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Who Will Lead Lawrence? An Evaluation of the two Candidates for Mayor in 2009

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By: Tom Duggan – October, 2009

ELECTION EDITION

Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan is finishing his final term because the city charter limits the mayor’s job to two, four year terms. Sullivan defeated Isabel Melendez in 2001 and Marcos Devers in 2005. Ironically Willie Lantigua endorsed and supported Isabel Melendez in ’01 but flipped in ’05 to support Republican Mike Sullivan against Democrat Marcos Devers.

With no incumbent running this year for mayor, the flood gates opened and ten candidates stepped forward to put their names on the ballot to be the next mayor. They included: City Council President Patrick Blancehtte, Dan Cotnoir, City Councilor Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez, former city councilors Israel Reyes, Julia Silverio, and Nunzio DiMarca, former mayor Marcos Devers, Pedro Payano, Councilor David Abdoo and State Representative Willie Lantigua.

In the September primary eight candidates were eliminated for a runoff election November 3rd with more than 30% voter turnout.

When the primary votes were counted, it was State Representative Willie Lantigua in first place with 2,272 votes and District “E” City Councilor David Abdoo in second with 2,156. Only 116 votes separated the two.

Political pundits all agree that Lantigua is the front runner in this race, but his lead has slipped in the final days of the election as Abdoo’s momentum is gaining steam. Make no mistake about it, nobody has a lock on this election and anyone who predicts a landslide for either candidate simply does not know what they are talking about.

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Background; Dave Abdoo – Abdoo is the District E city councilor representing South Lawrence West on the council. He was elected two years ago and is in his first term.

Abdoo is a lifelong resident of Lawrence and a 1985 graduate of Central Catholic High School. He then earned a Bachelor’s degree from Salem State College and is presently working on his Masters Degree in Public Administration from Suffolk University. Abdoo is the Governmental & Public Affairs Director for the US Department of Health & Human Services in Boston. He is also chairman of the Board of Trustees for Salem State College.

Prior to working for the federal government, Abdoo worked in State government as the Chief Policy Analyst for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation. He is an Armored Cavalry Officer in the Army/Navy National Guard and a member of Saint Patrick’s Finance Council.

As an aide to State Senator Bruce Tarr, Dave helped constituents resolve problems with state and local agencies and receive services through government programs. Abdoo has been a member of the Mt. Vernon Neighborhood Association since 1999. He is married with 2 children. He is also the former Chairman of the Lawrence Planning Board and the Lawrence representative to the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.

He has not been involved in any major controversies since being elected two years ago, but has taken criticism by fellow candidates for his acceptance of Police Chief John Romero’s endorsement in the race. During the Oiste debate last month, Abdoo said he would be a hands-on mayor when it comes to public safety but broke with the police department when he said he wants to have an “outside body” investigating allegations of police abuses rather than an in house internal affairs department.

Contrary to claims by some of his opponents, Abdoo is not a Republican.

Willie LantiguaBackground; Willie Lantigua – Lantigua started off his political career as a community activist just like President Barak Obama. He attended city council and school committee meetings frequently and became well known for dogging Mayor Patty Dowling everywhere she went. He campaigned hard against Dowling’s bid for reelection to the Governor’s Council after she promised voters she would not run again if she was elected mayor. Lantigua appeared at debates, public events and city meetings holding up a sign with his phone number on it urging residents to call him to defeat Dowling everywhere he went. With Lantigua’s help, Mary Ellen Manning of Peabody defeated Dowling.

Lantigua was also the campaign manager for former State Representative Jose L. Santiago as the two of them were “good friends”. Santiago pulled off a shocking victory in the Democrat primary over a very popular M. Paul Iannuccillo. Santiago and Lantigua were inseparable, recruiting candidates for city council and school committee, complimenting each other’s agendas and working together to push legislation at the state house that would benefit Lawrence residents.

Lantigua remained on the Santiago team, managing his reelection campaign in 2000, but when Santiago appeared on the Paying Attention! Television Program on local cable access and promised that he would not run for mayor in 2001 (if he was re-elected to The State House), Lantigua confronted him after questioning whether or not he was telling the truth.

“If you lie about this I am going to run against you and I am going to beat you,” Lantigua told him. Lantigua had already promised his support to Isabel Melendez for the mayor’s race in 2001 and wanted to make sure Santiago didn’t split the “Latino” vote in the primary.

