David Lawrence, Governor of Pennsylvania from 1959-1963 and longtime Democratic Party leader in Pittsburgh, and to a lesser extent statewide, is the subject of this biography. While he directed the Pittsburgh Democratic Party for decades before serving as Pittsburgh’s Mayor for 13 years and then capping his career as our Governor for four years, the one thing he refused to be called was “boss.” While he was a leader, he refused to be considered by others as a boss, hence the title of this book.
Lawrence literally grew up in politics, volunteering in his first campaign at the age of nine. He performer various, mostly gopher and literature distribution tasks for the Democratic Party during the dark era when the Democratic Party was barely functioning. Lawrence rose to chair the Pittsburgh Democratic Party where he strove to create a political operation. Times were not good for Democrats: they would even lose the minority Jury Commissioner’s seat to an independent candidate. At times, the electoral futility of the local Democrats would lead to calls for a new party chairman. Yet Lawrence held on for an important reason: no one else wanted to spend the amount of time Lawrence did in being the party chairman.
Lawrence brought slow but mixed successes to the Democratic Party. In 1929, he proudly announced that Democrats finally had enough supporters to place poll watchers at every Allegheny County precinct. On the negative side, the number of Democratic Party registrants fell in half while Lawrence was county chairman before it began increasing again. Lawrence even admitted that the Democratic organization frequently cooperated with the dominant Republican Party at times in return for patronage positions. Patronage then was very important, as half of the 5,200 registered Democrats in Allegheny County in the late 1920s held political jobs.
Two important events would shape politics, and with them, Lawrence’s life. First, Republicans even back then were dishonest, as it was exposed that Republicans had illegally registered about 50,000 voters. This led the public to correctly identify the Republican Party as the party of corruption. Second, the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the efforts of Democratic Party’s New Deal social programs to save America from depression transformed American politics. It would help David Lawrence’s career that he was an early FDR supporter and that his work for Democrats won him much regard.
Following Roosevelt’s election in 1932, George Earle became the first Democrat elected Governor in Pennsylvania since 1894. David Lawrence became Democratic State Chairman. In addition, Governor Earle selected Lawrence to serve as Secretary of the Commonwealth, which was a highly influential policy office. It also found Lawrence divided between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, as Lawrence continue to lead the Allegheny County Democrats. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s WPA program brought $70 million to Allegheny County, of which 80% of that went towards wages, brining many people out of the depression into employment. Soon, Democratic registration surpassed Republican registration in Pittsburgh. Lawrence is credited with building a powerful local Democratic Party organization, and it is noted that Republicans never won a major election in Pittsburgh from 1938 through 1966, when Lawrence died.
In Harrisburg, Lawrence was placed in charge of getting legislative approval of Governor Earle’s Little New Deal proposals. Earle and Lawrence fortunately had cooperative Democratic House legislators, as the House had its first Democratic majority in half a century. Lawrence saw to it that the House Steering Committee consisted of members who supported the Little New Deal. Lawrence attended most House and Senate legislative sessions, sitting at the side with a vacant chair, where he provided his advice, often to a legislator sitting in the no longer vacant chair. Lawrence would call regular legislative caucuses where he would explain the Governor’s, and the Democratic Party’s, positions on issues facing them.
Lawrence, though, not only disliked being called a boss, he did not act like one. Caucus meetings were considered a place of free and open exchange. He allowed dissent, so long as the dissenting legislator had a good reason. Yet, it is noted that Lawrence usually got his way. If there was dissent, a controversial bill was tabled until passage could be secured later. It is noted most of the Earle-Lawrence legislation was passed the House. Yet, most of it was then defeated by the Senate, which still had a Republican majority.
