Early on a frigid Tuesday morning in Sacramento, state senator Larry Stirling is quietly answering constituents’ letters in his office. You walk in, he jumps up and says, “You asked me yesterday about what I’ve failed at? There’s something right there." He’s pointing to photographs of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake pasted on display boards, which are leaning against his office wall. He was the photographer.
With typical Stirling itchiness, the then-assemblyman had hopped on a plane bound for Mexico City the day after the earthquake because “it was an incredible opportunity to learn the truth about the effects of a major earthquake." What he came back with, besides the photographs, was a wealth of ideas that might help Southern California survive The Big One. His Big Idea, which he wrote into an assembly bill that failed, was the California Earthquake Early Warning System.
Here’s the idea: You hook up microwave transmitters to an array of seismic monitoring devices stretched along an earthquake fault, see. And in the event of a slippage on the fault, the sensors go crazy and the microwave transmitters start a-pulsing.
The receivers of this microwaved warning are in fire departments, schools, high rises, hospitals, chemical processing plants, electrical power generating stations, and other important buildings that need early warning. The microwaves travel faster than the seismic waves, see, and “had Mexico’s seismic sensors been hooked up to microwave transmitters, Mexico City could have been warned,” Stirling insists. The Japanese, he says, use a similar transmission system attached to sonobuoys over offshore earthquake faults that would automatically send signals to shut down the bullet train in the event of an earthquake.
Stirling envisioned wiring the big Cray supercomputers at Berkeley and UCSD, along with Caltech’s computer, into the early warning system in such a way that different conditions of alert — green, amber, or red — would be transmitted to the receiving buildings, depending on the size and location of the quake. Fire departments, especially, need to be forewarned of earthquakes, Stirling says, because if the temblor causes the doors of fire engine companies to be jammed in the closed position, the firemen have to hack their way out. An early warning of an approaching quake could give engine companies time to open their doors.
“But the biggest lesson of Mexico City,” Stirling says, ideas jumping off him like sparks off flint, “was that we had to hire a cab driver to find us the damage. The city wasn’t leveled. The relief services were available in the next block.” The problem was getting the relief to the closest and most needful pile of rubble. This led Stirling to the idea of creating a government chit system that would allow relief workers to go purchase relief services that are nearby, using government-issued priority requisition chits.
The second biggest lesson he learned in Mexico City (and Michoacdn, where he traveled to get as close as possible to the epicenter, some 1200 miles southwest of Mexico City) was “the criticality of water.” Everywhere he went, people were desperate for water. “So I would require that every National Guard vehicle have a ‘water buffalo’ [military parlance for a towable water tank] hooked up to it.”
Stirling — a Republican, remember — would force bottled water companies to sign contracts with the state, thereby conscripting their water trucks to go where the local disaster officials tell them to go after an earthquake. He would make high schools the epicenter of earthquake relief, require that every high school build a helicopter pad, and tell the public to go there for food, shelter, water, and medical treatment. But wait, you ask, don’t local Offices of Disaster Preparedness have earthquake planning under control already?
Stirling scowls. “ODPs are disasters!” he snaps. “I took the San Diego County ODP to the grand jury one time when I was on the [San Diego] city council. For incompetence.
The state almost withdrew its money.” He states flatly, as if it’s self-evident, that “the government’s preparation for disaster is to prepare the government, not us. They think in terms of them, not the public.”
Stirling’s earthquake early-warning bill, introduced in early 1986, would have created a funding mechanism for paying for the microwave early-warning system. He wanted to tax insurance companies one percent of their gross revenues to cover the costs of building the system. “But one percent turned out to be trillions of dollars,” he chuckles, “so I kept reducing it. But the bill barely got into print before the insurance industry killed it.”
So far, he hasn’t been able to think of another way to fund the system, which he says was enthusiastically supported by scientists but not supported by state bureaucrats. Nor did the bureaucrats cotton to his idea of placing warning signs on buildings that might be unsafe in the event of an earthquake. According to Stirling, who cites information from the city of San Diego, about 20 percent of the commercial buildings in San Diego were built before steel reinforcing bar was required. Those buildings, as Stirling witnessed in Mexico City, sustain the most damage in an earthquake. “Cities ought to have a warning system, a signage system on buildings, saying, ‘In case of earthquake, this building unsafe,’ ” declares the Republican. “The city ought to disclose how many buildings don’t have rebar. They ought to take the value out of no-rebar buildings by putting these signs up.” Of course, he realizes the chances of that happening are about the same as the city deciding to clean up the San Diego River and turn it into a fish hatchery — another Stirling brainstorm, by the way.
