As a UCLA sociology major in the mid-1980s, Sharon Quirk-Silva didn't know what she wanted to do long-term. But short-term, she wanted to join the Peace Corps. Until the naturally shy young woman attended an introductory meeting.
"Right away, they told us we had to raise money and get a sponsor, and in those days, the last thing I would have done was ask someone to sponsor me for anything," she says. "So I didn't do it. And the irony now is, almost 35 years later, in many ways, I have to raise money to get people to sponsor me."
And how. In 2004, when Quirk-Silva (known as Quirk then) ran for Fullerton City Council, she raised about $50,000. Last year, in her ultimately successful attempt to wrest back the 65th Assembly District seat she lost in 2014, more than $4.1 million was donated to her campaign, according to the California Secretary of State website.
But that's the price for running in one of the most contested legislative districts in the state, covering much of northwest Orange County. Nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, as well as one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the country, it's an invaluable chess piece. Both of Quirk-Silva's wins, in 2012 and 2016, were critical in giving Democrats a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly.
But though her district has given her a statewide profile and she's back in Sacramento, Quirk-Silva remains a Fullerton girl through and through. Born Sharon Howard, she and her family (which included nine siblings) moved from East Los Angeles to the then-mushrooming bedroom community of Fullerton when she was 2. They moved into a house on Richman Avenue when all the houses, and most of the people, were new. As fate would have it, the elementary school she attended, Richman Elementary, is where she has spent the bulk of her teaching career.
She says hers was one of the first Latino families to move to the community, but she has nothing but fond memories of growing up there. She and her siblings (all named after members of the Mickey Mouse Club—how OC is that?) played sports, with swimming being her particular passion. "I rode my skateboard five blocks to get to the [Janet Jones] swim center, and I swam competitively for Fullerton [High School] for four years," she says. "I never won a race. But one thing [swimming] taught me was to be very disciplined. Swimming is one of those sports where you have to get up at 5 a.m. every day to take lessons, and my dad would take us in his work truck every morning."
But it was education that Quirk-Silva is most grateful for in terms of Fullerton, as well as what she has spent most of her adult life doing in that city, as a public-school teacher in the Fullerton School District. "I was the first in my family to go to college, and I think moving to Fullerton and going to Fullerton College" was a major reason for that, she says.
After her Peace Corps dream fizzled, Quirk-Silva, realizing that California was facing a teacher shortage, went that route, moving back to her home city. Being a young teacher, newly married and in the process of raising a family (she has four children), thoughts of a political career weren't in her plans. But she got her first taste of politics in the early 2000s, when she and a handful of other teachers helped their elementary-school principal get elected to the school board. She learned the nuts and bolts of campaigning, from knocking on doors to making signs. That same year, she helped to start a small group to raise money to find candidates for school board and City Council elections, meeting at Café Hidalgo in downtown Fullerton.
"It was nonpartisan," Quirk-Silva says. "We just wanted candidates to have balance—good parks and libraries, smart development. My job was to go out and encourage people to run, and most people said no, but then people started asking me why I didn't run. And I was, 'No, I'm teaching and have four kids.' But, lo and behold, a year and a half later, I did run."
Her plan was to run nonpartisan, as an educator wanting to make a difference. But she had no idea how entrenched the GOP was, even at the local level, in Orange County. "I really had no idea what was against me," she says. "People didn't take us seriously for months. Then, people would walk up to me saying I had no chance to win."
And then there were the mailers, such as one that equated her with Hillary Clinton as the "kind of liberals we don't need around here." Yet, she finished second in the voting, winning a seat in 2004. But her youth (40) and gender were a stark contrast to the good-ol'-boy culture of a city then dominated by councilmen Don Bankhead and Dick Jones. "I think it was very difficult for my male colleagues to accept me," she says. "They used to call Pam [Keller, another teacher elected to the council in 2006] and I the 'kindergarten teachers.' And I don't think they thought our voice had the weight theirs did, so, no, it wasn't easy."
Quirk-Silva gained more than her voice during her first term. Though overlooked and mocked during her first election, she was the leading vote-getter in the 2008 election. But things would become a lot rougher in her second term. On July 5, 2011, Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, died as a result of injuries sustained after Fullerton cops beat him. The resulting saga—roiling protests, charges of second-degree murder, a gruesome photo and video, three-fifths of the City Council recalled (including Jones and Bankhead), national media coverage—strained the city as never before.
And Quirk-Silva, as mayor presiding over the council meetings, was in the thick of it. She was the first to call for the officers to be put on administrative leave, first to call for the then-police chief to resign, and feels as if she took the lead among council members in demanding answers and accountability.
"My initial reaction was as saddened and horrified as anyone else who had seen the photo," she says. "Like everyone else, I wanted answers and wanted to make sure that the public knew we were going to try to get to the bottom of it. I think I looked at it more holistically than maybe my male counterparts, other than Bruce Whitaker."
Much of the city seethed for nearly a year, but after surveillance video of the brutal pummeling was released to the public in May 2012, Quirk-Silva truly feared for her city.
"There were maybe 300 people [in the council chambers] the meeting after the video was released, and it was very emotional," she says, "and I felt it could very well erupt in a riot or something."
The city weathered the storm, thanks in some part to Quirk-Silva's steady and empathetic leadership. But has it completely healed?
"I think Fullerton has improved dramatically as a police department, but there will always be stories, and I think when you have something like that happen, you're always going to be on alert," she says. "I know there are still people who would like to see a citizen's advisory committee, but I think there have been good steps made."
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After eight years on the council, Quirk-Silva felt she had accomplished as much as she could in Fullerton. But the city was still enmeshed in the Thomas aftermath, so she wrestled with the decision to face Chris Norby in the primary for the newly created 65th in June 2012. Finally, after realizing he faced no opposition, she entered the race a week before the filing deadline, pulling off an upset win in the November general election.
In her first term, she says, she was most proud of sponsoring a fee-waiver bill that allows homeless people to receive an ID and a copy of their birth certificate without paying for them, as well as pushing for a veterans' cemetery to be built in Irvine, something she plans on accelerating in her second term. She also wants to preserve more open space in Coyote Hills, as well as create an assembly office/service center in Fullerton. But whether dealing with statewide issues or ones that directly affect her constituents, she says she will always view things through the perspective of a teacher.
"I'm always going to work through the lens of the working families of the 32 faces I see in a classroom," says Quirk-Silva, happily married to Jesus Silva, a junior high teacher in the same district who won election to the Fullerton City Council last year. "They're not the same faces, but over the years, they're the same stories. Some of them are from very stable families, but in the same classroom two years in a row, I had [kids] living in transitional living centers.
"So even in the same neighborhoods and communities, there are not only different cultures and ethnicities, but income levels," Quirk-Silva continues. "So whether it's jobs or housing or education, we always have to be looking for upward mobility for everyone, from the lowest in poverty but also the middle class."