By Adam Swift
Acting Mayor Patrick Keefe and former mayor and current Councillor-at-Large Dan Rizzo faced off in a hard-nosed debate at Revere High School last week.
With just over 140 votes separating the two mayoral candidates in the September preliminary election, the race looks to be going down to the wire for general municipal election on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
During the debate, Keefe and Rizzo battled over their records, the future of a new Revere High School, development in the city, public safety services, campaign donors, the Covid pandemic, houses in Florida, and every other question and issue that was raised over the course of 90 minutes.
Coming out of the gate in his opening statement, Keefe talked about the experience he’s garnered over the past six months as the acting mayor.
“Some might wonder about the value of six months experience running a city like Revere,” said Keefe. “Let me put it this way, when you swim in a pool of sharks, you learn quickly to become alert and decisive. So tonight, six months into my duty as mayor, we are safe and sound and Revere continues to move forward and thrive.”
Keefe said concerns about the transition or an absence of leadership when he took over when Brian Arrigo left office to head the DCR were quickly dismissed.
During this time in office, Keefe said he staffed vital positions in public safety and the public works departments, saw the city break ground on the new Point of Pines fire station and cut the ribbon on a new public works facility.
“We continue to invest in our community infrastructure, our educational programs and we continue to enhance our youth and senior services,” said Keefe. “I’ve served you with less than four weeks notice and one hand tied behind my back and I’m doing the job.”
Rizzo asked voters to look at the election as a job interview, and pointed to his experience as a graduate of Emmanuel College, a six-year veteran of the Navy, someone who has owned and operated his own business since 1987, and to his record as mayor and city councillor.
“Everything in my life has been accomplished with hard work, whether it was circling the globe on an aircraft carrier, earning my bachelor’s degree by going back to school nights, or starting my business from the ground up,” said Rizzo. “I’ve never taken the easy way out. In this race for mayor, no one should be annointed, you should earn it.”
During his term as mayor, Rizzo said the school system was top tier, winning awards, and a place where attendance and discipline policies were in place and teachers were respected.
“When I am elected, I will work as hard as I can every day to make sure your child is safe, gets a first class education, and I will address opportunities for expanded vocational studies,” said Rizzo.
Rizzo pointed to a number of investments in Revere that were made during his term, including the new Harry Della Russo Stadium, the Hill Elementary School, three new little league fields, and a number of park and playground upgrades.
Numerous times during the debate, Rizzo tied Keefe to the Arrigo administration and what he characterized as rampant residential development over the past eight years at the expense of city services.
“The last eight years, with the help of Mr. Keefe and the administration has only led to new massive residential apartment buildings and I say no more,” Rizzo said, adding that during his term as mayor his focus was on commercial growth in the city.
The candidates disagreed on the location of a potential new Revere High School, with Rizzo supporting building on the current high school site, while Keefe has been a staunch supporter of building on the Wonderland site that was initially approved by the School Committee and City Council.
Rizzo pointed to safety issues for students building on Wonderland across from the MBTA station and the fact that it is not centrally located. He also noted that there is pending litigation from the landowners that cost the city up to $100 million for the right to build on the property.
“It’s not all about what I want, it’s about what the people want,” said Keefe. “For two years, we had a site plan review for the new high school with 40-plus meetings and everyone on that board voted for Wonderland as the first and best site.”
Keefe said there were subsequent votes by the School Committee and council in support of the Wonderland site before the council later voted not to move forward with the design plans for the Wonderland site largely due to additional costs. He said the Wonderland site remains the best parcel, with Revere likely never again having the opportunity to build on such a large and open parcel of land.
“We owe it to our students to make the best decision; we have one bite at the apple,” said Keefe.
In addition to the high school project, the candidates traded barbs when asked about how they would work to improve the Revere educational system in general.
Keefe said that as Acting Mayor, he is also the chair of the School Committee and shows up to meetings. He also pointed to his long record of commitment to students and youth in the city.
“During my six months as mayor, I’ve spent more time in the schools than the former mayor spent in any of our schools,” said Keefe. “I know the parents, I know the problems, and we are far from perfect, but we have a lot of opportunity and need someone to step up and do the job, not someone who goes to Florida every three months.”
Rizzo countered that perhaps Keefe shouldn’t show up to the schools, because Rizzo said when he was mayor, Revere High School was recognized with a gold medal from the National Center for Urban Transformation and all the city schools were ranked as level one or two.
