Last November, something unexpected happened in Lawrence. Brian DePeña unseated interim mayor and frontrunner Kendrys Vasquez to be elected mayor of the city. Vasquez was more liberal and had been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and The Boston Globe. DePeña ran on a more moderate platform that was centered on economic opportunity, public safety and schools.
Morning Edition host Jeremy Siegel wanted to see how that brand of populism is working out, so he visited Lawrence’s City Hall to check in with DePeña as part of a new series on Massachusetts’ new mayors.
DePeña is from the Dominican Republic and moved to Lawrence in 1989, where he now is married with seven children and five grandchildren. Lawrence has the highest proportion of Latino residents in the state at 82 percent, and DePeña for the most part does not speak English day-to-day.
“I practice my English because it’s very important in America,” he said. “For many years, another administration speaks perfect English and [didn’t provide] opportunity for better education, for businessmen, for kids, safety [in the] community.”
Siegel noted that safety, kids and education were a core component of his campaign message. Lawrence schools have been under state control due to a slew of issues in the system. Recently, there have been problems with violence, fights and arrests at schools in the city.
“When I take my position, I take a tough job because, number one, pandemic is the number one challenge for me,” he said. “But, another issue very important for my administration is about schools — that parents and residents in Lawrence keep control of our education.”
DePeña wants to get Lawrence’s school system out of receivership, out of state control and back in the hands of the city. He thinks the push should come from residents, and not just the mayor’s office.
“Call parents, residents, students ... that’s not only the decision for the city mayor. If the whole community is involved in the new plan to return power to the city of Lawrence, I think education moves forward,” he said.
"If you supported another candidate, no matter. Everyone is equal in my office."-Lawrence Mayor Brian DePeña
Another key part of DePeña's populist message that helped him defeat the further left frontrunner last November was the economy, leaning on his experience as a business owner. He started the first Latino-owned hardware store in the heart of the city and also owns a tire shop and an auto shop. He said a plan for the city's economy is essential.
“The economy is number one. Remember, I’m a businessman. I think this is the moment to open more opportunity for another investor in the city of Lawrence. It’s a poor community, and many banks try to open businesses in Lawrence,” he said, noting that starting a business can be a difficult.
DePeña said that despite the challenges, he is glad to have the chance now to help the people of Lawrence.
“It’s not easy, because everyday [I] to need to make a decision about another person, the future of another person. But every day I enjoy this job because many people come [to] my office and have a different problem, and I try to find the right solution,” he said. “If you supported another candidate, no matter. Everyone is equal in my office.”