Santiago won his reelection to The State House but, almost immediately after his win, declared that he would, in fact be running for mayor. This was the move that made Lantigua so angry that he immediately declared his friendship with Santiago over, and that he would be running against his former friend for State Rep. in 2002.

Knowing he would never be able to defeat Jose in a Democrat primary with the base of support the two of them built together, Lantigua left the Democrats and ran as an unenrolled candidate. When the two faced off in the final, Lantigua reached into the political base that the two of them had built together and was able to siphon off enough donors and supporters to beat Santiago. When the election was over Lantigua went back to the Democrat Party and began to build a coalition of Latino candidates and community activists to recruit people for elected office in future campaigns.

Lantigua is now serving his fourth term as a State Rep. and in that time has crossed the aisle a few times supporting Republican Mike Sullivan over Democrat Marcos Devers in 2005 and supporting Republican Israel Reyes for city council in 2006.

A History of Controversy

Lantigua has been involved in several controversies throughout the years. He was involved in a lawsuit to change the way the Lawrence School Committee elections took place by bringing in the US Justice Department to sue the city. Lantigua called the election of 6 at-large committee members “racist” because city wide elections made it harder for “Latinos” to get elected. Eventually the city had to settle the lawsuit with the federal government and change the way school committee members were elected. Each of the six school committee members must now get elected by district.

Lantigua was also the driving force to stop Voter ID in the City of Lawrence. Claiming it would discourage “Latinos” from voting and would “disenfranchise Latinos” who would refuse to vote if they had to show an ID at the polls on election day. Lantigua and Secretary of State Bill Galvin worked together to kill the bill at The State House and to this day there is no uniform voter ID system.

Perhaps the two most controversial issues Lantigua was involved in was the attempted firing of (then) Licensing Commissioner Roger Twomey and his opposition to the Northern Essex Community College project to build a $26 million health and technology center on Common Street at the In-town Mall.

 

Adam's Cyber Cafe

Adam’s Cyber Cafe

Lantigua’s accusation against Licensing Commissioner Roger Twomey was that Twomey was a racist and targeted Latino businesses. The accusation came after Twomey inspected Adams Cyber Café on Appleton Way (across from city hall) where Lantigua was running a political event for then city councilor Israel Reyes. When Twomey inspected the establishment he found that liquor was illegally being sold but before he could take any action against the bar owners (who had contributed to Lantigua’s campaign), Lantigua had used his political pull with Mayor Mike Sullivan to have Twomey fired.

A bitter media campaign against Twomey began as Lantigua, Sullivan, and Reyes began telling Latinos in Lawrence that Twomey was out to get them because he hated Latinos. Because the city council had to approve Twomey’s firing, a bitter and raucous meeting took place where racial epithets were hurled at Twomey and the “White” people of Lawrence. At the end of the day, the City Council, thanks in large part to councilor Marcos Devers, refused to fire Twomey but with his term on the Licensing board about to expire anyway, Sullivan simply refused to reappoint Twomey as a favor to his friend and political supporter Willie Lantigua.

Twomey went on to win a seat for Lawrence City Council the following year but has been targeted by Lantigua and his “Latino Coalition” for defeat this year.

Lantigua also whipped up racial tensions when Northern Essex Community College wanted to purchase the city owned In Town Mall on Common Street. Lantigua favored his friend Benny Espaillat who wanted to buy the building to open a shoe store. Because Espaillat was Latino and a friend and supporter of Lantigua, again Lantigua played the race card and packed the city council meeting with supporters who called NECC President David Hartlieb a “racist”, making allegations that the only “Latinos” who work at NECC were the janitors. Racial divisions were so high during the controversy that even City Councilor Nilka Alvarez, who is not known for succumbing to racial pressures, caved in and opposed the college’s attempt to purchase the property. Lantigua lost that fight and accused City Council President Patrick Blanchette of being a racist for not going along with the shoe store plan.

On the Issues

It would be hard to find two candidates who are more different than Lantigua and Abdoo. Lantigua is a lifetime politician while Abdoo is in his first term ever as an elected official. Lantigua is Dominican, Abdoo is “White”. Lantigua refuses to be interviewed or attend debates, issue forums or neighborhood meetings. Abdoo is accessible and says he will speak or debate “anytime, anywhere”. Lantigua is a Democrat and Abdoo is an Independent. Lantigua is being endorsed by political insiders and people who do business with the city, Abdoo is being endorsed by the police chief, neighborhood group presidents, and more importantly the Lawrence Teachers Union.

