PITTSBURGH, Pa. — David L. Lawrence was one of the most powerful men in Pennsylvania politics for a quarter century, but a family tragedy was forever linked to his political career.
Lawrence was born in the heart of Pittsburgh’s triangle, on June 18, 1889. His working-class Irish Catholic family couldn’t afford to send him to college, so as a teenager he took a job as a clerk with a prominent Pittsburgh attorney named William Brennen.
Brennen was a pioneer of the labor movement that was, in many ways, centered on the Pittsburgh area. He was also the chairman of the local Democratic party and served as a delegate to the national conventions in 1912 and 1916. Brennen mentored Lawrence and brought him to the convention in 1912 as a page.
Lawrence started an insurance business prior to his service in World War I, during which he served as an officer in Washington, D.C. When he returned to Pittsburgh in 1919, he was elected as chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party, following in the footsteps of Brennen.
At this time, Pittsburgh was largely run by the Republican Party, but as more immigrants moved in to feed the city’s booming industry the demographics began to shift and Lawrence was well-positioned to take advantage of it.
In 1922, Lawrence married Alyce Golden and soon the couple had five children, 3 boys and 2 girls. Their eldest son was named Brennen, in honor of William Brennen’s role getting Lawrence started on what would be a lifelong career in politics, beginning with his appointment to Secretary of the Commonwealth by Gov. George Earle in 1934.
On April 19, 1942, as Lawrence and his wife were at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club having dinner with their friends, everything changed. Brennen, 16, went joyriding with some of his Central Catholic High School classmates and took David Jr., 13, along for the ride. The boys all played on the same baseball team.
State Police said the driver, a 19-year-old, lost control of the Lawrence family car while passing other cars, skidded off the road and went backward into a tree along Route 19 in Zelienople. Brennen was killed instantly. David Jr. was rushed to Ellwood City Hospital, but died en route. The other five boys in the car survived with injuries.
The loss of his two eldest sons didn’t slow Lawrence’s political ambition. Though he lacked any formal education, it was his Catholic background that proved to be his biggest political hurdle. Three years later, he was running for mayor of Pittsburgh and won the highly contentious election by a narrow margin.
Lawrence served four terms as the city’s mayor from 1946-1959, and was praised for his bipartisan efforts with Richard Mellon to remake the city, which was one of the more polluted in the nation. Their partnership became known as the Pittsburgh Renaissance (later known as Renaissance I) and dramatically redirected the city, largely through the creation of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, which demolished 59 acres of buildings on The Point to create a new state park and gleaming towers.
The Democrats drafted Lawrence to make a run for governor in 1958. He reluctantly agreed. During the campaign, Lawrence was accused of trying to influence the Federal Communications Commission regarding the licensing of additional Pittsburgh television stations, including an ownership group that was the precursor of WPXI. The U.S. House held high-profile hearings with Lawrence and eventually exonerated him of any wrongdoing.
Lawrence went on to win the office and served a single term, which was state law at that time (the state’s constitution was changed in 1968 to allow for two consecutive terms). He is the only Pittsburgh mayor to ever be elected governor and was the state’s first Catholic governor.
He made traffic safety a priority in his administration and presided over a decline in deaths and injuries on the state’s roads.
Lawrence retired from elected office in 1963 but remained politically active, working with President Kennedy and President Johnson as the chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Housing.
While campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Milton Shapp, he collapsed at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque. He never regained consciousness and 17 days later, he died at the age of 77, on Nov. 21, 1966. His funeral was a spectacle of political heavyweights who came to pay tribute to him.