Stirling’s 47-year-old brain is a perpetual monsoon, and he can come on like a tsunami. It’s hard being Larry; his mind is quick and he has solutions for most of society’s ills that are, to him, obvious. “I may not always be right, but I always think lam,” he said recently, and the statement didn’t come off facetiously, though he may have meant it to be. Stirling has an enormous stake in being right, in “finding the moral high ground and camping on it.” This can be exceedingly irritating to anyone not in complete agreement with him. County supervisor Susan Golding, a fellow Republican and a supporter of Stirling’s who has nonetheless tiffed with him a few times over the years, says, “Larry didn’t used to jump the gun quite so fast. He decides something is right on sketchy information, and he backs himself into a corner. Then, in order to save face, he has to be immovable. It’s frustrating, because it appears he isn’t listening to the argument anymore.”
A local political activist recalls going before the city council in the late 1970s when Stirling was a member of that body, “And while I was addressing the council, Stirling was up there addressing his Christmas cards. He thinks he’s right, and there’s no discussion.”
E. Miles Harvey, a prominent San Diego attorney and a former supporter of Stirling’s who had a bloody falling out with the senator over the recent Alex Landon/Community Defenders imbroglio, says, "I support Larry’s philosophy, no question about it, he’s an excellent representative for our area. But I cannot continue to support him personally.” To Stirling, the loss of Harvey’s backing, and that of many other powerful San Diego attorneys (Stirling is an attorney himself), is simply the inevitable result of taking the “moral high ground” and to hell with the price. This approach even recently cost him his church. Stirling, a devout Presbyterian, has officially parted ways with the church because its national leadership decided to disinvest in corporations doing business with the Department of Defense. Also, the Presbyterians went on record as opposing the death penalty. Stirling, as is his custom when he’s peeved, fired off a letter to the church leaders protesting these moves and severing his ties. “I hate to see the Presbyterian church play junior congressman,” he explains.
Stirling possesses the kind of intensity football coaches would love. He seethes with ambition, writhes impatiently for the world to wake up and see the truth. After eight years in the assembly, he was elected last year to the state senate as representative from the 39th District, a huge, irregularly shaped area stretching from Coronado to the eastern edge of Escondido, and southeast to the Imperial County line, encompassing most of the Mexican border. He currently has one of the smallest staffs in the legislature — four people in Sacramento, five in the La Mesa district office — a function mostly of being a freshman senator. He’s his own chief of staff, and he deals directly with the press. Former staffers of his say this may have as much to do with a fear of becoming too dependent on other people as it does with his intent to run his own show. It’s not unheard of for him to get wind that a reporter is working on a story that Stirling has some natural interest in, whereupon he telephones the reporter unsolicited to offer his views. You have to presume that this almost manic interest in public affairs was a factor in his recent divorce, but he adamantly refuses to talk about that. He couldn’t be described as charming, though he is intellectually engaging, provokable, and eager to be challenged. It’s common for him to drive to and from the Sacramento airport almost daily to pick up or drop off people doing business with him, so that he can spend more time with them. When you asked him on that Tuesday morning what he’d be doing if a reporter weren’t present, Stirling guessed that he’d be answering letters, but then he snapped brusquely, “I like to concentrate on who I’m with.”
At 10:30 Tuesday morning, Stirling and a visitor from San Diego, Bonnie Dumanis, head down to Governor George Deukmejian’s office for a meeting. Both decline to discuss the purpose of the get-together, though later Stirling remarks, “Bonnie’s going to be appointed to the municipal court bench if we have anything to say about it.” When he decides a person is right for a particular job, stand back.
Stirling, the conservative Republican, hired Art Letter, the liberal San Diego Democrat (and unsuccessful candidate for city council in 1979 and state senate in 1980) as a key aide a couple of years ago because he admired Letter’s skills in “the governmental arts” and thought Letter would make a good investigator. Letter’s Mr. Nice Guy act can be grating, and he was fresh out of work in San Diego. “I went around to all my so-called Democratic friends [in office], but nobody would hire me. Larry gave me a job when nobody else would,” he says gratefully.
In 1985, malodorous drafts had started wafting up to Sacramento from the state’s prisons and later from San Diego County’s mental health care system. Stirling needed somebody who could, in his words, “separate the truth from the noise.” Last summer, in regard to Letter’s behind-the-scenes digging into Alex Landon’s past, a local attorney wrote in a commentary for the San Diego Daily Transcript that “Letter played Roy Cohn in Stirling’s Joe McCarthy campaign.” Letter fired off a letter threatening a libel suit if the attorney ever made that assertion again, and Stirling fired off his own letter to the Transcript brimming with indignation about the McCarthyism charge.
