SACRAMENTO — 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.