Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

David Leo Lawrence (1889-1966), governor of Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1963, and mayor of Pittsburgh from 1946 to 1959, during the city’s first heralded renaissance, was a professional politician to the very core. Ranked as one of America’s great chief executives among big cities, Lawrence immersed himself in politics, beginning at the age of fourteen when he became a city Democratic Party clerk. For Lawrence, a native of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty section, politics came before everything else, even family. He drew his final conscious breath during a political act: a ritual speech on behalf of Milton J. Shapp (1912-1988), the Democratic nominee for governor in 1966. Lawrence should have despised Shapp, a renegade Democrat and a foe of loyal party insiders. But Lawrence was ever faithful to the motto, Party above all.

David L. Lawrence was not only a builder of electoral coalitions, but he was also an architect of citywide, statewide, and nationwide partnerships. In the ser­vice of Pittsburgh, he forged alliances with the Republican elite of the city – the Mellons, the Kaufmanns, the Heinzes – in a mutually beneficial high-wire political balancing act that endured labor strikes, minor party revolts, and the unforgiving passage of time. In the process, Lawrence brought Pittsburgh a renewed sense of itself. “Renaissance I” meant skyscrapers for the Golden Triangle, smoke-free air, and the green, riverside expanse of Point State Park.

Lawrence’s presence on the national political scene was formidable. He helped bring together the unlikely pair of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson in the summer of 1960, thus fus­ing the north and south of Democratic Party politics. Selected to speak for the collective wisdom of the party’s “bosses,” Lawrence advised Kennedy that his choice for vice president should be John­son of Texas. Kennedy questioned Lawrence if he was sure the senate major­ity leader would accept the vice presiden­tial nomination. Lawrence was sure. He had spoken to Johnson that spring and again, most recently, in July in Los Ange­les, where the convention was taking place. Although LBJ had not said yes, nei­ther did he say no. After nearly five decades in politics, David L. Lawrence knew how to hear between the lines.

Lawrence placed Johnson’s name in nomination and, as expected, liberals were aghast at the selection. His speech was a signal for calm. If Lawrence, the champion of liberal Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, cottoned to the idea of a Kennedy-Johnson ticket, what more need­ed to be argued?

It’s difficult to imagine any boss other than David L. Lawrence playing such a pivotal role. Several political historians have suggested the top-ranked mayor of his day, Richard J. Daley of Chicago, but Daley, a consummate behind-the-scenes player, was all thumbs in public. Lawrence, ever the expert, was savvy both in and out of the public eye.

Lawrence governed before the emer­gence of political handlers, media gurus, and today’s spin doctors, but he really didn’t need their help. He was his own best adviser. Before his death at eighty­-seven, Jack Robin, Lawrence’s closest aide during the mayor’s three terms, recalled a tour of major cities that mayor-elect Lawrence made in the closing months of 1945. The most important stop was in New York to meet Mayor Fiorella La Guardia, ostensibly to glean the secrets of running a successful administration. The meeting was actually a public relations gambit designed to provide Lawrence with the urban leadership bona fides he knew he needed.

For a dearly partisan Democrat, Lawrence got along famously with a number of ardent Republicans, including Art Rooney Sr., founder and longtime president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lawrence counted among his closest friends Jimmy Coyne, Allegheny County GOP chief during the 1920s. Coyne was loud and aggressive, opposite of Lawrence in bearing. Their friendship flourished outside the political arena, despite their differences and Lawrence’s blistering public political attacks that began in the early 1930s. “Both men seemed to understand that political expediency demanded a formal separation,” wrote Michael P. Weber in his 1988 biogra­phy, Don’t Call Me Boss: David L. Lawrence, Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Mayor.

The beginning of Lawrence’s scalding political rhetoric coincided with the grim grip of the Great Depression, which deci­mated industry and jobs throughout the country and in working-class urban cen­ters such as Pittsburgh. The period, rough­ly from 1929 through 1933, marked the end of the Republican Party’s rule in Pitts­burgh and Allegheny County, and paved the way for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the rise of the Democ­ratic Party. Lawrence knew that the time had come to make the Democratic Party the governing party.