Stirling can be just as ferocious a foe as a friend. After visiting California’s prisons and recoiling in horror at the power of prison gangs, the filth and stench of the cell blocks, and the lazy attitude of prison authorities, Stirling was quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle headline grousing, “Whoever is running San Quentin ought to be fired.” Coincidentally, a few days later, Reginald Pulley was transferred out of San Quentin, and Stirling laughs at the irony that the warden was then placed in charge of the state prison on Otay Mesa, at that time still under construction. Similarly, after the CMH and Edgemoor geriatric hospital scandals broke, abetted by Letter’s research and Stirling’s demands for state and federal investigations, Stirling kept agitating the members of the board of supervisors, demanding staff firings and calling for Chief Administrative Officer Clifford Graves to be sacked. “Larry got impatient that [the firing of Graves] wasn’t done as quickly as he wanted,” comments supervisor Susan Golding, “as if he were running the county. I agree with Larry that we need strong leadership in government, but I’ve disagreed with him on tactics.”
You ask him if he’s an impatient man, and his ice-blue eyes bulge as he rises to the bait. “What’s the opposite of impatience in an office holder? Lethargy, unresponsiveness, inattentiveness, and gutlessness. I’m impatient with anything I see wrong,” he snaps. “If going to the auditor general after writing Leon [Williams, then chairman of the board of supervisors] about people dying in CMH is impatient and trigger happy, so be it. Is it impatient to tell the city librarian to automate when he came to the council asking for more staff? Is it impatient to tell the police department to computerize because police officers aren’t responding when people call? I call it self-righteous indignation. I think that’s what the public hired me for.” Stirling gets self-righteously indignant about a lot of things, and he sees his job as fixing what ails us. Part of his plan for saving this corner of the planet includes:
— Municipalizing San Diego Gas & Electric. What’s a free-enterprise Republican doing sponsoring a bill to allow the San Diego County Water Authority, a quasi-government agency, to take over the power company and thwart the merger with Southern California Edison? The cynical answer is, he’s already running for attorney general. He has floated that idea, and would be especially interested in it now that his friend Pete Wilson is running for governor in 1990.
Being a highly visible foe of the merger certainly has raised his public profile both in and out of San Diego. But talking to Stirling about the subject, you sense that he isn’t that calculating. He seems genuinely to believe that the utility should be “consumerized,” to use his euphemism. “You can fairly argue that neither SCE nor SDG&E are free enterprise,” he says in his clipped, staccato style. “They’re government-created monopolies who happen to have investors. They’re not subject to competitive forces. Republicans revere free enterprise because it gives the broadest choice at the lowest cost; neither of these companies provides low-cost energy, and nobody in San Diego has a choice to use another company. That’s not free enterprise.”
Stirling argues that the stockholders in SDG&E are in a conflict of interest with the consumers. “Now, you have to pay the stockholders forever to rent their money,” he says. “If you consumerized, once you pay off the bonds, that’s it. And a consumer-owned utility would set its own rates. It wouldn’t be subject to regulation by the PUC.... Had Edison or Tom Page [SDG&E president] used their influence for the public interest, fine. But they were faced down and chose the private interest. Right there they lost their right to Republican respect.”
— Restock the ocean. When he first reached the assembly in 1980, Stirling was assigned to the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee. “The problem was,” he recalls, “there just wasn’t enough fish to go around. But instead of just redistributing a diminishing resource, why not try to make the pie bigger?” So Stirling went to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to ask about the feasibility of enhancing fish populations. “They said forget it, can’t be done. They said the solution is to reduce pressure on the biomass. I said, ‘You mean I’m to go out and tell a hungry world to quit fishing?’ ” He argued about Scripps’s lack of interest with UCSD chancellor Richard Atkinson —
“Atkinson yelled at me” — then Stirling went to Israel. There he met with the head of the Israeli Institute of Oceanography and Limnology, Collette Serrya, and he asked her if building a saltwater hatchery was feasible. Her response: "Mais oui!” The Israelis have such a hatchery at Elat. Upon returning to San Diego, the first thing Stirling did after debarking from the plane, even before he called his wife and kids, was phone Richard Atkinson and tell the chancellor he had to speak with this woman from the Israeli Institute.
“Academic freedom is, you give us all the money in the world and don’t ask any questions,” he cracks. Stirling has tilted with UCSD on other matters; he opposed the creation of the UCSD law school (“We’ve got enough lawyers already without using public money to train more”), and he also thinks the UC system shouldn’t be giving publicly financed graduate training in the professions, unless there is a shortage in those professions. He says there’s a severe shortage of mental health professionals, but “we’re giving upper middle-class kids a public education so they can go practice plastic surgery in La Jolla,” he marvels. “They aren’t required to give anything back to the public in return for their public-financed education. That’s wrong.”
Anyway, Stirling eventually got hooked up with Don Kent at the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, and today, as a direct result of legislation written in 1984 by the then-assemblyman, white sea bass are being hatched and released into Mission Bay. The University of California is now involved in the program conducting biomass and economic studies. “The policy question of should we put more fish in the ocean is yes,’’ Stirling declares, with no room for debate. “It’s just logical as hell — with all the groups taking fish out, you have to reinsert critters.’’
