By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Daniel Rivera was declared the winner over Mayor William Lantigua after a daylong recount Saturday that added 23 votes to his still-tiny margin and officially affirmed his startling upset over one of the state’s most prominent and controversial politicians three weeks ago.
Rivera claimed victory, for the second time since Nov. 5. Lantigua did not concede. His lawyer said the mayor would decide as soon as today whether to challenge the result in Superior Court, where he would pin most of his hopes on a pool of about 100 so-called spoiled ballots that were ruled invalid on Election Day.
Short of an injunction from the court, Saturday’s six-hour hand recount of all 15,175 ballots cast on Nov. 5 clears the way for Rivera to take office on Jan. 2.
Both Rivera and Lantigua lost votes in the recount, but Lantigua lost more, allowing Rivera to extend his lead to 81 votes. The final tally gives Rivera 7,628 votes, a loss of six. Lantigua’s count dropped to 7,547 votes, down 29. Ninety-three ballots had no votes for mayor or had write-in votes with other names.
Rivera’s supporters let out a thunderous whoop and surrounded Rivera in the gym at the South Lawrence East Middle School, where the recount was held, as the city’s Board of Registrars affirmed the new numbers in a 3-0 vote at 4:01 p.m. The two-term city councilor then led a crowd of about 100 from the gym to a chilly parking-lot press conference as dark set in, where he asked the defeated mayor and his supporters to help him unify what he said is a divided city.
“We’re ecstatic, but the big word today is unity,” Rivera, 42, told his supporters in a five-minute statement, flanked by his wife, Paula, and three other candidates who ran in the preliminary election in September and then endorsed Rivera over the mayor, including state Rep. Marcos Devers.
“Lawrence no longer can afford to be divided by a river, by ethnicity,” Rivera said. “We have to be a unified city, or we’ll fail. If I can’t do that, I fail.”
He kissed his wife and left for a victory party — his second in three weeks — at J. Brian’s, a South Lawrence restaurant.
Inside the school, Lantigua huddled privately with his lawyer, Sal Tabit, behind a row of bleachers in the gym. After 20 minutes, he turned to the throng of media that has been covering what has been one of the most watched elections in the state.
He took a long swig from a water bottle and said it was not over, at least for him.
“I am not conceding the race,” Lantigua, 58,said. “We need to analyze some issues.”
His hopes rest mostly on a few small pools of votes that remain uncounted and which would have to go overwhelmingly for Lantigua if the recount is to be reversed. His best hope is with the spoiled ballots, which include ballots that scanners spit back on Nov. 5 because voters filled in ovals for both candidates and then crossed one out or because voters made a mistake as they voted and exchanged their ballots to election clerks for another.
“Most of these, they were all cast for Lantigua,” the mayor said.
Tabit laid other groundwork for a challenge. Before the Board of Registrars affirmed the tally, Tabit registered four objections to the result, including that two absentee ballots found atop an Election Division filing cabinet more than a week after the election were not counted.
Rivera said he won’t wait for a concession and will make more appointments to his transition team this week as he begins assembling an administration and gets to work on the goals he stressed through the 10 months of his long-shot campaign: putting more police on patrol, improving education, attracting development and jobs, restoring the city’s image and unifying the city.
That divisions remain deep was clear even through yesterday’s recount, when Rivera and his supporters took to the right side of the gym and Lantigua and his camp took to the left, divided by the three registrars. Lantigua and Rivera appeared not even to make eye contact throughout the morning and afternoon.
The distrust between the two sides played out dramatically on the night of the election three weeks ago, when the ballots were placed in 24 sealed cartons — one for each precinct — and stored in a locked vault in the basement of City Hall, where they have been guarded ever since by an around-the clock police watch.
The vault was opened on Friday for the first time since the election — in the presence of police Lt. Sean Conway, City Clerk William Maloney, City Attorney Charles Boddy, observers sent by Secretary of State William Galvin, representatives for Rivera and Lantigua, and members of the team lawyers from the Boston firm the city hired to run the recount — so that the ballots could be organized in a way that would speed the recount and then resealed in their cartons and locked up.
Saturday morning, the same group escorted the ballots in a caravan from City Hall to the middle school, where Conway broke the seals so the ballots could be distributed to about 20 tables, each with one election worker to award each ballot, another to keep a tally and one observer each for Rivera and Lantigua. Of the 15,210 ballots, the observers contested fewer than a half-dozen, which were then awarded by the Board of Registrars.
Secretary of State Galvin dispatched at least five of his own observers to the recount. Among them was Ramon Trinidad, whose report about the “overall chaos” he said he observed in the preliminary election caused Galvin to intensify his focus on the city through the general election and Saturday’s recount. None of the observers would comment Saturday.
Short of a battle in Superior Court, the recount ends the tenure of a mayor who first captured the state’s attention when he was elected in 2009 as the first Latino to govern a Massachusetts city and kept it as his administration stumbled from scandal to scandal and through a series of criminal indictments among his top aides, including former Chief of Staff Leonard Degnan and Deputy police Chief Melix Bonilla.
Lantigua’s support within the state Democratic Party waned with each scandal and indictment, which was evident Saturday. The roll call of those who showed up to work for Rivera in the recount shows how alignments have shifted and suggested Lantigua may have little support within the party if he seeks an injunction to invalidate Rivera’s microscopic margin of victory — half a percentage point — and block him from taking office.
The 24 observers who showed up for Rivera included former state party chairman John Walsh, who now runs a political-action committee for Gov. Deval Patrick; Roger Lau, who manages a district office for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed Rivera on the eve of the election; and Michelle Wu, who was elected to the Boston City Council earlier this month.
When it ended, Walsh said he was not representing the Democratic Party or Gov. Patrick. He said he volunteered for Rivera because of their history of working together on campaigns.
“The votes have been counted and recounted, and the margin holds and grows a little bit today,” Walsh said. “Danny Rivera is going to be a fabulous mayor for the city.”
Many of those who showed up for Lantigua were City Hall employees, including his wife, Lorenza Ortega, a confidential secretary in the Personnel Department. She sat at a computer tallying the results delivered by runners from the recount tables and cut off an effort to interview another volunteer sitting beside her by telling the volunteer to say “nada,” or nothing.
A few feet away, from outside the row of cones that separated the public and press from the officials running the recount, School Committee member James Blatchford, who campaigned for Rivera, expressed hope for some of the change Rivera said he will bring to the state’s poorest city.
“I think we’re in more trusting hands with Danny in the leadership,” Blatchford said, expressing optimism that the state receiver who took control over the city’s schools two years ago may shorten his stay with Rivera chairing the School Committee. “They cited as a reason for the takeover the dysfunction (on the committee).”
Police returned the ballots to the basement vault at City Hall about 5 p.m. Saturday, again escorted by Tabit, Lantigua’s lawyer and former state Rep. David Torrisi, who was one of six lawyers Rivera said he had on hand yesterday.
But with the election officially over, the police guard — which cost the city about $40,000 — was called off.