Lawrence’s shrewd political compro­mises, as Robin observed, kept the party alive in the 1920s, but no one accused him of selling out. After he became Pitts­burgh’s mayor in 1946, whenever contro­versies erupted, Democratic members of city council knew they owed Lawrence. At the same time, he knew just when to pounce. “There is not enough money in all the Mellon banks or in the treasury of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association to pay for another U.S. senatorship for David A. Reed,” Lawrence declared at the opening of the 1934 campaign. Although he lambasted Reed, he detested his party’s candidate, Joseph Guffey, who unseated Reed for two terms as senator. Party above all.

For a man who spent more than six decades in public life, Lawrence had few real enemies, although one was Charles J. Margiotti of Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, state attorney general during the administration of Democratic Governor George H. Earle. In a series of speeches, Margiotti, a former Republican, accused members of the Earle administration of corruption. He culminated his attacks on April 26, 1938, when he told an audience that “David Lawrence … became the chief mogul of the spoils system” in his posi­tions as secretary of the Commonwealth and d1airman of the state Democratic Party.

Margiotti claimed that “Dictator Lawrence” and his underlings were “polit­ical parasites,” with “their finger in every political pie, their thumb in every political plum. They are a menace to Pennsylvania, a serious threat to democracy.” These charges led to two court trials in Dauphin County in late 1939 and early 1940. The heart of Lawrence’s legal ordeal was the court’s probe into whether or not state employees had been forced to give money to the Democratic Party in exchange for their jobs. Lawrence vehemently denied the charge and declared that dunning workers was “morally wrong,” adding pragmatically, “and it is bad policy.” He was cleared of all charges.

As Commonwealth secretary and party chief, Lawrence appears to have been exceedingly careful with patronage appointments. In 1935, Frank Pisula was the Harrisburg point man for Fayette County Democrats who were seeking administration jobs. He had, however, been convicted of embezzlement in the private sector. When informed of Pisula’s legal problems, Governor Earle reacted as any astute politician might with an eye trained on the opposition and facing a press voracious for any hint of scandal. He fired Pisula from his job as a tax examiner in the Pennsylvania Depart­ment of Revenue.

Pisula subsequently landed a position with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), encouraging rumors that it was Lawrence who helped him secure the fed­eral job. Extant evidence suggests Lawrence resisted Pisula’s entreaties to return his former job to him, or to find him another at a comparable salary. Fayette County Judge Edward Dumbauld met with Lawrence on behalf of Pisula, but without suc­cess. Pisula could not understand the hard line that had been taken against him. He doubted, he wrote, that opponents of the administration could make “any considerable political capital out of the fact of giving a man a second chance after he had once paid the fullest price for his errors.”

Lawrence fared luckier than Pisula, but his legal problems left a scar. For the remainder of his life, he made a point of serving as a character witness for friends called before the bar of justice. So strong was his loathing of the injustice that he had suffered, that Lawrence would testify for individuals with whom he was only slightly acquainted.

He became mayor of Pittsburgh in the wake of the Great Depression and then World War II, two world-wracking events that did nothing to improve the condition of the city. The “Smoky City” grew smoki­er, darker, and more uninhabitable. Cor­porate executives resisted being trans­ferred to Pittsburgh, while other compa­nies teetered on the verge of relocating elsewhere. Not only were soot and smoke spewing skyward from the towering stacks of sprawling steel mills, blackening the city’s reputation, but also the down­town commercial district was frequently submerged by the flooding of the Alleghe­ny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers.

Many of Pittsburgh’s improvements undertaken in the Lawrence years origi­nated during the administration of Cor­nelius Scully, two-term Democratic mayor during the war years. Scully, described as “a gentleman of the old school,” “cultured and educated,” and “from a long-line family from the uppercrust of Pittsburgh society,” was woefully “inexperienced in politics.” It took the end of World War II and the elec­tion of David L. Lawrence to push the city toward its famous revival.

During his campaign for the mayor’s office, Lawrence proposed seven mea­sures for improving the city, a program that became known as the Pittsburgh Renaissance. On April 20, 1945, he recom­mended public conferences between the mayor and business leaders during which complaints and suggestions would be aired and answered; the creation of an
“industrial expansion committee” to work for diversified industry in Pittsburgh; the support of public improvements advocated by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; the rezoning of the city “to open new home sites within the city lim­its”; the undertaking of new residential construction, especially single dwellings and apartment houses based on federal land purchase and private capital con­struction; the redistribution of the tax loads; relief for real estate; additional state aid for the needy; and inception of a pro­gram to clean, repair, and beautify the central business district. He offered little information or details about the ambitious plan, but he immediately drew the atten­tion of Pittsburghers with his bold and straightforward approach. In November 1945, Lawrence was elected mayor by a margin of fourteen thousand votes.