— Outlaw the gasoline engine for automobiles. Stirling, who grew up in the amber air of San Bernardino, believes that the only way to avoid “bequeathing an air-quality cesspool to our children’’ is to switch to natural gas-based propulsion for cars. He argues that a constitutional amendment should be adopted, saying that by a certain date 15 or 20 years from now, petroleum-powered vehicles will be outlawed in California.
— Promote “water ranching” in California. Stirling, along with many other members of the legislature and some environmentalists, is convinced that water should be priced at what it’s worth and marketed like farm crops or cattle. For decades, government regulation has kept the price paid by farmers for water artificially low, creating, in effect, a huge subsidy paid by residential water users. Stirling was an early promoter of the idea of freeing up water to the forces of the free market, which he believes could help relieve San Diego’s water shortage by allowing local agencies to purchase water as a commodity instead of as a government-controlled resource.
— The equivalent of a National War College for Advanced Police Training. An offshoot of this idea became Stirling’s bill for establishing a kind of think tank and “war college” for prison reform at UC Riverside. The Robert Presley Institute of Corrections, which is still being organized, was envisioned as a center for experts to develop new methods for trying to turn felons around. “The Department of Corrections is misnamed,” he complains. “It should be the Department of Storage, or the Department of Deterioration. They don’t correct anybody.”
— A pothole-fixing machine. Stirling has thought a lot about potholes. He says the present system of maintaining streets is archaic and ultimately counterproductive. Instead of just laying down layer upon layer of new asphalt on the streets, which eventually reduces gutter depths and access to the sewer system, a new technology for fixing streets needs to be identified and encouraged, according to Stirling. He envisions a machine that would scour off the top surface of the potholed street, remix the old asphalt with some new material, and lay it back down, thereby saving money on materials and allowing the streets to be repaved more often.
Stirling has always been a “big-picture guy,” to use his own phrase, and now that he’s settled into Sacramento, he has his dream job. His avocation of spinning out ideas has become his vocation. “This is the kind of job that I’d pay them for it if they didn’t pay me,” he rhapsodizes. He earns about $45,000 a year from the senate and has no reportable outside assets. He practices law on the side sometimes and teaches an occasional course at National University. “This job is fun,” he continues. “It’s an exciting, fascinating life. An incredible challenge. I could not ask for a better life.”
It was not always thus. Stirling says he hated Sacramento when he first was elected to the assembly in 1980. “It was awful,” he recalls. “For the first two years, I felt it was the largest single mistake I ever made in my life.” He had taken a pay cut in switching from the San Diego City Council to the state assembly, and he had to get by with a smaller staff. As a Republican in a Democrat-controlled legislature,
“I had zero authority, zero responsibility, my sense of self-worth was zero, and on top of that I had the family separation.’’ Lucky for him, he ran for re-election unopposed in 1982 and 1984. “If I’d had to fight for that job,’’ he remarks, “I’d have said, ‘This is nuts!’ I’d have gone on and done something else.’’
The biggest shock for him was the move from his position in a governing majority on the city council to being part of a disorganized, nearly powerless minority in the capital. Stirling had edged Evonne Schultz by 600 votes for the Seventh District city council seat in 1977 and found himself immediately in a powerful conservative majority. Three other Republicans — Bill Lowery, Fred Schnaubelt, and Bill Mitchell — were also elected to the council at that time, and together with Mayor Pete Wilson they proceeded to kick tail. “What we said went,’’ Stirling says of his short tenure on the council. “We could deliver the five votes, for better or worse.’’
In his heart, Stirling has never left San Diego. On a recent tour of the city he conducted for an audience of one,
Stirling reminisced about many of his council battles and triumphs, as well as some of his defeats. He spoke wistfully of his mentors, Pete Wilson and Lee Hubbard, the now-deceased councilman and local building contractor with the double-wide shoulders and enough guts to display his oversized heart. He mentioned that he was censured one time by his council colleagues for publicly criticizing the management of the city’s retirement funds. “I made a horrible mistake,” he recalls, driving toward San Carlos. “This attorney was giving me a lot of information confidentially about city retirement board abuses. And I disclosed his name to someone to demonstrate my credibility. Also, in an unartful way, I went public with criticisms of the retirement board. See, bringing up fundamental criticisms tarnishes the ‘America’s Finest City’ image. Obviously,” he says facetiously, “there are no problems here. We’re already America’s Finest City.” Stirling’s compulsion to speak out critically on public issues plays into the hands of those who see him as a grandstanding publicity monger. In 1982, after he had tried to take credit for a reduction in the civil case load in the San Diego County Superior Court, presiding judge Gilbert Harelson sent Stirling a letter of scathing rebuke. Harelson responded angrily to statements attributed to Stirling, the reporter’s dream quote machine, in the legal newspaper the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Stirling was quoted saying that if legislation he introduced to reduce court backlog failed, “[judges] can go back to their old ways... But I’d rather see judges working at maximum efficiency in the courtroom instead of the golf course.” Harelson took exception to this characterization of magistrates and wrote, “You evidently do not care about the Superior Court and the judges in the Superior Court in San Diego but take every opportunity to attack us without making any attempt to learn the true facts.... I categorically deny that you are responsible in any way for the progress that has been made in [reducing the backlog in] the Superior Court during my two years as presiding judge.”