Overall, Lantigua and Abdoo are as different as night and day. But the biggest differences between the two candidates centers around the Lawrence Public Schools and Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy. Lantigua has been a friend and a supporter of Laboy since day one. He once called Laboy the “best superintendent, not in the city or the commonwealth, but I believe he is the best superintendent in the United States of America. Lawrence is lucky he decided to come here and stay here.”

Laboy is under investigation for the misuse of education dollars, including the use of the school department print shop to produce campaign literature for School Committee candidates and others. The Sate Office of Campaign Finance, an arm of the Secretary of State’s office has referred their investigation to the Attorney General’s office. Essex County District Attorney Jon Blodgett is also investigating allegations of fraud and abuse by Laboy as well as Israel Reyes who was defeated in the mayor’s race back in September.

Since the primary, Lantigua has surrounded himself with politicians who have defended and supported Laboy throughout the years. Lantigua himself has refused to call for Laboy to be fired, to resign or to address the issue at all, which his detractors say is the reason he refuses to answer questions in public or debate.

Supporting Lantigua are City Council President Patrick Blanchette, whose girlfriend Gloria got a job working for Laboy on the High School Construction project but has stayed on as a full time employee long after the high school was completed. Israel Reyes who ran his wife for school committee and admittedly was a supporter and defender of Laboy until the scandal broke earlier this year. Isabel Melendez whose “non-profit” benefited from the Lawrence School Department print shop and who was housing her “non-profit” organization for free in the old Saunders School on South Broadway. Melendez was also actively supported Laboy when he was criminally charged with assaulting Amy McGovern and lead an organized protest outside the Lawrence courthouse with sings that read “Shame on you Amy McGovern”.

Dave Abdoo on the other hand has made it very clear that he will “fire Wilfredo Laboy” no matter what happens in the criminal investigations against him. Abdoo says that “even if Laboy is innocent of any criminal wrongdoing, there is more than enough evidence to remove him as superintendent. He has lost the moral authority to lead our school system and when I am elected he will be removed. Lawrence needs to start the process of searching for a replacement for Wilfredo Laboy and as the President of the Board of Salem State College I have the experience and the know-how to get that job done here in Lawrence as chairman of the school committee.”

Abdoo also addressed the Laboy factor referring to Laboy and Lantigua as “the two Willie’s.”

“When I am mayor, and I will be your next mayor, both Willie’s are getting fired. And another irony is that the Willie I am competing against is surrounding himself with people who have supported and embraced (Wilfredo) Laboy. When I am mayor, the only thing that you should be reading about your schools in the newspaper is the honor roll. ”

That Pesky House Bill

Not much has been made about the bills filed by Lantigua each year that would allow School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy to carry over his retirement time from New York (where he worked prior to being hired in Lawrence) to Massachusetts.

The initial bill passed by the legislature allowed Laboy to carry over ten years from New York and add it to his retirement time in Lawrence. But in January of this year Lantigua filed another bill which, if passed, would allow Laboy to transfer an additional five years of his retirement from New York to Massachusetts. Currently Laboy cannot retire with a full pension until October of 2010. But if Lantigua’s bill had passed, Laboy would be eligible for retirement immediately.

“I don’t know much about the bill,” said Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin. “but it does seem shocking if that is the case.” McLaughlin, who has called for Laboy to be fired announced last week that the Lawrence Teachers Union has voted unanimously to endorse Dave Abdoo.

“Fire him,” McLaughlin said at an Abdoo rally last week referring to Laboy.

“David is for the kids, he continued. “For too long, the children of Lawrence have gotten the short end. For too long in this city, you have gotten the short end. David Abdoo is going to bring accountable leadership to the City of Lawrence. David Abdoo is going to bring leadership that the city of Lawrence hasn’t seen in many, many years. David Abdoo … is going to do for the kids instead of doing for himself. You know I’v already had about 8 years of a Willie and I don’t want another Willie. The teachers of Lawrence have made the right choice, they have made the smart choice … and that is David Abdoo for Mayor.”

Public Safety

When it comes to public safety, David Abdoo may have police chief John Romero on his side but a great number of Lawrence police officers are siding with Willie Lantigua.