Major legislative battles resulted over how to handle Pennsylvania’s depression-era budget. The Chamber of Commerce projected that state government would require a $326 million budget in 1935-36 with projected revenues of $148 million, leaving a gap of $178 million that was even greater than revenues. Further, the Federal government required state government to provide $120 million in relief in order to continue qualified for Federal assistance. State Senator and Republican State Chairman Harvey Taylor announced that Senate Republicans would agree to only provide the Federal government with $57 million. Long negotiations provided for a 6% tax on corporate income and increased taxes on utilities, gas, cigarettes, and amusements.
Democrats gained control of both legislative chambers in the 1936 elections. The Little New Deal, in what is considered as the greater era of liberal legislative in Pennsylvania’s history, was passed. 365 of Governor Earle’s 371 proposals were enacted with Lawrence’s help. Administration bills would appear in pink folders so legislators would know they came from the Governor. Major legislation allowing collective bargaining, providing teacher tenure, creating a Department of Public Assistance, protecting employee rights, creating the Labor Relations Board, providing slum clearance and public housing, outlawing unfair bank practices, and creating the nation’s first turnpike all became law.
On the negative side, Lawrence began a life-long feud with Attorney General Charles Margiotti. Margiotti accused Lawrence of illegally requiring county Democratic Party organizations to raise funds from patronage workers. Although Lawrence would be found not guilty after the fall elections, the scandal helped the Republicans return to power on election day. Lawrence was removed as Democratic State Chairman.
Personal tragedy would changed Lawrence’s life and career. After two of his sons were killed in an automobile accident, Lawrence threw himself back into his work. He sought and regained his position as Democratic State Committee. While working to keep Democratic factions together, it was discovered the only candidate for Pittsburgh Mayor agreeable to the major factions was himself. Lawrence then ran for, and was elected, Mayor.
Lawrence set up to become a great Mayor. He met privately with New York’s famed Machiavellian local policy maker Robert Moses for ideas on how to succeed. As Mayor, he spent many hours negotiating labor contracts and in dealing with disgruntled council members. He worked hard for flood control programs and lobbied hard for a dam that finally began construction in 1949. He fought the air quality problem by requiring the use of smokeless coal, knowing that this would, and did, cause many voters to turn against him when they were forced to pay more for this coal. Lawrence guided the Lower Hill redevelopment program which, at the time, was the largest such project undertaken although without a past for guidelines, resulted in mixed opinions of success. As Mayor, Lawrence implemented the Civic Unity Council to handle incidences of racial and religious discrimination. While this early Council had limited effectiveness, it was groundbreaking and would lead Lawrence to a later Presidential appointment.
In 1958, David Lawrence was elected Governor. After observing the previous Governor’s struggles with the legislature, Governor Lawrence worked more towards legislative cooperation. For instance, he won legislative approval to increase the sales tax by agreeing to exemptions that legislators wanted. He won successes in balancing the state budget, establishing medical care for low income senior citizens, creating a law that registered and regulated lobbyists, prohibiting billboards besides interstate highways, and strengthening air pollution laws and fair employment laws. Interestingly, Lawrence maintained his Pittsburgh ties and would return to Pittsburgh most weekends to continue serving as Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Lawrence was proud that he inherited a state budget deficit and ended his term as Governor with a $16.6 billion surplus in Fiscal Year 1961-62. Yet, to his chagrin, the taxes he raised in order to achieve this became a campaign issue that helped elected Republican Bill Scranton over Democrat Richardson Dilworth as Governor in 1962.
David Lawrence urged John Kennedy to select Lyndon Johnson as his 1960 running mate and even game the nominating speech for Johnson at the Democratic National Convention. In 1963, President Kennedy named Lawrence to chair the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in Housing. Lawrence found this work frustrating at times as it would not be until after his death that the anti-discriminatory commercial housing lending practices he argued for would be adopted. In 1966, while campaign for Milton Shapp for Governor, Lawrence collapsed and never regained consciousness.
David Lawrence had a great career of ups and downs throughout several of Pennsylvania’s political eras. In sum, he ranks as one of the great political giants in the state's history. Just don’t say he was a boss.