aggressive lawsuit would play out among the city’s voters, who themselves are split over whether to give the controversial mayor a second term and largely have staked out their positions on turf that likely would not shift after a judgement in a recently-filed lawsuit.
“It’s a little delicate situation there, but I think in the end she’ll come out of it fine,” said Richard Padova, a professor of history and government at Northern Essex Community College.
A campaign spokesman for Coakley said that political calculations are not part of any investigation.
“It is Martha’s job to call things as she sees them and to uphold the law – politics can’t and doesn’t play a role,” the spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, said. “In her race for governor, Martha is going to fight for an economic recovery that includes everybody – not just a fortunate few – and public schools that give all our kids a chance to succeed. That is the case she will make to the people of Lawrence and voters across Massachusetts.”
Baker’s campaign said it did not want to get involved in Democratic party politics. “Charlie is focused on his campaign to create jobs, deliver a great education for every kid and foster stronger, safer communities, not on the other party’s crowded primary,” Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said.
Lantigua has considerable political support in Lawrence and nearly won a majority of votes himself in a election Sept. 17. But there is significant opposition to Lantigua, too. A former ally, state Rep. Marcos Devers, challenged Lantigua for mayor but lost in the preliminary. City Councilor Daniel Rivera, also a Democrat, won the second spot in the general election Nov. 5, but garnered less than half as many votes as Lantigua.
While Lantigua rang up more than 47 percent of the vote last week, that left more than 52 percent voting against the mayor.
Coakley’s office filed a lawsuit against Lantigua last month, accusing him of campaign finance violations amounting to tens of thousands of dollars dating back to his years as a state representative, including accepting illegal cash contributions, failing to disclose in-kind services provided by a catering hall, a weekly newspaper and a radio station and allowing a city hall secretary – now his wife – and a Methuen cop to serve as financial officers in his campaign.
Public employees are barred from holding official positions in campaign organizations or to solicit or receive political contributions. Coakley asked the Suffolk County Superior Court to order Lantigua pay at least $27,832 in contributions he is accused of receiving in violation of state law and that were omitted or improperly reported. She also sought fines that could total tens of thousands of dollars more and reimbursement from Lantigua to her agencies for the cost of the investigation.
Earlier this year, Coakley filed a suit against Lantigua for failing to file a report detailing fundraising and spending by his campaign organization in 2011 until more than a year after the report was due. He paid a $5,000 fine to settle the complaint.
A negative judgement in a lawsuit could bolster Lantigua’s opposition and prove a boon to Coakley’s campaign. “Keeping in mind that over half the voters in Lawrence voted against Lantigua, there’s that pool of 52 percent roughly that voted against him,” Padova said. “I think obviously they don’t want him, so any thing that comes out about him, let’s say he’s indicted and formally charged, then I think that galvanizes the 52 percent. It helps her.”
But if the lawsuit dissolves, his supporters could feel vindicated by their man’s survival. “Then it will be the other way around,” said Rafael Guzman, a businessman and former Lantigua supporter. “It will be perceived as a witch hunt, which a lot of his supporters say now. They say people are going after him because he’s Latino. He’s playing the victim card, because that’s all he has.”
Lawrence and outside political watchers said an indictment is unlikely to shake the support of his base. “Lantigua supporters are not going to change their minds. They’re firmly in his camp,” Padova said.
Indeed, Lantigua topped the preliminary election, despite the indictment of three campaign aides, former chief of staff Leonard Degnan, campaign chief and deputy police Chief Melix Bonilla and campaign photographer Justo Garcia, on corruption charges and ongoing corruption investigations by the Essex district attorney, the FBI and Coakley’s office.
That could leave a rich pot of Democratic votes split for a primary, which currently includes, among others, state Treasurer Steve Grossman and former state Homeland Security undersecretary, Obama administration official and newspaper columnist Juliette Kayyem. And in a close general election, the loss of a few thousand votes could be costly. Few believe angry Lantigua supporters would vote for a Republican candidate, but they could decide to stay home.
But many believe the attorney general will come out best by just carrying out the responsibilities of her office. “I really think she has to perform her duties as attorney general objectively,” said state Rep. Marcos Devers, who came in third in the preliminary. “That’s going to be valued, that are looking for the truth.”
Six Democrats so far have declared their intention to run for governor, while Baker looks to have the Republican field to himself. The primary could be a scramble for cash and in an effort build an edge of a percentage point or two in a crowded race. Aside from Coakley, state Treasurer Steve Grossman and former Obama security official Juliette Kayyem are running, along with physician and Medicare official Donald Berwick and executive Joseph Avellone.
“The fact that you have two high profile statewide Democrats running for the nomination starts the Democratic nomination off with a money and resources disadvantage against a unified Republican candidate, which it looks like it may have,” said Frank Talty, a political science professor at UMass-Lowell and director of its Center for Public Opinion. “And if the Secretary of State gets in, that makes it more divisive.
A Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this month, indicated Coakley has a commanding lead in the primary, with 57 percent of Democrats supporting her. Grossman is next with 10 percent.
The Merrimack Valley has been a key part of the campaign strategy of Republicans seeking statewide office in recent years. Last fall, former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown banked his election hopes partly on this area.
Over three elections in 2010 and 2012, Republican candidates have fared well outside of Lawrence. But turnout matters. In the 2010 special election for U.S. Senate, Scott Brown beat Coakley by more than 14,000 votes in the area, according to data from the state Secretary of the Commonwealth. Coakley won Lawrence, but by a margin of only 3,127 votes. She got 6,463 votes there.
Brown won that election by 107,000 votes statewide.
In the gubernatorial election in 2010, Patrick tallied up a few more votes in Lawrence, getting about 9,000. Baker won the area by about 5,400 votes. Patrick beat Baker by about 147,000 votes statewide.
Last year, however, Brown won the area by only 1,433 votes. Elizabeth Warren beat Brown in Lawrence by a whopping 12,000 votes, winning a total of 17,235 in the city and nearly wiping out Brown’s margins elsewhere locally. Turnout was much higher last year because of the presidential election.
Lantigua declined to comment.
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