By Keith Eddings
LAWRENCE – City Councilor Daniel Rivera claimed a razor-thin victory against Mayor William Lantigua last night, edging the controversial incumbent by just 60 votes out of 15,190 cast during a day that began with the breakdown of several voting machines and ended with the ballots under police guard.
The cloud over the result brought on by the breakdowns; the plodding hand-count of hundreds of ballots under the scrutiny of state observers, and the close margin were not enough to dampen the certainty of the two-term city councilor. He led an unlikely challenge against a charismatic incumbent deft at wielding the levers of power, in a race watched across the state.
Relying on numbers phoned in by volunteers from each of the city’s 24 polling places, Rivera led hundreds of cheering, sign-waving supporters out of his Essex Street campaign headquarters into the chilly night for a block long march to City Hall. He led a boisterous overflow rally as the official count dragged on in the Election Division one floor below.
Rivera, 42, began his remarks by extending an olive branch to Lantigua’s supporters, promising in a four-minute speech delivered in both English and Spanish in the City Hall atrium that “they too will be brought into the fold because we’re going to make Lawrence better together.”
But in comments before an after his speech, Rivera said he was ready to fight any challenge to the result that Lantigua may be preparing.
He called for police to guard the ballots, which were held overnight in a sealed vault at the Election Division, and he suggested that any challenge to the results would only further divide a city fractured by the leadership of a mayor whose administration was rocked by controversy, scandal and indictments and, in the end, was deserted by a fractional majority of voters who wearied of it all.
“It’s important for us to come together as a community,” Rivera said. “I hope the Lantigua team will see that and will not want to drag this thing out.”
Lantigua, 58, like Rivera, remained behind closed doors until about 10 p.m., then addressed a dwindling crowd at his Essex Street campaign headquarters a block from City Hall. Before the remarks, his chief of staff, Frederick Diaz, ejected an Eagle-Tribune reporter from the storefront so Lantigua’s remarks were not available.
Other top administration officials also were on duty for Lantigua yesterday, including Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette, who held a sign for Lantigua outside a polling place at the Relief’s In from 7 a.m. until after dark.
For Lantigua, who served three terms as a state representative before he was elected mayor by a 1,000- vote margin in 2009, it was his first defeat at the polls.
City Clerk William Maloney released the results at 10:45 p.m. – nearly four hours after the polls closed – but they were only bottom-line results for mayor and for the City Council and School Committee races that also were on the ballot yesterday. Maloney did not release results in any of the city’s 24 wards, so it was impossible to determine how Rivera racked up his fractional margin of victory.
It also was unclear whether Rivera’s extremely tight margin of victory – he received 50.2 percent to Lantigua’s 49.8 – will automatically trigger a recount.
If the vote holds up, it would be a remarkable upset for a two-term city councilor who topped a field of five challengers in the preliminary election on Sept. 17 but at the same finished a distant second to Lantigua. The mayor won nearly half the vote despite the crowded field in the preliminary and out-polled Rivera by 3,000 votes, winning 21 of the city’s 24 wards.
Rivera found victory in his distant-second place showing, repeatedly pointing out that 52 percent of the voters in the preliminary election chose someone other than Lantigua and promising to win them over by yesterday’s general election.
Three of the four other challengers in the preliminary election – state Rep. Marcos Devers, firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez and inventor James O’Donoghue - helped Rivera deliver on that promise by campaigning for him over the last seven weeks and were at his side last night.
After claiming victory, Rivera began distinguishing himself from Lantigua by saying he would resign his job at BirdDog Solutions of Andover, a shipping consultant where he is a marketing manager, before he takes office early in January. The string of controversies that marked the Lantigua administration began on his first day in office, when he refused to resign his statehouse seat. His colleagues in Boston eventually forced him out by threatening to withhold permission for the city to borrow $21 million in operating deficits accumulated under former Mayor Michael Sullivan.
“I’m not going to hold two jobs,” Rivera said.
He also said his first task when he takes office will be “to do what I said – figure out how to put more cops on the street.”
At least part of the delay in counting the vote last night was caused by the breakdown of voting machines in at least three polling places, including E2 in South Lawrence West, where 90 votes had to be hand counted, and A4 in Prospect Hill.
A total turnout figure was not available, but the 15,190 people who cast ballot for mayor represent 40.3 percent of the city’s 37,672 registered voters.