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In Memoriam: Scott Lay (1972-2021)

<text> In the months after California voters removed Gray Davis from office, I would roll out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and log on to find a document waiting for me. It was from Scott Lay. The document was the rough draft of that morning’s edition of The Roundup, a daily email digest of California political news and information that went to nearly 10,000 subscribers. 

Before Twitter, and back when California digital journalism consisted almost exclusively of Jack Kavanaugh’s Rough and Tumble and a dormant blog by Dan Weintraub, The Roundup portended a new digital age of political information that was already taking hold in Washington D.C. but hadn’t gripped Sacramento just yet. The publication Scott co-founded more than 15 years ago as the precursor to his later publication, The Nooner, helped usher in a new era of state political news that changed the way all of us got our information from Sacramento.

Scott died earlier this month at the age of 48 in Sacramento. Throughout his life, he was a tireless advocate for community colleges and fought to make higher education affordable and accessible for all who wanted it. While he spent most of his professional career as an advocate and CEO of the Community College League of California, thousands in the California Capitol Community will remember him for his hobbies as a digital tinkerer and lover of California politics and policy

Scott spent a lifetime in and around politics. As a student at Orange Coast Community College in Orange County, he co-founded the local chapter of Young Democrats in what was still then a solidly Republican part of the state. Many of his co-conspirators and political rivals from those early days include names that many Capitol watchers now know well, including Paul Mitchell, Mike Madrid, Dustin Corcoran, Doug Morrow, Shannan Velayas and Lance Lewis. 

They were all part of a generation of young politically active Democrats and Republicans who would come to leave an indelible imprint on our state’s politics. And with Scott’s passing, California politics won’t be quite the same.

I first met Scott in 1997 when he was a law student at UC Davis and he was lobbying for the University of California Student Association. I was a 22-year-old reporter who had just come to Sacramento as term limits was ushering in a generational shift in state politics. At the same time, technological change was breaking down old barriers and creating new opportunities in the media world.

Scott was one of those young staffers and lobbyists who were wired in the Capitol and up on the latest news, gossip and information.  Scott quickly became an essential source for me. Not only did he know details about the state budget -- from ERAF to the difference between a Test 1 and a Test 2 year under Proposition 98 --  but he was also passionate about the causes he championed and knew what was going on. If information is the coin of the realm in journalism, to a young reporter, Scott’s perspective and information was better than gold.

Over time, our source relationship became a working friendship. I didn’t realize then that while Scott may have been going to law school, and later went on to lobby and serve as CEO of the League, he possessed the heart of a journalist.

Scott had a true belief that state policy and politics mattered -- and that it was grossly under-covered. We bonded over a common mission to try to get people interested in what was happening in Sacramento.

Scott also had a hidden talent -- he was a self-taught techie. Scott new how to build and publish Web sites back when the HTML had to be hand-coded. He could transform impenetrable public databases into easily searchable websites. When my family took over Capitol Weekly with hopes of transforming it from a state jobs paper into a state-based political news site, Scott played an instrumental role in getting our web site, mailing lists and online advertising capabilities up and running. In his spare time.

The Roundup was a true passion project for Scott. Long before The Nooner became his job, The Roundup was his side hussle -- something he would help write before dawn every morning. During the day, he led the Community College League, and in the evenings, he would stay up til the wee hours maintaining and expanding The Roundup’s technical capabilities.

He expanded those technical skills to build a free legislative bill tracking system and campaign contribution database that surpassed paid subscription offerings, or public agencies databases. His free ElectionTrack service was so much better than the state’s outdated Cal-Access System, that many of us began to start a (half) joking Scott Lay For Secretary of State whisper campaign.

He loved every minute of it. 

The old archives of those early Roundups still exist. It was a gossipy take on insider information that has become so de rigueur in this world of Fake News, but still had a certain innocence and warmth that kept it from devolving into cynicism. That was shaped largely by Scott.

In the years that followed, we filled the Roundup with political gossip, tidbits of information not available elsewhere, plenty of typos and more than a few inside jokes.

With creative input and technical assistance from Scott, The Roundup created its own voice. Looking back now on those emails, in most instances, I couldn’t tell you where Scott’s writing ended and mine began. We had created this thing together, and given it a voice all its own.

Finding that voice was important to Scott. Growing up in Orange County California, he was struck with terrible asthma, and spent long stints at the local Children’s Hospital. As a young boy, he befriended many children diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis -- a particularly cruel disease that strikes the young and kills most before their 20th birthday. Those were not statistics to Scott. They were his friends. Throughout his own life, Scott remained committed to raising awareness and money to fight CF. It was a cause near to his heart that he remained committed to, and raised awareness about the disease among the Capitol community.

That generosity and passion was evident in much of Scott’s pursuits. I know from experience the amount of hours he would dedicate to a new passion project, not because he expected some big financial reward, but simply for the sake of doing it. Of course, he was motivated at least in part from some of the rush that comes from putting something out into the world that other people read and react to. For all of his talents as an advocate and budget guru, Scott was a generous spirit who lived to publish. His biggest rush came from informing and entertaining others.

But he also struggled with demons that created distance with even his closest friends. While he would post enthusiastically on social media about his latest score from the farmers market, or the taco stands in front of Southside Park on Sundays, those who knew him best knew that Scott was sick.  Over the years, many of us tried to support him in efforts to confront some of those demons. We failed. 

Like anyone who passes too soon, it is impossible not to look back on Scott’s life with some sadness and regret. But it also demands celebrating his generous spirit, his willingness to help others, and the role he played in helping shape and inform the Capitol community.

Rest easy, Scott. You’ll be missed.


-Anthony York

September 20, 2021

Scott was passionate about expanding access to education for all and to fighting Cystic Fibrosis. If you'd like to donate in his memory, you can give to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation here.

Scott also fought hard to ensure higher education was available to all, and benefitted and believed in the mission of California Community Colleges. Orange Coast College is accepting donations to the Orange Coast College Foundation Scholarship Fund for the Scott Lay Memorial Scholarship. Online gifts can be made at https://www.orangecoastcollege.edu/giving

or mailed to:

Orange Coast College Foundation – Scott Lay Memorial Scholarship

2701 Fairview Road

Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Plans for a service to celebrate Scott's life are still being made. Look for updates in this space of email anthonyyork1@gmail.com. 

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