David Lawrence, as he himself used to say, “was born into politics.” In one of his interviews, Lawrence remembered conversations between his father and grandfather, “As far back as I can remember hearing anything, it would be about politics.”
Lawrence was born in 1889, in Pittsburgh, only 75 feet from where the old Block house stood.
He died at 77 after having spent more than 50 years of his life in a field that Aristotle called “the master art” — politics. He served as mayor of Pittsburgh from 1946 to 1958 for four consecutive terms and used his political smarts to help mold the city’s famed Renaissance.
In 1959 he became governor of Pennsylvania. He was the first Roman Catholic to win the office.
In the beginning, his political road was bumpy, either because of circumstances or existing feuds, which hampered his success prior to 1932, when his political star began to ascend after the Roosevelt sweep in Allegheny County. Lawrence was appointed collector of internal revenue in 1932. In 1934, he was named Democratic state chairman, a post he held until 1940.
Party affiliation of his partners didn’t matter to Lawrence as long as they were working toward one common goal. When he was mayor, he cooperated with Republican industrial giants such as banker Richard King Mellon in the rebuilding of Pittsburgh. He was a key figure in pushing forward policy change on smoke control, the Parking Authority and the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, and he sought to take some of the burden off real estate.
“He practically stole the political ball from Republican county leaders by going to Harrisburg and urging support of the ‘Pittsburgh Package,’ bills necessary for the city’s renewal,” the Post-Gazette reported.
“[During his years as Pittsburgh’s mayor], Lawrence’s associates found, he appeared happy and relaxed. In the late afternoon, when the city’s business was finished for the day, he would hold a kind of informal session. Trusted lieutenant’s from the city and legislature might drift in to sit around and talk.”
After Lawrence became Pennsylvania’s chief executive, he backed funds for more school buildings, hospital care for indigents, workmen’s and occupational disease benefits and the anti-skid row bill limiting the concentration of tap rooms.
At the time of his death, Lawrence was chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in Housing and a confidant of President Johnson, whom he had known from the New Deal days.
While working in Washington, Lawrence stayed involved in the politics of Pennsylvania. Although he resented being called a Democratic “boss,” many people perceived him that way. Lawrence had clout, trust and the support of the community.