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Lawrence mayor defiant under fire

Associated Press | 5/18/2011, 12:13 a.m.
William Lantigua, the first Latino elected mayor in Massachusetts history,...
William Lantigua, the first Latino elected mayor in Massachusetts history, has a tough road ahead as he battles budget woes in Lawrence. AP /Lisa Poole

LAWRENCE, Mass. — When William “Willie” Lantigua was elected mayor of Lawrence in 2009, he stood in front of supporters and sang Hector Lavoe’s “Mi Gente” — “My People.” Supporters in this majority Latino city danced, cried and listened to the first Latino to be elected mayor in state history declare through a bullhorn that he’d be a mayor of “all Lawrence residents.”

His victory attracted international attention, prompting a visit from the first lady of the Dominican Republic.

Now observers say he’s fighting for his political life and some residents want the Dominican-born Lantigua recalled.

That’s because recent news stories have reported that Lantigua is a target of an FBI investigation of alleged corruption, although the FBI won’t comment and Lantigua says he has not been contacted by federal agents. He has also come under fire from the city’s police and fire departments over cuts and layoffs.

Then last month, an outspoken critic of Lantigua was allegedly beaten at a fried chicken restaurant by a nightclub bouncer.

And last week Lantigua was forced to apologize after his live-in girlfriend, who also works for the city, acknowledged that the condo they now share had received an undisclosed amount of federal assistance for heating. The mayor, who makes around $100,000 a year, said the federal program would be reimbursed.

“Lantigua really needs a PR firm,” said Richard Padova, a Northern Essex Community College history professor who follows Lawrence politics. “But the city is too broke to afford it.”

For his part, Lantigua, a former state representative, remains defiant and still enjoys celebrity status among his strongest supporters who defend him on Spanish-language radio despite recent developments.

“A lot of people don’t like the fundamental changes that we are making,” Lantigua said in a recent interview with The Associated Press in his office. “So they are attacking me and want me out. But I’m not going anywhere, brother.”

Lantigua, who rarely speaks with English-language media, blames all the negative press around his first year and five months in office on his desire to reform City Hall. He said it’s diverting attention from the improvements he’s made, from cleaning the streets to persuading baking company J.S.B. Industries of Chelsea to invest $12 million in baking facilities in Lawrence.

Other changes, Lantigua said, include helping get the city’s finances in order upon taking office in a city saddled with a multimillion-dollar deficit. Last year, state lawmakers approved a plan to allow Lawrence, a city of 71,000 and one of the poorest in the state, to borrow $35 million and have an appointed overseer monitor the finances.

Lantigua said he wanted to take it a step further and require his approval for all expenses and overtime more than $1,000. That has resulted, he said, in uncovering patterns of abuse where some city workers who work as little as 15 minutes outside their schedules charge the city for four hours under current union rules, he said.

In addition, Lantigua’s budget last year required that around a dozen police officers be demoted to save jobs and that the department cut 40 positions. “Those moves actually saved some positions and helped us bring them back,” he said.