The career track for judges and state legislators? We’re talking affluent suburbs, Harvard education, white collar jobs, cotillions and debutantes, social register, a few in diplomatic service, partner and corner office at the oldest law firms. Can I borrow some Grey Poupon?
Then there’s this Judge Larry Stirling guy.
San Bernardino Valley Community College outstanding male student! (Do they even have a polo team?) Worked as an electrician and retail clerk (Oh good, he can fix the flashing blue light at K-Mart). Diplomatic service commanding a 550-man rifle company in Korea (who pulled the strings for that?) after “graduate training” at Fort Benning, Georgia’s infantry school. (Oh.)
Who is this Larry Stirling guy, how did he come out of the Army and become, successively, city councilman, State Assemblyman, State Senator and now Municipal Court Judge, who wants to change the bureaucratic Courthouse culture.
“I grew up in San Bernardino,” says Judge Stirling, “which was then the armpit of California. I had no idea what was wrong in that gang-infested area until I saw the film ‘West Side Story,’ which laid out the economic conflict of the blacks, whites and browns, all looking for a toehold and economic opportunity.”
“We grew up on the wrong side of the tracks” Stirling adds, “and I thought the whole world was like that.” His mother was 15 when she gave birth to the future judge in a working class neighborhood. “Thank God they didn’t have state-paid abortions in those days.” His mother worked two jobs and supported her son, playing piano and working on the first generation of computers on an Air Force base.
His step-father, “one of the great men in the world,” adopted young Larry, teaching him the basics of his profession: electrician. Neither parent was interested in politics, but gave invaluable lessons in what makes life meaningful.
Other role models included a “great Scoutmaster” T.L. Mullins and an influential athletic coach, “Tiny” Bratton. Then Stirling met the local Congressman, a Democrat, named Ken Dyal. “I saw for the first time how people in public life could stand up for what was morally right.”
His education included San Bernardino Valley Community College, San Diego State and Western State College of Law, always working his way through with full-time jobs.
Judge Stirling’s brother was killed in Vietnam, but Larry enlisted in the Army, rising in three years from private to captain, commanding a Korean and American unit near the North Korean border.
Stirling dreamed of being a city manager on his return to civilian life, but his energy and creativity attracted the attention of political leaders like Mayor Pete Wilson and San Diego’s legendary “Mr. Conservative” Councilman Lee Hubbard. “Hubbard called me aside one day and challenged me. He said someone with my talents should be an elected official. The next thing I knew he put my name in his newsletter as a City Council candidate and reporters were putting microphones in my face.” Stirling faced two better-known opponents, but he was the only candidate in the race to publicly oppose a legalized nude beach at Black’s Beach in La Jolla. That beach was the subject of an emotional referendum campaign that year (1977) and Stirling’s principled stand propelled him into the citywide runoff.
Stirling credits equally-legendary Christian leader Kathleen Bremner with organizing grassroots support for him. “I know she has been ill lately, and she deserves all of our prayers.”
Stirling quit his job and risked his life’s savings to run against a much better-known opponent whose liberal beliefs perfectly contrasted with this own values. “There wasn’t a doubt in my or my family’s mind I was going to win. It was magic. I met so many great people.” He was right, Larry Stirling was elected by a margin of 66,885 to 66,313. “They called me “Landslide Larry.’
In 1980, Stirling was elected to the State Assembly representing El Cajon, La Mesa and the Navajo/San Carlos/Tierrasanta/Clairemont neighborhoods of San Diego. In 1988, he moved on to the state Senate and in 1989 was named Municipal Court Judge by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Stirling is most proud of his role in making San Diego city and county the first in the nation with a 911 emergency phone system. He helped start the project as a civilian analyst in the police department and saw it through later as a city councilman. “911 has saved thousands of lives, and captured many criminals over the years, and San Diego showed the nation that it could and would work.”
Should believers get involved in politics? “You make a difference if you do,” Stirling says to those who share his commitment to Biblical ideals. “There’s no ‘jury of angels’ watching over your school district, your city or legislature. Unless you take a hand, it will go wrong, and that’s why God gave us hands, a brain and a heart. There’s no choice, you can’t sit off to the side and watch the country go bankrupt or get into wars we shouldn’t be in. If you run, you can fix those things.”
Larry Stirling lives in the Navajo-Del Cerro community with his wife Linda, a vice-president at Merrill Lynch. His daughter Shenandoah and son Jason are the “second and third Stirlings ever to go to college.” He attends Horizon Christian Fellowship.
From Korea to the G.I. Bill, from San Bernardino to the State Capitol, Larry Stirling’s drive and beliefs have made him a respected leader, reformer and innovator. He seems sure to keep surprising the Grey Poupon crowd for years to come.
Where will the next Larry Stirling come from? He, she or you may be reading this story right now!
James Sills, Jr., a native San Diegan, is a political and research consultant with clients in California, Arizona and Washington. He was chief aide to County Supervisor Paul Fordem and City Councilman Bruce Henderson.