Digitizing Sacramento

With ElectionTrack, Around the Capitol and the newly unveiled Roundup, Scott Lay helps bring state politics to the online masses

Scott Lay’s online efforts all share a single mission: to cut through the clutter of state politics.

Scott Lay’s online efforts all share a single mission: to cut through the clutter of state politics.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In 2003, the secretary of state paid an outside firm $200,000 to create a new version of Cal-Access, the online database of campaign-finance reports. But during the last round of elections, many campaign workers, reporters and political junkies looking for fund-raising totals instead turned to a Web site built by an education lobbyist in his spare time.

Scott Lay’s site, ElectionTrack (at www.electiontrack.com), offered up-to-date tallies of how much the major campaigns had raised, which is harder than it sounds. Getting the information from the secretary of state’s site requires users to download files that can number in the dozens during campaign season and then do the math.

“It’s something that a staff person on a campaign would spend a couple hours doing each day,” Lay said.

His site automates the process by querying the secretary of state’s database, finding new reports and adding them to its database. Users can see all of the most recent transactions, find totals for each campaign and have the information delivered daily to their e-mail in-box.

It’s one of several ways in which Lay, who has no formal computer training, is beating state agencies and pricey information vendors at their own game by providing a way to make sense out of mountains of data—for free.

Caren Daniels-Meade, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, hadn’t heard of ElectionTrack. “That’s amazing,” she said after checking it out.

Lay also runs Around the Capitol (at www.aroundthecapitol.com), another site devoted to the clear presentation of information about state politics and government. The site, which quickly became a favorite of political professionals and has 500 to 1,000 readers a day, is a portal site with a front page users may customize to show constantly updated campaign gossip, newspaper editorials and blog entries.

“It’s especially important because there are surprisingly few sources of information about state politics compared to other states,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “If you want to follow California politics, and you’re not in Sacramento, you really need this site.”

Around the Capitol features discussion boards for legislative races, where users can post information (or snide comments) about candidates. The site also offers a simple bill-tracking service.

As an information provider working as a lobbyist, Lay has loaded up the site with links to plenty of opinions—editorials, blogs, message boards, etc.—but he usually avoids expressing his own.

“Scott’s done a fabulous job of putting all the information in one place,” said Matt Rexroad, a political consultant for the Assembly and Senate Republican caucuses. “If he were to ever charge a fee for it, I’d pay it.”

Lay spends about two hours each morning on the site before going to work. He doesn’t charge for anything right now, though he does recoup some of the $320 a month he pays for Web hosting. He plans to sell more ads once he adds new features.

Earlier this month, Lay and Anthony York, editor of the Political Pulse newsletter, unveiled a new daily e-mail bulletin called The Roundup. Modeled on The Note, a popular ABC News online publication for political junkies, The Roundup is a daily digest of political news that includes links to political stories and reporting on other insider tidbits.

And it fits with the mission of Lay’s other online efforts: cutting through the clutter.

For nearly 10 years, Lay, 32, has lobbied for the Community College League of California, a nonprofit group that represents the state’s community-college districts. He has a personal connection to the schools.

Lay grew up with chronic asthma that kept him hospitalized for months at a time, forcing him to drop out of high school—but also giving him a chance to pursue other interests.

“I had a lot of time. I wasn’t going to school,” he said. “I’d sit around and listen to talk radio, read the L.A. Times and learn to program computers.” He later earned a general equivalency diploma and enrolled in a community college near his home in Orange County.

Paul Mitchell, who met Lay 13 years ago when they were both students at Orange Coast College, helped Lay found a Democratic club at the school. Mitchell, an occasional collaborator on The Roundup and Around the Capitol, said party activism seemed to keep Lay healthy. “As long as he had a political campaign he was working on, he had a reason not to get sick,” recalled Mitchell, who’s now a lobbyist for EdVoice, a nonprofit education-advocacy group.

Back then, Lay already was tinkering with the Internet, using it to distribute the Donkey’s Mouth, an online publication for college Democrats. Lay finished college at UC Davis, where, as an undergraduate, he made a failed bid for the Davis City Council.