Mayor Lawrence got off to a quick start and demonstrated an eagerness to work with corporate Pittsburgh. “You ought to get over to this man Lawrence,” Adolph Schmidt told the head of the pow­erful Mellon family known as the “Gener­al.” “We’ve got to work with the city … if we’re going to improve the city …. Lawrence is all right. He’s a surprising politician.” Not long afterward, on the advice of Schmidt, Richard King Mellon walked the several blocks from his office to see the mayor. Meanwhile, Robin was telling Lawrence similar things about key Republicans, including Mellon. Robin was quick to remind Lawrence of one of his favorite phrases, “The best politics is good government.”

And so was born the Lawrence-Mellon partnership, the melding together of politi­cal and corporate Pittsburgh without which the city’s celebrated “Renaissance I” might have failed.

Equally impressive was Lawrence’s attack on smoke, which required sacrifices from most ordinary citizens who faced the cost of conversion from coal to cleaner energy sources. Smoke had long been a serious danger to Pittsburghers. In the early 1940s, life-threatening smog literally smothered the city several days each month, requiring lights to be used during daylight hours. In 1941, for instance, Lawrence biographer Weber noted that Pittsburgh “had the highest rate of pneu­monia of any city in the nation, with a death rate from it that was 40 percent higher.” Weber also points out that smoke was expensive. Industrial and residential smoke dumped more than one hundred tons of pollutants on the greater Pitts­burgh area, two thirds of which darkened center city. During winter months, the city received only one-third as much sunshine as did the county airport, just seven miles to the south. Additional lighting, cleaning, and damage cost Pittsburgh four million dollars yearly.

In early 1948, a cold wave depleted the city’s natural gas supplies and prompted several members of city council to call for a suspension of the smoke control pro­gram that the Lawrence administration initiated. The mayor bent, but did not break – and for good reason. According to Robin, a failure to improve Pittsburgh’s air would have doomed other measures to revitalize the city. The impact of the administration’s decision was immediate­ly apparent. The number of moderate to heavy smoke days was cut in half, while the amount of sunshine increased by thir­ty-nine percent. Business leaders were impressed and so were voters who consis­tently sustained Lawrence’s management of the city.

Lawrence’s tough stand against strik­ing Duquesne Light Company workers, whose work stoppage dimmed the city in 1947, and the mayor’s courting of corpo­rate Pittsburgh were not without conse­quences. Challenged by organized labor and city councilman Eddie Leonard in the Democratic primary of 1949, Lawrence came closest to being ousted. He lost seven city wards and claimed victory with a relatively low margin of twenty-two thousand votes.

Although he followed his city hall years with four years as governor, it is as mayor that Lawrence is best remembered and honored by many people, especially in western Pennsylvania. He became identified with the city, symbolizing Pittsburgh as no other mayor had. Lawrence is also remembered as the first Catholic governor and the second oldest to be elected. His statewide achievements included improvements in highway safe­ty, education, juvenile justice, and parks; air pollution abatement; the Library Code of 1961; the Delaware River Basin Compact; and correcting the previous administration’s budget deficit.

And he accomplished all of this in the face of personal tragedy and misfortune.

On April 19, 1942, two of David and Alyce Lawrence’s sons, William Brennan Lawrence (named for influential mentor William J. Brennan) and David Leo Lawrence Jr., were killed in an automobile accident near Zelienople, about twenty­-five miles north of Pittsburgh. This event forever changed the lives of the Lawrence family. Lawrence reacted by throwing himself deeper into his work, although he was sometimes characterized as lonely. His wife attempted to dull the pain of their loss by surrounding herself with people and by drinking frequently. Although the patriarch of the family rarely spoke to anyone about the tragedy, he kept a photograph of the boys on his desk and visited their graves after dinner each Christmas Day for the rest of his life.

