When state Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti talks to Capitol reporters about his proposal to dismantle the Los Angeles Unified School District, William S. Lambert never seems to be far behind.
A lobbyist for Los Angeles teachers and a chief critic of Roberti’s plan to split the huge school district, Lambert has made it his job to trail Roberti, responding quickly to efforts by the Van Nuys Democrat to push his legislation forward.
Such was the case last week when Roberti announced what he billed as a compromise on the proposal. Within minutes, Lambert appeared, scanned the proposal and scowled.
In a hallway outside Roberti’s office, the gray-haired, bespectacled, onetime schoolteacher dismissed the proposal as just a “warmed over” version of the senator’s legislation defeated by an Assembly committee.
It was vintage Lambert. Blunt, opinionated and to the point.
The 63-year-old Lambert’s in-your-face style contrasts sharply with the deference that most of the lobbying corps exhibits around the Capitol.
“We call him the Marine of school lobbyists because he always likes to hit the beach first,” a colleague said. A veteran state education official who has tangled with the outspoken Lambert put it this way: “He’ll leave a few marks on you after he’s through talking to you.”
“I am not afraid of taking the battle to the front,” acknowledged Lambert, whose grandfatherly appearance and disarming smile belie his confrontational manner.
Lambert is the director of governmental relations for the 34,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles, a potent political force in its own right.
Since 1971, the former Pacoima elementary schoolteacher has been traveling to Sacramento to admonish lawmakers on behalf of the union to pour money into public education and improve conditions for teachers.
His effectiveness gets mixed marks.
Lawmakers and lobbyists admire his passion but say Lambert would win more friends if he tempered his words. Still, so far this year he and his allies have stalled attempts to split up the 640,000-student district. And with the legislative session set to end Friday, Lambert has kept alive measures to beef up security on school campuses, especially in Los Angeles, and funnel more funds directly to schools, bypassing the Los Angeles school board.
Lambert regards the 1993 session as one of his most challenging.
“The intensity of the Legislature focusing in on just one big city is more than it has ever been,” he said.
Lambert’s style is not the only thing that distinguishes him from other lobbyists. Instead of living in Sacramento, Lambert resides in Tarzana and commutes when the Legislature is in session. Instead of maintaining a Sacramento office, Lambert operates out of his briefcase, which he lugs around as he prowls the corridors of the Capitol, buttonholing lawmakers or huddling with other education advocates.
Having moved to Los Angeles from his native New York when he was 7, Lambert’s roots are in public schools; he attended Roosevelt Elementary, Bancroft Junior High and Fairfax High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA and a master’s from Cal State Los Angeles.
For 30 years, Lambert has lived in the San Fernando Valley, a hotbed of the breakup movement. He and his wife have four children, two of whom are public schoolteachers in Los Angeles.
After starting to teach, Lambert was drawn to union activities. He has been employed as a union organizer with United Teachers and a predecessor group since 1962.
Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Assn., said Lambert is “always fighting to get more for his union members and more for Los Angeles Unified.”
A state education official, who asked not to be identified, said Lambert takes his marching orders from the union and his positions are usually inflexible. Gordon also suggested that the union relies on more than Lambert’s shoe leather to ensure that its voice is heard in the Capitol. He cited the union’s ability to mobilize campaign workers and raise donations for favored politicians.
Campaign reports show that last year, the union contributed almost $15,000 to help Long Beach Democrat Betty Karnette, a former Los Angeles teacher and union officer, overcome long odds and defeat Republican Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando of San Pedro. And the union is an even bigger player in Los Angeles city elections.
Normally, Roberti is an ally of the union. In fact, he is carrying a measure on behalf of Lambert’s union, which opponents contend would allow teachers to collect richer pensions.
Roberti does not see any conflict in fighting Lambert on the breakup but helping him on other issues.
“We’re friends,” Roberti said. “Always have been. I’ve known him forever.”
In return, Lambert said that Roberti is genuinely interested in reforming the school district but that they are in total disagreement about how to achieve change.
“I think breaking up the district is a smoke screen for really getting into reform,” he said. “It makes political sense if you live in the San Fernando Valley to say break up the district because that’s what people think.”
Even when he clashes with a friend such as Roberti, Lambert does not look back wistfully on his days in the classroom.
“Teaching was the hardest job I ever had. It really was,” Lambert said. “The difference (between teaching and lobbying) is that when you are a teacher, you have 38 kids all in one room. They are a captive audience and they have to listen to you. Up here, you have 120 legislators who don’t have to listen to you.”
Profile: William Lambert
* Age: 63
* Residence: Tarzana
* Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, UCLA; master’s in elementary school administration, Cal State L.A.
* Career highlights: Staff member of United Teachers-Los Angeles, 1962 to present; currently director of governmental relations. Elementary school teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, 1955-62.
* Quote: “I am not afraid of taking the battle to the front.”