But just as his brashness has gotten him into trouble, so has it helped him to bring about change. He pulls up to an empty lot on Rowena Street in San Carlos. “This is vintage Stirling,” he says pridefully. This was part of his district when he was a city councilman, an assemblyman, and now as a senator. There were seven houses on this now-empty lot in the fete 1970s, and they were being slowly destroyed because the ground beneath them was sliding down a slope. Stirling says he was told by the city’s engineering department that it was a private-property matter and there was nothing the city could do to help the homeowners. So Stirling, not averse to casting himself as the White Knight, helped the homeowners form an assessment district to raise money to try to reinforce the slope. “Then we went around to all their lenders,” Stirling relates, still excited, “and said, ‘You can either write these houses off as total losses or just give them all title to their homes.’ They gave them all title except for one. Then I went around personally and found people who purchased used homes.” The homes were all sold for between $15,000 and $20,000 and were moved off the lots. Then the ground was excavated and used to fill in a big hole in a nearby parcel that Stirling had persuaded the city to purchase from the local school district. Now the property where the houses stood is buildable, according to Stirling, and the original property owners still own it. It became the politician’s favorite cliche: a “win-win” situation. “So at election time,” Stirling brags, driving away, “there are Stirling signs on the lawns all through this neighborhood.”
He drives past the Richard T. Silberman Bridge at Clairemont Mesa Boulevard over I-15, which was named for the former chief of staff of Governor Jerry Brown. Silberman, who is married to supervisor Susan Golding, had his name placed on the bridge through a resolution sponsored by Stirling in 1987. The bridge naming was the final step in a long political pirouette. When Stirling was on the council, then-fellow-councilwoman Maureen O’Connor was working to get the state to kill Highway 252 through Southeast San Diego. Stirling says O’Connor needed his vote, and he needed her support for his own highway issue, the construction of I-15 through Tierrasanta. He asked O’Connor if she could sat up a meeting between Stirling and Governor Jerry Brown to discuss I-15. There had been many traffic accidents at the intersection of Tierrasanta Boulevard and what was then Murphy Canyon Road, including one at that time that resulted in the immolation of two little girls. O’Connor did arrange the meeting, which included the governor, Silberman, Stirling, and Bill Lowery. Brown was in the middle of his re-election campaign for governor, and Pete Wilson was then a potential rival.
Brown, you’ll recall, was not a highway builder; in fact, he had slowed highway construction almost to a standstill. But the governor could blunt some criticism from Wilson if he authorized highway construction right through the heart of Wilson country. Stirling was surprised, and gratified, to receive a call about a week later from Adriana Gianturco, Brown’s Caltrans director, informing him that the state was moving ahead with construction of I-15. “It was Silberman who had done all the behind-the-scenes arranging,” Stirling says. “In a democratic system, it’s guys like him and Bill Rick [a port commissioner and longtime street, road, and housing tract grading engineer] who make things happen, but the politicians get all the credit. Silberman and Rick are the guys that really impress me.”
Stirling got an early education in the internal . principles of government. After graduating from San Diego State University in 1964 and spending four years as an officer in the army, including a year as a company commander in Korea (his brother had been killed in Vietnam, and as the family’s only surviving son, he was ineligible for Vietnam service), he went to work for the City of San Diego. His ambition was to become a city manager, but the process leading to that job was too slow for him.
He eventually became director of finance at the Comprehensive Planning Organization, the forerunner of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). While he was working for the city, he placed more than 100 ideas for improving government efficiency into the city’s suggestion box. Few of them were acted on. “When I got elected, I started pulling those ideas up and applying them,” Stirling says. “Most of the things I wanted to do for the city, I did.” Driving around San Diego with Larry Stirling is a lesson in power. “There’s a parking garage I got built,” he says near SDSU. Nearby is a grassy park he takes credit for. Across the freeway, Stirling explains with pride his role in establishing Mission Trails Park, which stretches from I-8 to Miramar. Close by, Old Mission Dam is fixed up and gurgling away because Stirling sponsored emergency legislation in Sacramento for $200,000 worth of repairs. He even had the wording changed on the carved boulder commemorating the dam. It used to say the dam was built by “white men.” Stirling found this lie intolerable. Now the inscription states that Indians and padres built the dam.