Former Governor George M. Leader lost confidence in Lawrence in 1958 while Lawrence was running for governor and Leader for the U.S. Senate against Repub­lican Hugh Scott (1900-1993). When Leader became the youngest governor in 1954, he carried Allegheny County by eighty-nine thousand votes; four years later, in 1958, as the senate candidate, he lost the county by thirty-three thousand votes. In the course of the campaign, it became painfully clear to Leader that he was being “cut” by party leaders in western Pennsylvania, especially in Alleghe­ny, Westmoreland, and Washington Counties. “They traded me off there,” Leader told Lawrence’s biographer. “The only thing I could figure out is that because they felt Dave was a Catholic candidate and I was a Protestant candi­date that Dave was going to run behind. … They tried to even it up.” Lawrence always denied the charge.

Leader sensed something suspicious in Lawrence’s and the victorious Scott’s relationship with the influential Mellons. While no smoking g1m has been found in the case of the Mellons, among Lawrence’s papers at the University of Pittsburgh is a note from Scott to Lawrence, dated June 29, 1959, suggest­ing a political relationship between the Democratic governor and the Republican senator. Marked confidential, the brief memo contains the results of a statewide poll commissioned by Scott showing Lawrence running well ahead of every­one else. “Here follows a tabulation which I believe may be of interest,” Scott began his missive, closing with “warm personal regards, Hugh.”

In the end, there is no accounting for Lawrence’s complex political character. While collaborating with Pittsburgh’s cor­porate Republicans, he simultaneously admired – and supported for president­ – Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), a liberal icon of the 1950s. He called Stevenson a greater man than Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890- 1969). Lawrence’s evolving relationship with Stevenson epitomized the mayor’s political skill and sophistication.

In 1960, Lawrence’s endorse­ment of Kennedy on the eve of the Democratic con­vention virtually clinched the nomination for JFK. Time reported a smiling Robert F. Kennedy emerging from the crucial meeting with Governor Lawrence.

Lawrence personally delivered the news about Kennedy to Stevenson, the party’s twice-nominated candidate for president. Stevenson would have none of it, though, telling Lawrence that he was not quitting; that, in fact, his “mad about Adlai” partisans were rallying for a final stand. Lawrence remained unmoved. Unlike Stevenson, a romantic, Lawrence, the perennial politico, had no illusions about the reality of the political situation. To Lawrence, Kennedy was the reality. Stevenson belonged to the past. Party above all.

When Lawrence again stepped into the spotlight at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque (demolished in 1992) on the evening of November 4, 1966, to speak in support of gubernatorial candidate Mil­ton J. Shapp, he demonstrated his con­summate political skill and pragmatism that marked his long career. Shapp repre­sented a new style of politician who ignored a party machine that was show­ing fractures in its unity. Although Lawrence served as chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in Housing from 1963 to 1966, the aging political warrior no longer wielded the clout he had once enjoyed. The Philadel­phia Democratic organization was weighing in to select candidates with or without the approval of Lawrence.

Shapp, of Philadelphia, a millionaire electronics manufacturer and pioneer in the cable television industry, had tram­pled the party’s endorsed primary candi­date, Robert P. Casey (1932-2000), of Scranton, who later served two consecu­tive terms as governor, from 1987 to 1995. Popularizing his theme of “man against the machine,” the victor outspent, out­organized, out-blitzed the media, and made more campaign stops than the party leaders or opponents could muster. He borrowed a pattern set by Lawrence in gaining the support of key groups, such as blacks, including a key endorsement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ethnic groups, labor unions, veterans groups, and busi­ness leaders. Distraught over the weaken­ing of the state Democratic machine and Shapp’s primary victory, Lawrence nonetheless put the party first and sought reconciliation. In his speeches, he consis­tently called for party unity. Party above all.

In his final public appearance, the sev­enty-seven-year-old Lawrence pleaded for party unity and for the election of Shapp. “I have been up and down this state cam­paigning for Milton Shapp since three days after the primary,” Lawrence began. “There is less defection among the Democ­rats at this time than I have ever seen in twenty-five years. I’ve never been prouder than I am now of the Democratic Party.

“The Republicans are shaking, ” he continued, “because we have a candidate who can match them in spending money. I heard this governor [William W. Scranton] we have say he regretted that the Democ­rats didn’t have a candidate with experi­ence. His experience prior to running for governor was one year in Congress. Milt Shapp has been in the forefront of govern­mental business for years.” Lawrence stopped, repeated the words “for years,” fell backward then forward, toppling the podium as he crumpled into the arms of longtime associate James Knox.

