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Scott Lay, chronicler of California politics with a must-read newsletter, dies at 48

Scott Lay speaks at at Pasadena City College's commencement in 2007
Scott Lay, seen speaking at Pasadena City College’s commencement in 2007, passed away earlier this month.
(Courtesy of Lisa Ortega)

Scott Lay, an attorney by training, a fierce advocate for community colleges and the author of a must-read newsletter in the state Capitol, has died at 48.

His death prompted an outpouring of grief in Sacramento, from those who knew Lay as a lobbyist to subscribers of the Nooner, Lay’s daily email roundup of political news, legislative activity, job openings and policy, all laced with insider gossip and observations.

For the record:

1:44 p.m. Sept. 22, 2021An earlier version of this story identified Scott Lays’ father as Ron Lay. His name is Roy Lay.

“He was so committed to his community, whether that was his neighborhood, whether that was the community college world, whether it was a political party,” said Lisa Ortega, Lay’s sister. “He was always trying to build bridges and make the world better.”

Lay’s final newsletter was sent on Sept. 8; he was found dead at his Sacramento home on Sept. 13. The coroner has not determined a cause of death.

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Born in Portland, Ore., Lay grew up in Placentia. His family frequently talked politics at the dinner table, and the extended family had lively political debates at gatherings.

Lay had severe asthma as a child, which led to frequent hospitalizations at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. His health issues prevented him from graduating from high school, but Lay earned his GED at 17 and enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

That’s where in 1991 Lay met Paul Mitchell, now a Democratic redistricting expert. They were in a speech class together; Lay would sometimes show up in scrubs after volunteer shifts at the children’s hospital. They cofounded a College Democrats chapter and served in student government and on the California Student Assn. of Community Colleges together.

“Getting into student government and getting into politics gave him a mission outside of himself,” Mitchell said, noting that when they first met, Lay volunteered escorting women into abortion clinics in the face of protesters. “Having that drive made him able to overcome a lot of his earlier health problems because he just had this focus and mission.”

Scott Lay, in a tie and dress shirt, speaks in 1994.
Scott Lay speaks at a California Student Assn. of Community Colleges gathering in 1994.
(Courtesy of Lisa Ortega)

Lay would go onto get a law degree from UC Davis, but his experience at Orange Coast was pivotal. He started working for the Community College League of California in 1995 and became its president and CEO in 2006.

“He was really passionate about the system and the access community colleges provided,” Mitchell said. “He saw in the system his story — a kid who doesn’t graduate high school growing up to become a CEO.”

Lay started working in Sacramento at a time of great turnover in the state Capitol because of term limits. Lay was among the new young lobbyists when he met Anthony York, then a cub reporter who now works in political communications, mostly for the California Medical Assn.

York and Lay became friends, and in 2004 the pair cofounded a daily email newsletter about politics called the Roundup, a precursor of the Nooner.

“Stuff like this was popping up in Washington. There was nothing like that in Sacramento,” York said. “Scott had the technical ability to make this stuff happen. He hand-coded it.”

(Lay also used his tech skills to create a legislative tracking and a campaign contribution database.)

The other blogs and emails at the time were largely simple aggregators of news stories; the Roundup and later the Nooner had personality, gossip, observations and quips. It was Politico before Politico. That’s why Lay’s loss was being mourned by many, said York, who worked for the Los Angeles Times from 2010 to 2014.

“Through his email, he had a very specific voice and type of coverage you normally don’t get. I think it really bred a familiarity with this kind of niche audience,” York said. “It’s written about insidery stuff for insidery types with a very personal tone and touch. I think it’s reflected in the reaction to the news of his death. You can sense a real void without that voice.”

Lay’s relationships crossed party lines. Another of his close friends going back to his college days is GOP strategist Mike Madrid, who was at Moorpark College at the time Lay was at Orange Coast.

“The band of us met and we differed a lot on policies, but we fell in love like brothers, and just kind of came up through the system together,” Madrid said.

Lay put on a sunny face on social media, posting about his latest haul from the farmers market and his trips to his favorite taco stand. But he also acknowledged struggles with alcoholism, and was in failing health in recent years.

His friends say that while he was publicly forging relations with so many people through his newsletter and on social media, he began isolating himself from his personal relationships.

“He was the first of our generation to go, and to go that way, and to have him slip through our fingers is just heartbreaking,” Madrid said. “He was extremely talented, not just on policy, not just on politics, but on both. And he loved being part of the Capitol community.”

In addition to Ortega, Lay is survived by his father, Roy Lay, and his mother, Linda James.

Lay and Mehta both served on the board of directors for the nonprofit Open California.


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