He drives past police substations and relates the history of how his prodding on the city council helped get them built. Stirling, who worked as a police analyst for two years, had an important role in decentralizing and computerizing police operations. Up on Aero Drive, he explains how the Holiday Inn and some of the office buildings were built there as a direct result of the PSA crash in North Park in 1978. At the time, Stirling was chairman of the council’s public facilities and recreation committee, and he became outraged when he learned that the small-aircraft instrument landing system (ILS) at Lindbergh Field, in which the Cessna’s pilot was practicing blind takeoffs and landings when it collided with the jetliner, could have been moved to Montgomery Field years earlier. Stirling got the studies going that eventually led to the “early retirement” of the city’s airport manager and to the establishment of an instrument landing system at Montgomery. The hotel and aircraft-related businesses were placed at Montgomery Field to attract small-aircraft owners away from Lindbergh. “Montgomery was a general fund liability,” he declares, “and now it’s a general fund asset to the city. See, the city isn’t a helpless entity; there’s a lot it can do for itself.” Stirling contrasts what he calls this “can-do” attitude in the city with the continual bellyaching about a lack of money by the county board of supervisors. He has had little sympathy for the county since before his tenure on the city council. He states flatly and often that the county is not managed well. But he also seems to have a kind of competitive twinge regarding county operations. He chuckles that when he was on the council and it met in secret to discuss then-city manager Ray Blair’s salary, he would ask, “What’s the County Administrative Officer’s salary? Blair’s should be just a little higher than that.”
He scoffs that last year the board of supervisors gathered all 11 members of the San Diego legislative delegation “to complain about not having enough money. And you know where they took us to eat? Lubach’s!” Stirling was so flabbergasted by the symbolism that he refused to eat anything. He only drank an iced tea, “And I paid for it myself.”
A few days after his San Diego tour, Stirling is attending an early-evening reception in 0 Sacramento organized by the board of supervisors. The entire board has traveled to the capital to press for more state money. A buffet is handsomely laid out, and the usual soft drinks, wine, and beer are available. Stirling informs the organizer of the gathering that he won’t be eating anything. “If you eat, they report it to the FPPC as a gift,” he explains. “They divide the total cost of the meal by the number of people who ate and assign you that dollar amount. I went to a function once when I first got up here, and I ate a little bit of something, and it was reported as a $125 gift. If you ate something and had a drink at every one of these things, at the end of the year it would look like you ate and drank thousands of dollars’ worth of food and booze at the public trough. No thanks.”
Relations between Stirling and the supervisors are cordial (though he and Susan Golding never did get around to talking to each other), but there’s a palpable steeliness beneath the social niceties. This was the man who helped embarrass the county on 60 Minutes after doctors blew the whistle on the shoddy treatment being provided by the County Mental Health hospital. You ask a couple of the county officials how they regard Stirling’s “meddling” in their affairs, hoping it comes across as a “Let’s you and him fight” question, but politics prevails. Comments David Janssen, assistant chief administrative officer, who has been on the receiving end of Stirling’s criticism of county operations, ‘ ‘As much as he vexed us over Edgemoor and CMH, it ended up doing good for the people inside those facilities. Actually, he trampled us on it, but it came out for the better.” Adds supervisor George Bailey, “No doubt about it, he was all over us. But sometimes we gotta have our fannies tweaked.”
For much of last year, Stirling did some major fanny tweaking over the issue of whether the county should contract out for lawyers to provide defense for indigent lawbreakers or keep that a function of the county office of the public defender. Stirling was opposed to the idea of contracting it out to a nonprofit corporation, Community Defenders, Inc., but he also became vehemently opposed to the executive director of that corporation, Alex Landon. Largely through Stirling’s actions, the debate over the way to handle indigent defense was subverted to a referendum on the character of Alex Landon. Eventually, the board of supervisors reversed an earlier decision to contract out for indigent defense and hired a public defender. Community Defenders was dissolved.
The Landon question was this: Was he or was he not consciously involved in a prison break-out from Chino in 1972, in which two prison guards were shot and one died? The Department of Corrections decided he was and barred Landon, a respected defense attorney, from ever setting foot inside any state prison. After reading about the affair in the San Diego Union and then receiving, anonymously, a thick packet of documents containing investigative material about the escape, Stirling sent along the documents to the board of supervisors. Later, after E. Miles Harvey went to Landon’s defense (Stirling says Harvey called him a liar), Stirling instructed his aide Art Letter to assemble as much documentation as he could, and eventually, with the help of a subpoena for records from the Department of Corrections, a two-inch-thick pile of reports, depositions, and other papers related to the case was put together. Stirling accepted the obvious interpretation from the documents: that Landon, a liberal defense attorney at the time, was criminally involved in the escape. “There’s no doubt about it,” Stirling insists. “Landon was a co-conspirator in a murder.”
