Eyes Higher Office : Stirling Builds Image as Tough but Fair Legislator

Times Staff Writer

When there are no dinners or weeknight meetings to attend, Assemblyman Larry Stirling often goes with a few friends and staff members to Laughs Unlimited, an Old Sacramento night club where talented but not-yet-famous comedians test their jokes on a government-town audience.

As an anonymous face in the crowd, Stirling, a clever, sharp-witted three-term Republican legislator, exchanges quips and one-liners with the professionals.

"I pick up material there," said Stirling (R-San Diego), only half kidding.

But Stirling's audiences, like the ones the young comedians entertain, don't always laugh.

Witnesses who appear before the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which Stirling chairs, say his manner of limiting discussion often borders on rudeness.

When they see his name in news columns, rival politicians sometimes complain that Stirling, who has his eye on the San Diego mayor's office, is upstaging them to grab headlines.

Local and state agency officials say he has a tendency to focus too narrowly and overstate governmental problems.

Even top aides to Gov. George Deukmejian complain privately that Stirling can be less than judicious in making public issues out of matters that might better be handled quietly.

But Stirling, 43, whose recent crusades have purported to call attention to poor conditions at county-run hospitals and under-use of firefighting air tankers operated by the California Air National Guard, thinks the criticisms are unfair. He is irked by the charge that he is hungry for publicity.

"I don't go looking for them (issues)," Stirling said. "I handle a broad array of issues, and, by and large, the ones that get covered involve conflict."

For every issue he raises that gets attention, Stirling said, "there are four or five that . . . don't get coverage."

For example, Stirling said, scant attention was paid in 1982 to two constitutional amendments he sponsored, both rejected by voters, to put trust fund restrictions on state employees' retirement funds and to give counties the option of unifying Superior and Municipal courts.

And Stirling said almost no one noticed last year when he filed a U.S. District Court lawsuit claiming that the federal government has for 135 years, in violation to the Constitution, held title to 30% of the land in California. The suit, which seeks to give title to the land to the state, could solve California's school finance problems, Stirling said.

The federal government, in court documents filed last week, contradicted Stirling's claim that there is a constitutional prohibition against federal ownership of the land. In any event, only California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who has refused to join Stirling's case, can legitimately seek title on behalf of the state, the federal government said.

But Stirling said all of his crusades--publicized or not, successful or unsuccessful--are serious matters to him.

One of four Assembly Republicans to chair committees this year, Stirling was assigned to the prestigious Committee on Public Safety, through which most changes in the state's Penal Code must pass.

In past years, observers say, the committee has been a raucous battleground where meetings sometimes lasted until midnight. Proponents of tough measures against crime often had boisterous clashes with champions of civil liberties.

As a Republican in a Democrat-controlled Legislature, outnumbered 4-3 on his own committee, Stirling says he was at first timid before "taking charge" of things.

But since getting the go-ahead from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), Stirling has gained a reputation as one of the Assembly's most iron-fisted committee chairmen.

People in the audience who talk too loudly are chastised or told to leave. Although the hearing room is often filled to capacity, Stirling seldom permits anyone other than reporters to stand or squat in the aisles.

He often warns witnesses not to "waste . . . time" with rhetoric they can't back up with facts.

But committee observers say Stirling is even-handed and fair, applying the same tough rules to both sides.

Although she seldom wins Stirling's support, ACLU representative Marjorie Swartz said legislation she supports has fared better this year in Stirling's committee, in fact, than it has in the committee's counterpart in the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by a Democrat.

"But I certainly have not won on 100%," she added.

Since first winning election to the Assembly in 1980, Stirling has twice run unopposed for reelection. Before that, he served three years on the San Diego City Council and held various administrative staff positions for the city.

Married and a father of two, he is a law school graduate but has yet to practice law outside of government.

His district stretches from the Miramar Naval Air Station to San Diego State University, taking in El Cajon, La Mesa, Santee and the northeastern section of the city of San Diego.

But those boundaries have never limited Stirling.

Denouncing Stirling last week without naming him, San Diego County Supervisor Brian Bilbray issued an angry statement saying "a state assemblyman from another community" was trying to "circumvent the community effort" in choosing a name for a new state prison on Otay Mesa.

State Corrections Department officials like to let local communities name state prisons. But Stirling, a member of the joint legislative committee that oversees prison construction, angered state and local officials by amending a bill to name the facility the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility at Rock Mountain.

Stirling says he is interested in running for mayor if Roger Hedgecock's legal troubles force him out of office but added that he is beginning to suspect that won't happen.

"It is my guess that there won't be a vacancy," Stirling said. "I think Roger will serve out his term."

Other than a possible run for the mayor's office, Stirling says he has given little thought to higher office. But he said it is flattering when others ask what he is considering.

"You never know what is going to happen," Stirling said. "Pete Wilson, one of my favorite men in the whole world, worked 10 years to be governor of California. He is now a U.S. Senator."

Although he has been an elected official for eight years, both his critics and admirers say Stirling has never stopped thinking like a nuts-and-bolt administrator.

"We can't always solve a problem at the legislative policy level," said Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego), who took issue with Stirling earlier this month when he called for closing the county-run mental health hospital at Hillcrest. "Some things should be left at the administrative level."

Killea nonetheless agrees with Stirling that improvements are urgently needed at the facility.

Stirling, who says he sees very little that government does right, acknowledges that he sees something about government operations every day that he'd like to change. Suggesting solutions to problems is part of a politician's job, he said.

"The only real job politicians have is to form consensus for solutions," Stirling said. "Anything that people can figure out how to screw up, people can figure out how to solve.

"I think the public deserves a better quality of government than they know how to ask for. I look at litter along the freeway and I say, 'That's awful. We can invent a machine to fix that up.' "

Stirling considers himself a conservative but says political labels are deceiving and force people into intransigent postures.

"The place that liberals and conservatives make their mistake is that liberals say, 'We've got a problem and government is the solution.' Conservatives say, 'We may have a problem but government is not the solution,' " Stirling said.

Like most Assembly conservatives, Stirling said he would like to see Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird thrown out of office next year. But while most complain that the court majority has not enforced the death penalty, Stirling said he is bothered more by the court's decisions requiring state-funded abortions.

Stirling, who earlier this year got a state audit that resulted in wholesale changes at county-run Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital in Santee, said Killea and local officials who criticized his call for closing Hillcrest were overreacting. He said, too, that press accounts that made it appear he wanted the hospital closed, without considering a treatment alternative for patients in the 61-bed facility, were incorrect.

In a follow-up meeting with Gov. George Deukmejian last week, Stirling asked that the state either provide increased staff for the facility or establish a network of private facilities that could treat mentally ill patients in the county.

"These systems don't get rotten overnight, and they don't get fixed overnight," Stirling said.

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