Locals applaud Rivera's move

TIM JEAN/Staff photoMayor Daniel Rivera speaks at Lawrence General Hospital's COVID-19 testing site, as Gov. Charlie Baker looks on.

LAWRENCE — As Mayor Daniel Rivera moves on to the next chapter of his career, members of the city's political network are applauding his rise to a major state post.

After seven years as Lawrence's leader, Rivera announced Thursday he is stepping down as mayor to accept a job with MassDevelopment, becoming president and chief executive officer of that state agency. His decision comes with one year left in his second mayoral term.

MassDevelopment's Board of Directors voted unanimously Thursday to appoint Rivera to the position.

“I am both honored and humbled to be chosen as the president and CEO of MassDevelopment,'' Rivera said, "and I’m excited for the opportunity to hone my focus on economic development, especially during these trying times.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, MassDevelopment stands to play a role in reconstruction of our economy that is inclusive, equitable, and focuses on neighborhoods and business districts in every corner of the commonwealth," he said. "I plan to address the City Council at their regular meeting on Tuesday to discuss the transition and my time left as mayor. Being mayor in Lawrence has been the privilege of my life."

Other local leaders said Rivera occupying the state post will benefit the Merrimack Valley and all of Massachusetts.

"Having someone who's been an advocate for our city — and all gateway cities — will be a great asset at the state level," said Vilma Martinez-Dominguez, a longtime friend of Rivera. She became the mayor's colleague three years ago when she was hired as the city's community development manager.

Martinez-Dominguez is one of several people who intend to run next year for the mayoral seat being vacated by Rivera. Campaign signs for candidates have started cropping up over the last few months, well ahead of the November 2021 election. 

Whether it was "snowmageddon'' in 2015, the gas disaster three years later or the coronavirus crisis, Rivera, whom Sen. Barry Finegold calls one of the "best mayors the city has ever had," remained a calm, steady voice of reason, according to local leaders and his inner circle.

Rivera succeeds Lauren Liss as MassDevelopment CEO. Liss, who announced in October she will be stepping down after three years on the job, received an annual salary of $251,952 in 2019, according to state payroll records. Rivera makes $100,000 per year as mayor, according to a budget on the city website. His salary with MassDevelopment will be negotiated.

MassDevelopment is a state finance agency that works with businesses, nonprofits, banks and communities to create jobs, increase housing and stimulate growth in a variety of ways. Those methods include building infrastructure and helping to finance projects. 

A Democrat who has worked closely with Gov. Charlie Baker, Rivera led Lawrence through two major crises while he was mayor — the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas disaster and the COVID-19 pandemic. Those leadership skills are what his new MassDevelopment colleagues say they admire.

"Dan has proven his management skills as mayor, managed a city with an operating budget of $341 million ... helped create 2,400 units of housing, many of them transit-oriented, redeveloped contaminated sites, made investments in parks — and done a lot of that with the help of our programs,'' state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy said of Rivera. "He knows our programs well and knows how to use them.''

Rivera 'met every challenge'

The governor said he also sees much value in naming Rivera to one of the state's top positions.

“In his role as mayor, Dan met every challenge and seized every opportunity to support his residents and create a stronger economy — including more jobs and housing," Baker said.

As mayor, Rivera helped redevelop two closed Showcase Cinemas properties off Interstate 495 and also helped locate Lawrence's first Starbucks coffee shop on Winthrop Avenue, among other projects. MassDevelopment was one of the state agencies he worked with to complete infrastructure projects totaling $21.5 million.

"Danny's advocacy during the gas disaster" is what stands out most to City Councilor Dave Abdoo, who worked side-by-side with Rivera for 94 days in the state's command center after the explosions and fires that rocked Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Abdoo took a leave of absence from his leadership position at the MBTA to work with Baker, Rivera, Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan and North Andover's then-Town Manager Andrew Maylor to work on the disaster on behalf of the state.

"During the gas disaster, communicating in an equitable way is what he pushed Columbia (Gas) on," Abdoo said of Rivera. "He knew how to communicate to customers — in both English and Spanish. As mayor, he was able to speak for Lawrence in a very forceful voice."

The Sept. 13, 2018, explosions and fires in Lawrence killed a high school student, destroyed or damaged 50 homes on the south side of the city and forced thousands of residents to evacuate. During that time, Rivera often slept in makeshift shelters alongside his neighbors.

A true 'Lawrence kid'

School Superintendent Cynthia Paris praised Rivera, calling him a "superhero" to students.

“Whether it was a scoreboard for the high school or 14,000 Chromebooks for students, he answered the call every time our schools needed him," Paris said, "and just as important, he understood the inspiration he could be as a ‘Lawrence kid’ and the responsibility that carried.''

Martinez-Dominguez said Rivera has made great strides in diversifying local government, including making the Police Department a minority-majority department for the first time in history — a police force that has most members coming from minority groups. 

"His promotions of people of color, particularly women, in government and his diversification of the Police Department are something I respect a lot," Martinez-Dominguez said.

What happens next

According to the Lawrence city charter, the City Council president — in this case, Kendrys Vasquez — becomes acting mayor if the mayor is unable to perform his duties. The charter, which is outlined on cityoflawrence.com, requires that a special election then happen to elect a new mayor. That election must take place within 90 days of the date the vacancy is created. The winner of the election will fill the outgoing mayor's unexpired term. 

The city could eliminate the need for a special election, however, by using a home rule petition drafted by the council and taken by the state delegation to the governor for his approval. If that happens and there is no special election, the council president would remain acting mayor until the next scheduled election, according to City Council Vice President Marc Laplante. 

Laplante said complicating matters this year is the fact that Lawrence City Clerk Bill Maloney recently retired and his replacement has not yet been hired. Assistant City Clerk Richard Reyes is serving as acting city clerk. The city clerk's job is expected to be posted in the next week or so, allowing candidates to apply for the position.

Add in the coronavirus crisis and the cost of a special election and it's a "perfect storm," Laplante said. Abdoo agreed — and said he'd be comfortable with Vasquez being acting mayor until next fall.

"Democracy is paramount ... but we are a city where every dollar matters," Abdoo added. "We need stability as we focus on COVID. We don't need a special election at this time. Kendrys would be capable of leading us for a year."

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