Landon has repeatedly denied any involvement in the escape, and various investigations since 1972 have found no grounds for prosecuting him. The last one, conducted by the San Bernardino District Attorney, again found no evidence on which to base a prosecution. Stirling calls that conclusion “bullshit,” though he purports to accept it as the final word in the matter. Still, he claims that Community Defenders’ own investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney Terry Knoepp, was damning to Landon. The full report of that investigation has never been released, but authoritative sources say it contained a very disturbing three-dimensional “phone tree” reconstructing the phone calls made to Landon by those responsible for the escape, including calls before and after the deed was done. It has been reported that Knoepp was unsatisfied with Landon’s answers to his questions during a three-hour interview that was part of the investigation. (Knoepp has yet to receive some $17,000 in fees from Community Defenders for his investigation, according to records on file with the attorney general’s office.) Neither Knoepp nor Landon would consent to interviews for this story.
But E. Miles Harvey, former chairman of the board of Community Defenders and a conservative Republican, was effusive. “The character assassination Larry committed against Landon is unforgivable,” Harvey declares. “If he didn’t have government immunity, he could not get away with saying these things about Landon. Why doesn’t he go down and file a murder complaint with a district attorney if he’s so sure Landon is guilty?” Stirling did exactly that, filing his wheelbarrowful of documents with both the state attorney general and the San Bernardino district attorney, but both those offices found insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Harvey has been a consistently staunch defender of Landon’s, and when he spoke out against Stirling last year, Stirling took the extraordinary step of sending some of the most incriminating documents in the case to every lawyer — about 200 in all — in Harvey’s law firm, Luce, Forward, Hamilton, and Scripps. “When somebody flips me the center digit, it gets my competitive juices going,”
Stirling explains. “Nobody is going to call Larry Stirling a liar and get away with it. No sir.” Earlier, he had sent similar packages of documents to every member of the board of supervisors and to various other officials, all in an attempt to herald what he believed to be the truth about Landon.
His motives were questioned, and still are. Recently a ten-person study group that was part of the LEAD San Diego program, a leadership training course for ambitious professionals, took on the Landon-Stirling affair as a deliberative exercise. “After two months of real thorough study,” reports Chris Crotty, who headed up the committee, “we could not determine what Stirling’s motives were, except for a personal, vindictive attack on Alex Landon. That’s all we could come up with.”
Stirling angrily dismisses that study as biased toward Landon and tainted because Crotty is the chief aide to Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, a Democrat whose election opponents have all been endorsed by Stirling. Stirling called Bill Rick, head of the LEAD San Diego program, and followed up with a letter strenuously protesting the study group’s investigation. So what was his motivation in the Landon affair? you ask Stirling. He thinks for a moment then declares, “I draw the line at murder.”
Stirling took considerable heat over his actions in the Landon case, and it remains to be seen whether he will suffer from it. “He has always been a favorite of the bar association because he’s been a strong law-and-justice person,” says Harvey. “But every lawyer in town is offended by what he did. This has got to be a black mark.”
Longtime aides to Stirling say that he operates from conscience and that he’s always been willing to take the fallout. Hell, it took guts for him to oppose the San Diego Trolley (though now he claims to support it, since it is being extended to the east into his district, where he thought it should have gone all along), and you can’t say he’s watching the political windsock now as regards the clamor to ban assault rifles. He says he’s in favor of a thorough background check of anyone buying assault rifles, but he’s stubbornly opposed to an outright ban on certain kinds of weapons. He likens the two sides of the gun control debate to the two sides of the abortion question: “The people in these issues seem to get more out of the fight than anything else. They don’t want to solve the problem, they want to fight about it. When I get them in the same room together, there’s absolutely no movement. There’s no moderate ground. They look at me like I’ve got horns coming out of my head if I don’t agree with their side.” For the record, Stirling says he’s personally opposed to abortion, does not support state-funded elective abortions, but he would not outlaw it. “I’d counsel my own daughter against an abortion, but ultimately it’s between her and her God. It is not the state’s business.”
Stirling believes that he’s just speaking the will of his constituents regarding abortion and gun control. The fact that he’s never had a tough election battle since he was sent by the voters to Sacramento seems to corroborate that. When he was elected to the senate last November, in a district that encompasses most of his former city council and assembly districts, he received 69 percent of the vote (his closest rival, Benita Berkson, received 26 percent). Although his predecessor in the senate, Jim Ellis, was also a Republican, the senator before Ellis was Democrat Bob Wilson. “Wilson could have held that seat as long as he wanted,” says Stirling. “The district votes the candidate, not the party.... I don’t take elections for granted at all,” he deadpans in his old army officer’s monotone. “I choose to win all of them.” That last statement was not meant to sound ironical.