In fact, Lantigua has Lawrence Police Officer Melix Bonilla officially running his campaign and Methuen Police officer Allicon as his campaign treasurer. (EDITORS NOTE: Despite being a law enforcement officer, Allicon has yet to file Lantigua’s campaign finances since before the September primary in violation of state law. Also according to campaign finance laws public employees are not allowed to serve as campaign treasurers.)

Several Lawrence police offices have attended Lantigua’s events and donated money to Lantigua’s campaign. Word in the police department is that if Lantigua wins, Romero is going to be the very first casualty which has motivated enemies of Romero within the force to work harder for Lantigua.

In his defense, Lantigua has been strong on public safety at the state house, filing and supporting bills that would increase penalties for gun possession. He also sponsored a gun buy-back bill in the legislature and has brought in millions to the city’s YWCA’s rape crisis center to help victims of sexual and physical abuse.

But Chief Romero says that when it comes to fighting crime, he endorses Abdoo because he believes Abdoo will do more to give police officers the support they need. Abdoo has pledged to increase response time, increase spending on specialized units like the gang and auto theft task force and is committed to keeping politics out of the police department.

The issue of Race

Clearly this has been the most racially divisive campaign for mayor in the last 15 years. Rep. Lantigua and his supporters have purposely shunned and ignored white voters and his surrogates have attacked Abdoo and his supporters because of their race.

A full-blown campaign to discredit and disparage the white people of Mt. Vernon and David Adboo has been in full force since before the primary. Abdoo, by virtue of being white, has been called every racial epithet known to man as Lantigua’s campaign team has taken to the airwaves on Spanish language radio to label Abdoo a “white, racist republican.”

Council President Patrick Blanchette went so far as to call him “Dick Cheney” and told a crowd of people at a Lantigua rally that if elected, Abdoo will only represent one district in the city of Lawrence, the white district of the city of Lawrence, the Mount Vernon District of the city of Lawrence.

For his part, Lantigua himself has campaigned on what he calls the “Latino Coalition” and makes no excuses for his Latino only campaign or his support for Latino only candidates. This is a new form of the old “Latino Agenda” started by he and Modesto Maldonado several years ago which was resoundingly rejected by the voters of Lawrence. The goal is to only support Latino candidates for office (with one exception, Mike Fielding) and to push out as many “white” candidates from public office as possible.

David Abdoo has been mostly silent on the racial attacks against him and has said that he refuses to “get down in the mud” with those who want to “spread racism throughout the city” but, recently took the issue head on in a radio interview.

Abdoo said that when he is elected he will serve all of Lawrence not just Whites, Latinos, or any particular neighborhood. “You know I am angry with the division and the wedges that Lantigua and his surrogates have been spreading but I am not going to talk personally about my opponent, I am not going to attack him, that is not my style. I am going to continue to talk about the issues that are important to all voters of Lawrence and I am going to be accessible because Willie Lantigua is nowhere to be found in this campaign. I don’t know where he is hiding but I am here to answer the tough questions and I will continue to answer the tough questions because the people of Lawrence deserve that. They do not deserve the racial division and the race-ism that is pitting people against each other.”

LCW and Housing

Lantigua has sought and secured state funding for Lawrence Community Works, the members of which are his biggest supporters. Community works is run mostly by people who do not live in Lawrence but seek city, state and federal money to build more and more low income housing in the city, which they can now own and rent out to those who are dependent on the government.

He has said in the past that he believes increasing low income and affordable housing in Lawrence is important to the city’s poverty stricken residents, especially Latinos. Abdoo on the other hand talks about smart growth and mixed use zoning.

Lantigua brags on his website: “Earlier this year, Rep. Lantigua introduced legislation that would impose a six-month moratorium on foreclosures in Massachusetts, allowing borrowers to work with lenders to readjust the terms of unfair loans. He also sought to strengthen the state’s gun control laws by proposing increased penalties for unlawful possession of a firearm and failure to report the loss or theft of a weapon.”

Lantigua has brought in millions of dollars to the city of Lawrence for welfare and social programs, but also brought in money to convert Essex Street to two way traffic, renovate Lawrence City Hall, and the construction of the new Lawrence High School which cost the state taxpayers more than $110 million.

 

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan is president and publisher of The Valley Patriot Newspaper in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is an author, host of the Paying Attention TV/Radio Program, lectures on media bias and police issues, is a former Lawrence School Committeeman, former political director for Mass. Citizens Alliance, and a 1990 Police Survivor. You can email your comments to valleypatriot@aol.com.

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