LAWRENCE – William Lantigua lives in what he describes as a modest house in the hills outside Tenares in the Dominican Republic, in a rural enough setting that he had to cut off a telephone call last week when he was drowned out by the squeals of a pig being loaded onto the flatbed of a pickup. 

Meanwhile, he dreams that he is the once and future mayor of a place he still calls “the Great City of Lawrence.”

“Yes, I'm getting back to my city of Lawrence, that's where I reside – 65 Park St.,” the former mayor said in a phone call lasting about 35 minutes from the Caribbean nation last week. 

“I am coming back," he said. "... I'm going to get there and sit down with family and friends – of which I believe I still have some. Some of (those who were) my harshest critics are begging me to get back.”

He would not say who those people are or when he would return.

Lantigua was elected mayor in 2009, the first Latino voted into that office in the city's history. He was also the first Latino elected mayor anywhere in Massachusetts. But his one term in office was highly controversial, marked by scandal and an investigation that saw one top aide jailed. Lantigua lost a bid for re-election in 2013 to current Mayor Daniel Rivera in a closely contested race that required a recount to resolve.

In Tenares, Lantigua, 61, has a six-month-old baby girl, born to a 24-year-old Dominican woman he said he plans to marry next year. The baby is his fifth child and the woman would be his fourth wife.

He has a small state pension accumulated over 12 years of government service, which he said he's been living on after job hunts in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida turned up not much more than landscaping work.

He has several screws and plates holding his right ankle together, after breaking the joint when he slipped in the mud while picking avocados, he said. The slip left him on crutches for six months.

He also has a desire to sit once again in the mayor's office of Lawrence City Hall.

'Numbers favor me'

Lantigua first announced his intention to return to Lawrence and challenge Rivera, who defeated Lantigua by just 81 votes three years ago, in text messages to a handful of supporters in October. The messages were written in Spanish, the language Lantigua preferred while campaigning and governing in one of the nation's most Latino cities.

"In reference to the upcoming election for mayor, I have analyzed it and consulted much and decided to be a candidate,” Lantigua said in the text messages. "You know our struggle. The numbers favor me.”

He backed off a bit from his vow to run in the phone conversation with The Eagle-Tribune last week, saying instead he would want to regroup with supporters after returning to Lawrence to assess his chances.

He blamed his defeats – first to Rivera and then to Marcos Devers in 2015 when he tried to reclaim the state House seat he held before becoming mayor – on the media and himself.

“The message that I delivered to the people – that could have been done a lot better,” he said. “My problem wasn't what we did. It was how I delivered the message. I learned (since then). I was advised.”

He was not specific. But his messaging as mayor did not include communicating with the Anglo press, which he largely ignored and regularly ridiculed. 

Bad press

On the phone last week, he said the press coverage of his administration was “unjustified,” “unfair” and “terrible,” and said it amounted to “political assassination.” 

He said the coverage of his administration followed him out of office, giving him what he called a “Google problem” that caused potential employers to overlook him. Among other things, he said he searched for work as a political consultant. 

To be sure, the drumbeat of scandal through Lantigua's administration received wide attention in the press. Three of Lantigua's aides in government and politics were indicted, although only his first chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, went to jail. Degnan was found guilty of pressuring a carting company with a city contract to donate a trash truck to Tenares, a city from which scores of Lawrence residents mail in absentee ballots. 

Other lesser scandals also generated coverage, including the revelation that the City Hall secretary who was Lantigua's live-in girlfriend while he was mayor received federal heating subsidies while the two shared her Boxford Street condo. Lantigua married the woman, Lorenza Ortega, in Fort Myers, Florida, on April 10, 2014, a few months after he left office. They are now divorcing, Lantigua said.

He said the focus on scandal rather than accomplishment and the constant presence of state and federal investigators in City Hall, made his time as mayor “literally hell."

He said his accomplishments were underrated, but waved off a question asking him to rate his record against Rivera.

“That's a comparison I'll leave to people to make,” he said. “I'm not going to run against Rivera. I'm going to run against a record that the work has not been done.”

He said his campaign would “avoid negativity” and focus on the financial gains Lawrence made during his administration. That list, he said, includes ending several years of deficit spending, rehiring many of the police and firefighters that he laid off in his first months in office to patch the deficits, improving the city's credit rating, and starting work on tens of millions of dollars worth of improvements to the water and sewer systems.

Financial focus

Lantigua came to office following three years of operating deficits totaling $21 million that were accumulated under the previous mayor, Michael Sullivan. The state allowed Lantigua to borrow to pay off the earlier deficits in exchange for several concessions, including accepting a fiscal overseer with tight-fisted control of city spending. 

An overseer still serves, as does the receiver who took control of the city's schools for the state while Lantigua was mayor. Bob Nunes, who was overseer for all of Lantigua's four years as mayor, did not respond to a request to comment on Lantigua's fiscal management skills. 

The deficits became surpluses under Lantigua – and Nunes – although the cost of the improvements was borne in large part by the dozens of city workers who lost their jobs, most of them police and firefighters.

Lawrence had a $12 million deficit in fiscal year 2007-08 and a deficit that was never officially calculated by the state the following year, the last full fiscal years of Sullivan's term. Over the next four fiscal years under Lantigua and Nunes, the city had surpluses of between $5.4 million and $9.5 million in its operating budgets.

To help make that happen, Lantigua laid off 14 firefighters and 24 police officers in July 2010, which followed the layoffs of 16 police officers the year before by Mayor Sullivan. Most of the jobs were later restored by Lantigua and then Rivera, paid for in part with state money.

Lantigua's claim that Wall Street credit rating agencies improved Lawrence's ratings as many as three times during his administration appears to run up against the record.

The only upgrade came near the end of his term, in October 2013, when Standard & Poor’s raised the city’s rating a half-point, from BBB to A-. The rating is S&P's third highest for a municipality.

Moody's Investors Services did not upgrade the city's rating during Lantigua's term, but in August 2012 upgraded the city's outlook from stable to positive. In February 2015 – under Rivera – Moody's upgraded the city's credit rating to A3, where it remains.

Another shot

“I believe I did a great job as mayor,” Lantigua said. “When you check the record – what I found, how I left it – compare those numbers to today. People are requesting that I need to give it another shot. Many people are calling saying, 'We were wrong (when we voted for Rivera). We need you back.”

Until then, he said he is living outside Tenares with fiance, Natalia Lantigua — she has the same last name, leading the former mayor to jokingly insist that he “did not marry my cousin” – and his baby, Valdevia Kennedy Lantigua Lantigua. 

He said the town, which he did not name, does not have internet, so he communicates mostly by text messaging. He said the main road through the town was badly damaged and utility poles were knocked down during the heavy flooding in the northern provinces of the Dominican Republic last month.

“I'm not living the life of luxury,” he said, promising to text The Eagle-Tribune a photo of himself, his baby and his fiance outside their home. He did not.

Rivera said he would be interested in hearing what Lantigua has to say about his record as mayor since 2014. He said that if Lantigua is planning to run on his own record, “the people already have voted on that.”

In addition to Rivera and possibly Lantigua, City Councilor Modesto Maldonado also is running for mayor. The 2017 preliminary election is In September, when the top two finishers will advance to the November general election. 

Follow staff reporter Keith Eddings on Twitter @keith_eddings