“My goal as a mayor is to give kids a first-class education and make sure there is a discipline and attendance policy that brings the schools back to where they need to be,” said Rizzo.
The candidates next battled over their records and vision for development in the city.
Rizzo once again stated that Keefe and former mayor Arrigo overextended public services in the city by allowing too much residential development, while Keefe countered that during his term, Rizzo also backed a number of residential developments and spent much of his time trying to bring casinos to Revere.
“He begged for racetracks, he begged for casinos, he begged for slot parlors; all he wanted was casinos and slot parlors, and gambling,” said Keefe. “For four years, you spent your whole administration chasing down a corrupt casino and failed and lost and cost the city millions of dollars.”
Rizzo argued that during the past eight years, the city moved forward too fast with the Suffolk Downs redevelopment project without getting the level of mitigation that East Boston is getting for its portion of the project.
“We need someone to step up to (the developers),” Rizzo said. “When you take money from real estate developers and high-end donors, I’m not sure how you can do that.”
Unsurprisingly, Keefe and Rizzo painted different pictures of economic growth and affordability in the city.
Several times, Rizzo noted that the city’s budget grew by $100 million in the time since he left office as mayor.
“For another $100 million, does anybody in the city think they are getting more or better services than they did eight years ago?” Rizzo asked. “I doubt it.”
For his part, Keefe said that the water and sewer rates were up 20 percent and taxes rose four years in a row during the Rizzo administration. He also stated that the property tax rate is lower now than it was when Rizzo was mayor.
“He also had to raid the rainy day fund twice to balance his budget, and all the city’s free cash sat in a non-interest bearing account,” Keefe said. “I have earned more interest in the last six months than in his entire term as mayor.”
Keefe also responded to the number of times Rizzo brought up Keefe’s record in concert with Arrigo’s eight years as mayor.
“I know that you hate the former mayor, that’s between you and him,” said Keefe. “He seems to own space in your head. I have to continually remind him, ‘I’m Patrick Keefe;’ I don’t know why that is so hard.”
Rizzo said he was amazed that Keefe was trying to say that water and sewer and tax rates were higher when he was mayor.
“People are not happy in the city with 4,000 additional units that do not do anything for the taxpayer,” said Rizzo.
Rizzo said the past eight years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of residents and housing units and that the public services have not been able to keep up with the increase.
If elected, Rizzo said his first priority would be to make sure there is enough public safety personnel in place to handle the burden of the increased population.
The candidates also disagreed over the state of the police department, with Keefe accusing of making the appointment of the police chief a political football. Rizzo countered that when he was mayor he appointed the best person for the position, and that the chief was not facing accusations like those that have come up in the media against the current police chief.
“I know that Mr. Keefe is disappointed that so many members of law enforcement support my candidacy; I can’t help that,” said Rizzo. “Where he comes up with the promises to appoint a chief, I wish he would let me know where that information comes from. I can’t spit stuff out to the public and not be able to back it up.”
The tail end of the debate featured questions about traffic, affordable housing, and potential response to another public safety crisis such as the Covid pandemic.
Keefe said that during the pandemic, he was out every day volunteering with the Revere Food Pantry and fighting to get the schools safely open for Revere’s students.
As he did several times during the debate, Keefe accused Rizzo of disappearing from the city after lost elections,
“He took PPP money and went to Florida while we took care of Revere,” said Keefe. “He disappeared for the entire pandemic.”
Rizzo said he didn’t understand why Keefe seemed so obsessed with his house in Florida.
“I should apologize to Mr. Keefe for buying a house in Florida back in 2004, I didn’t know it was such a major issue for him and his family,” said Rizzo. “As far as the pandemic goes, maybe he does not realize that I was not an elected official at that time. I was suffering from the pandemic with everyone else along with my family and father.
“I’m glad my opponent worked at a food bank, that’s great, but I had things I was dealing with myself,” Rizzo continued. “To turn a natural disaster into a political gain is really despicable. This was a horrible time for our country and our city.”
Rounding out the question portion of the debate, each candidate was asked to describe Revere in a single word.
Rizzo said Revere is a special place, with people from all different walks of life, cultures, and socio-economic levels.
Keefe characterized Revere as beautiful, with beautiful resources and people and an unbelievable upside.