Once he got settled in the assembly, Stirling moved up quickly from a “back bencher” to a legislator with clout whose desk on the assembly floor was near the front. (Location of a legislator’s desk on the floor of the assembly is determined by the power he accumulates through committee assignments and the positions of party leadership that he holds.) Stirling was part of the reorganization of the Republican party in the assembly that led to what he calls “the formation of a true loyal opposition.” He had a hand in it as vice chairman of the Republican caucus, which helped get the Republicans organized enough to put to good use a new computer system that Stirling says he “conceptualized” for analyzing bills. At first, $50,000-a-year legislative analysts working for the Republicans balked at having to learn how to type their analyses into a computer, but after one of them was fired, Stirling says the others came around. Now every bill on the day’s agenda in the assembly is provided to each Republican legislator with a cover sheet explaining the issue, along with the Republican caucus’s recommendation for how it wants to handle the bill. Using this system, the Republicans could suddenly talk to each other in a way that made for group action. Before, legislators rushed to their party leaders on the floor in an effort to find out what was going on regarding the strategies behind certain bills. The insiders had no other way to communicate with the outsiders. The computerized printouts analyzing each bill now allow legislators to read the same insider information about the bills in the form of a “Floor Alert,” such as,
“ ‘This is Roberti’s attempt to pay back so-and-so, or this is our bill to jam such and such,’ ” Stirling explains. “It took the agony out of the members’ trying to figure out what was going on, and it helped make us a unified caucus. We could back up a Deukmejian veto. We started arguing issues instead of personalities. It made us a real player in the state.”
Stirling himself became a real player when he took over the chairmanship of what’s called the “Cops Committee” in Sacramento. Because of his good relations with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat, Stirling was made chairman of the Public Safety Committee, which had, under Democratic control, become known as “the graveyard for law-and-order legislation.’’ When he made the appointment in 1985, Speaker Brown was quoted as saying, “I wanted what I considered to be the most competent available member in the house to chair that committee, and Mr. Stirling fit that category.” He was praised by both Republicans and Democrats for his leadership in the committee, which delivered several pieces of tough law-enforcement legislation to the floor, including death penalty and wiretapping measures, and bills relating to new prison construction.
Stirling’s own legislative agenda is nothing if not eclectic. He carried bills that completely overhauled laws affecting condominiums; carried 40 bills, most of them sponsored by state and local bar associations and even the American Civil Liberties Union, streamlining and retooling mostly arcane legal procedures; he sponsored a tough law protecting government whistle blowers; he proposed a constitutional amendment, which was adopted, representing sweeping reform of the state employees’ retirement system; he carried two bills sponsored by Sam Knott, father of Cara Knott, the young woman murdered by a California Highway Patrol officer, requiring law-enforcement agencies to give higher priority to missing-persons complaints; he made it legal for prison guards to continue carrying weapons for protection after they retire; he made it illegal for a peace officer to fix a ticket. Overall, his legislative output can be fairly criticized as big on bills related to his home district and short on major initiatives that affect large numbers of Californians in sweeping ways. Stirling acknowledges this, pointing out that “the grand initiatives are captured by the majority party.”
His list of environmental legislation is short “but profound,” he claims, consisting primarily of his efforts to help develop a comprehensive species management plan that is intended to protect endangered species in a way that does not halt construction projects. This legislation was written in response to the halting of Route 52, the ten-mile stretch of freeway that will extend from Tierrasanta to Santee, because the road’s alignment crosses the San Diego River in the middle of nesting grounds inhabited seasonally by the endangered Least Bell’s vireo. Environmentalists say taking a comprehensive approach to protecting endangered species habitat, rather than the piecemeal approach that has been the rule so far, is a good idea. “But Stirling’s interest wasn’t the bird,” remarks Emily Durbin, the Sierra Club staffer who is involved in saving the Least Bell’s vireo. “He wanted to save the freeway.” Stirling pleads guilty to that but counters, “The environmentalists didn’t figure out a way to save the bird, they just stopped the freeway. I figured out how to save the bird and the freeway.’’ Route 52 has been realigned so as to be less threatening to the bird, and the comprehensive species management plan is still being worked on by a SANDAG committee.
Now that he’s in the senate, Stirling has to start all over again building influence and power. Whereas before he had a preferred parking space in the garage beneath the capitol, now his car is completely gridlocked by other vehicles because he’s a freshman senator. When he wants to drive out, parking attendants have to be summoned to move the other cars. Amid this very visible reduction of his power, Stirling talks of the “invisible landscape’’ that politicians operate in and how they must grope to find the “lifts and sinks” of power. As a parking attendant hustles over to move cars out of his way so he can take you to the Sacramento airport, Stirling speaks of hauling in all the information he can, in order to “fill in the mosaic up here. It’s all a mosaic, and you’re feeling your way through the process. Making decisions on the state level is 100 times a bigger order of magnitude than working on the local level. It’s an incredible intellectual challenge to have to deal with these issues. For instance, what do you do with convicted felons? Just warehouse them? Let them learn their craft better? In the whole history of the universe, this is your time to decide what to do with felons. This is your one chance to make a difference. I’m not going to blow it.” □