During the recall of Gray Davis, he started a Web site, RecallWatch.com, that kept fund-raising totals for candidates and committees. He tallied the information manually and posted it on the site, which became a handy tool for reporters and political operatives trying to follow the complicated flow of money.

Later, when he built ElectionTrack, Lay wrote a script that grabbed new information from the secretary of state’s database every hour.

“The secretary of state’s office would say this or that can’t be done,” Mitchell said. “Then he’d go and do it, and then they’d call him up and ask him how he did it.”

Lay’s friends say he’s an unusually focused guy with laser-like powers of concentration.

“He’s always been really high-energy,” said California Medical Association (CMA) lobbyist Dustin Corcoran, who got to know Lay and Mitchell when all three were community-college students active in student politics more than a decade ago. During the last round of legislative races, Corcoran said, CMA was “active in a lot of races,” and he was able to rely on ElectionTrack to see which other lobbying groups were supporting which candidates—a task previously assigned to his staff. “This cut down on research. Instead of spending time on the secretary of state’s Web site, I could just print out the e-mail.”

The two pioneers of online Capitol news, Lay said, are Jack Kavanagh, who runs the Rough & Tumble Web site (at www.rtumble.com), and Daniel Weintraub, the Sacramento Bee columnist with the well-read blog. Increasingly, Lay said, online sources like those are “satisfying an appetite for information that people crave every day.” Unlike California Journal, which suspended publication in December after more than three decades as Sacramento’s most respected source of deep thought about state politics and government, online sites offer speed to people who need to know what’s going on that day. “They want their information sooner,” Lay said.

“There are a lot of us who realize that this change is afoot and are trying to figure out what it means for all of us,” said Political Pulse’s York, a former California Journal reporter. “Sacramento has been slow to catch up with some of the technological advances of the last 10 years in terms of how people get their information.”

More than a year-and-a-half after starting his blog, Weintraub sounds surprised that he’s still one of a few bloggers dedicated to state politics. “I’m still waiting for more,” he said.

Although there are several sources of information dedicated solely to politics and government, there isn’t one single clearinghouse of information for all things political. Nor is there a publication dedicated to following the Capitol the way newspapers like The Hill and Roll Call cover Congress.

There’s Rough & Tumble, a daily list of links to articles about state politics and government. Available for a fee is the Capitol Morning Report, a daily newsletter delivered by fax and e-mail that’s full of short news items and announcements about press conferences, fund-raisers and legislative hearings. Political Pulse, York’s biweekly newsletter dedicated to policy, campaigns and the inner workings of the Capitol, also requires a subscription.

For campaign consultants and lobbyists, the California Target Book contains detailed profiles of each legislative district’s issues, demographics and vote histories, but it’s pricey at $1,200 per year.

Around the Capitol, however, is a kind of poor man’s California Target Book, offering voter registration, election results and even demographic data pulled from the secretary of state’s voter-registration database. There’s also a popular feature called The Bench, which catalogs all candidates—declared and rumored—for legislative offices.

California Target Book Editor Allan Hoffenblum said he’s not worried about the competition, because his publication offers more detail and context. “They don’t tell you the vote history of what’s gone on in the district since redistricting,” he said. “The Target Book tries to interpret what’s going on.”

Lay’s most recent addition to Around the Capitol is bill tracking, and he’s planning more improvements. All bill information is available on the Legislature’s Web site, but it’s not fully searchable. Lay plans to offer a broader search function that also includes bill analyses. While the Legislature’s site lets users sign up for e-mail updates when the status of a bill changes, Around the Capitol lets users track bills by creating a custom list that displays bill statuses on a page that can be customized.

Lay said he wants to give grassroots activists and average folks a free, easy-to-use way to follow the Legislature without subscribing to an expensive tracking service like StateNet or CapitolTrack.

Representatives of those companies both said Lay’s offerings wouldn’t compete with their products. CapitolTrack President Rick Dorris said his service, which costs $50 to $600 a month, offers many advanced features that Around the Capitol doesn’t.

“I don’t know if it’s a competitor,” he said. “For the professional lobbyist, you probably still need a tool like we provide.” To underscore his point, he noted that his subscriber list includes Lay.