Ex-AP California capital reporter Steve Lawrence dead at 71
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Steve Lawrence, a California government reporter who covered a major capital corruption scandal and governors from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger during a nearly four-decade career with The Associated Press, died Friday.
His wife, Jane, said he had been battling cancer and had been in the intensive care unit at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento for about three weeks. He was 71.
Lawrence was the longest-tenured member of California’s capital press corps when he retired in 2009 after 37 years with the AP. He had built a reputation as a tenacious reporter who never shied from asking the tough questions, yet also developed strong relationships on his beat, including with competitors.
“People liked him, the elected officials and staffers, but he was a true wire service reporter — he had to get the story so he would ask very blunt questions,” said Jeff Raimundo, a former reporter with The Sacramento Bee who became friends with Lawrence while they covered the state Senate in the 1970s. “He was aggressive ... a very forceful reporter.”
Lawrence covered the Legislature during most of his career in Sacramento, including an FBI sting operation in the late 1980s that led to bribery convictions against a handful of state lawmakers and other officials.
In those days, the capital press corps included dozens of reporters from multiple newspapers and news services, who competed fiercely for scoops.
His former news editor, Ron Roach, said Lawrence was the consummate professional whose reporting was precise and stories thorough, no matter how intense the deadline.
“He did his job, and you could count on him,” Roach said. “I never had to worry about him missing a story.”
Rebecca LaVally, a former UPI reporter and bureau chief who sat next to Lawrence in the Senate chamber, recalled that he often had a stern demeanor on the job and would keep asking questions until he got an answer. But it was Lawrence’s other side that drew LaVally to him, despite their competing positions, and led them to become good friends.
“He was supportive of me as a woman reporter at a time when there were not very many women reporters,” said LaVally, now a communications lecturer at California State University, Sacramento. “Not everybody treated you as a colleague, deserving of respect, and Steve did that.
“I think he took journalism very seriously, and he took friendships seriously.”
Steven Douglas Lawrence was born in Altadena, California, on Aug. 7, 1947, and grew up in Covina, graduating from Covina High School in 1965.
He was studying history at the University of La Verne when he signed up almost by accident for a course in journalism. He was simply looking for another class to fill out his schedule, but it was a decision that changed his life.
“From then on, that was all he wanted to do was to write,” Jane Lawrence said.
After graduating in 1969, he was hired as a reporter for the Pomona Progress Bulletin, where he met his wife of 47 years, who was working in the advertising department. He joined the AP in Los Angeles in 1972 and soon requested a beat covering his top interest, politics.
He transferred the next year to the AP’s Sacramento bureau, toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as governor and shortly before Jerry Brown was elected governor for the first time.
In one story, Lawrence wrote about how lawmakers at the time assessed Brown’s job as governor. The upshot: He was a great politician, but a poor administrator without clear priorities.
“He wants to make too many decisions on too many minor matters,” Lawrence quoted then state-Sen. Peter Behr as saying.
Lawrence covered the careers of some of California’s best-known politicians, including activist Tom Hayden and former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, along with major shifts in California’s political landscape, such as Proposition 13, the landmark property tax reform.
It was holding elected officials accountable for their actions and words that drove Lawrence throughout his career, his wife said.
“He enjoyed finding the crooked politicians and exposing their deeds,” she said.
Outside the newsroom, Lawrence had two significant interests besides his family: baseball and building.
He was a die-hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan who also loved to play. He and a group of other capital journalists started the Muckrakers softball team shortly after he arrived in Sacramento. The team lost so often during its early years that Lawrence persuaded the city’s recreation department to start a lower division so it would have a chance of actually winning some games. And win they did, eventually getting good enough to move up to more competitive divisions.
Lawrence played in a senior softball league until last summer.
He also spent hours — years, in fact — restoring the five-bedroom, 1897 Victorian home in midtown Sacramento that he and his wife bought for $26,500 a year after moving to the capital.
The interest he developed in construction led him to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity after retiring from the AP. He worked with the nonprofit from 2010 until this past January, logging more than 5,000 hours of volunteer time building or repairing homes for low-income families, the elderly and veterans.
In 2014, he accompanied the group on a home-building mission to Nicaragua, said Laine Himmelmann, development director for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento.
That volunteer work was as important to Lawrence as his journalism career, his wife said.
“He helped people as a reporter by telling the truth,” she said, “and he helped people after by building them a house.”