Remembering Larry Willis

By Brian Lombardozzi
Nov 30 2020 |

AAM’s own Brian Lombardozzi reflects on a “a great man who dedicated his life to helping people.”

It is with a heavy heart that I write this. On Sunday, we lost a great person, not just a champion for working people in the transportation industry, but a great colleague and friend. 

Larry Willis | Photo via TTD at AFL-CIO

Larry Willis died on Sunday from injuries he sustained in a tragic biking accident. His wife and daughter were by his side. Larry, who was 53, served as the president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) at the AFL-CIO. 

I had the pleasure of working with Larry for several years, and if it wasn’t for him, I likely wouldn’t have the career I have today.

In the summer of 2006, I decided to hit the rest button on my professional career. With the encouragement and support of close friends, I applied for a paid internship at the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO. The idea was to get a foot in the door, learn what I could about public policy and labor unions, and see if I could match what remained of my youthful idealism with a career shaping public policy in ways that would positively affect the lives of working people in the United States.

While my interview for the internship was with then-TTD Secretary Treasurer Mike Ingrao and then-TTD President Ed Wytkind, it was Larry Willis, then General Counsel, who I worked with on a daily basis. 

Although Larry held one of the top jobs, he always was willing to help a new staffer like me. When I started putting together media clips in a daily digest for the staff, for example, it was Larry who provided me with the information on the issues, and a lot of the background reading that helped me figure out what mattered and what wasn’t going to make the cut.

During my internship, I was able to sit in on legislative and regulatory policy meetings with representatives from 32 different unions. These were almost always followed by a meeting over coffee in Larry’s office between the stacks of legal briefs, files, and pages of the federal register that occupied most of his desk, floor, and meeting table. We would discuss what tasks I could help out with based on what was discussed during those affiliate meetings.

Meanwhile, being an election year, a lot of my coworkers shipped out to battleground states to educate union members about those running for public office. While I picked up some of their responsibilities around the office, I was also using that time to try and find a full-time job working in labor, going on informational interviews with people my then co-workers recommended to me. During this time, I took on more tasks, and was lucky to be promoted to a full-time position at TTD, working with Larry to handle all the regulatory policy for those 32 affiliated unions. 

For several years, every day I combed through the Federal Register, pulling down proposed rulemakings germane to the interests of TTD’s unions. Over many cups of coffee, Larry and I would go through each one I found to see if this was something we needed to alert folks about, if TTD would submit comments directly, or if this was a priority for one of our unions and we should follow their lead.

While I am pretty sure reading all that eight-point type is why I now need glasses, those conversations with Larry were an education.

Somehow in the 30 minutes to an hour Larry took out of his busy schedule, I managed to not just learn about federal regulatory policy, but also about the inner workings of the executive branch and how it related to the legislative branch. Then he taught me which committees had jurisdiction over the issues we dealt with, which legislation triggered which rulemakings, what was considered a regulatory overstep, who amongst our affiliated unions handled certain issues, what tone we needed to take when we addressed these issues, and how all the new lobbying rules and registration requirements that came into being after the Jack Abramoff scandal directly affected our work.

I learned so much about public policy simply by absorbing what Larry Willis had to tell me, and they are lessons I still use to this day.

By 2008, I was getting sent to Pennsylvania to work on labor-to-labor voter education for the presidential election cycle. Ed, Mike, and Larry gave me the legal rundown on all the rules around elections I had to keep in mind, and offered me another opportunity to learn. 

When I returned to the office that November, I again received an education from Larry. This time, he taught me all about the Presidential Transition and all the machinations around policy and staffing that occur. By 2009, as possibilities around legislation and policy expanded, Ed and Larry gave me the chance to start advocating on issues like trade, Buy America, government procurement, and climate change. With Larry’s guidance, I was able to expand TTD’s footprint into that area, working within the context of the larger AFL-CIO efforts with allied groups.

I will always be thankful to Larry for showing the faith in me to handle the issues he did, and the patience he showed me as I was learning how to do it. I also enjoyed the conversations he and I had about the issues I worked on, especially on the rare occasion where I had to bring him up to speed on some of the issues he had tasked me with. 

Whether he knew it or not, Larry was a mentor to me in my professional career, and also taught me some important life lessons. When I was offered an opportunity to take on a new challenge running the Apollo Alliance’s Transportation Manufacturing Action Plan, it was with those at TTD’s blessing. If it wasn’t for what I learned from Larry, I wouldn’t have been qualified for that job, or have set out on the path that in 2013 lead me to work here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, where for the past seven years I still got to work with Larry as an ally on several policy issues.

Last time I talked to Larry was after I saw him testify in front of Congress on an issue he and I worked on together for several years. I told him he did a great job and handled some of the tough questions really well. Unfortunately, in the midst of the global pandemic, it has been too long since I was able to see him.

But I am sure I am not the only one with whom Larry left a lasting impression. 

My heart goes out to his wife Amy, his daughter Samantha, and the rest of his family.  Larry was a great man who dedicated his life to helping people, whether it was using his brilliant legal mind to find a fairer way for the National Mediation Board to handle union elections, or his daily acts representing the interests of millions of working people in front of the powers that be. 

He has left some large shoes to fill, and while we will all mourn this loss, we will also help keep his spirit alive by continuing to fight like hell for the living.