Seventeen days later, on November 21, Lawrence died without regaining con­sciousness and without learning that the Republican Party’s candidate, Raymond P. Shafer, had been elected governor, defeat­ing Shapp by nearly a quarter-million votes. But Lawrence was far from forgot­ten. Admirers and opponents alike issued public statements extolling his virtues.

Dignitaries thronged the funeral of the fallen party chief, described by his biogra­pher as “one of the grandest Pittsburgh had ever seen.” Among those who attend­ed the service were Governor Scranton, Governor-elect Shafer, New Jersey’s Gov­ernor Richard Hughes, Philadelphia Mayor James J. Tate, and former ambas­sador to Ireland, Matthew McCloskey. Special assistant Marvin Watson represent­ed President Johnson, who was ill. John­son’s cabinet secretaries Stewart Udall and Orville Freeman also paid their last respects. Seated just behind the Lawrence family was Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in tribute, perhaps, to the role Lawrence had played in helping his brother secure the presidency.

A five-column obituary carried by the New York Times the morning after Lawrence’s demise read more like a eulogy than a death notice. “He was one of those men who worked in politics as others do in law or medicine, as a profes­sion or craft. He served his apprenticeship in a rougher period of big city politics and he learned his lessons starting at the ward level. When the style of politics changed and the ward heeler began to give way to the sophistication of public relations, Mr. Lawrence adapted.”

But it was the legendary “labor priest,” the Reverend Charles Owen Rice, who may have written the best summary of Lawrence’s political career. Rice, once a loyal supporter, had been lately critical of Lawrence, but his words, published in the Pittsburgh Catholic, recalled a man who expected – demanded – hard work and loyalty for the good of all.

The man was a pragmatic idealist. He believed in causes and he served them. He also believed in power politics and was a frank par­tisan. Within his own party he had his own special flock which he tended with care and some stern discipline. He was always willing to pull back himself and his own faction so that the party as a whole would benefit. He was a compromiser of ambitions. He sought to reward the faithful and he looked with a baleful eye on those who would crash the inner circle without the proper apprenticeship. Enemies within the party were the objects of his private scorn, but publicly he observed the amenities as well as the realities. It is due to him that the party in this area was not tom apart by factionalism. He coexisted with men who hated him and whom he certainly did not love.

It fell to Lawrence to adapt an old style political machine into modern usage. Democ­rats had to be elected to positions of power, but once in, they had to serve the community. The faithful had to be fed, but they could not be allowed to gorge themselves and in office they had to perform with acceptable efficiency. It was quite a challenge and he brought it off.

Lawrence had been many things to many people, but it was his “humanitari­an service” for which he was praised by Bishop John Wright, who singled out his efforts in Pittsburgh and in the nation’s capital “as a battler for fair housing.” Now, long after the eulogies have been given and the editorials published, David Leo Lawrence proved that it was possible to make the transition from nineteenth­-century political boss to modern munici­pal manager. And in doing so, he created a vision of a better, cleaner, and more liv­able Pittsburgh that has become a timeless gift for today’s and future generations.

Party, Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania above all.


For Further Reading

Crist, Robert G., ed. Pennsylvania King­makers. University Park: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1985.

Donaghy, Thomas J. Keystone Democrat: David Lawrence Remembered. New York: Vantage Press, 1986.

Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Garden City, N.Y.: Double­day & Company, Inc., 1999.

Lubove, Roy. Twentieth-Century Pitts­burgh: Government, Business, and Envi­ronmental Change. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Shames, Sally Oleon. David L. Lawrence, Mayor of Pittsburgh: Development of a Political Leader. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958.

Thomas, Clarke M. Fortunes and Misfortunes: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Politics, 1930-95. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Weber, Michael P. Don’t Call Me Boss: David L. Lawrence. Pitts­burgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.


Richard Robbins of Uniontown, Fayette County, has been a feature writer on a broad range of topics far both the Pittsburgh and Greensburg editions of the Tribune-Review for more than twenty years. His contribu­tions to Pennsylvania Heritage include “John O’Hara: The Child Becomes the Man,” in the Spring 1993 edition, and “Union­town’s Prince of the Gilded Age,” about coal baron Josiah V. Thompson, which appeared in the Spring 1989 issue.