OCEANSIDE — Rocky Chavez yearned for combat duty during his 28 years in the Marines, but commanders kept him far from the battlefield.
"It's kind of like training for a football game and never getting into the game," said Chavez, a state lawmaker now running for U.S. Senate.
When he left the military, Chavez opened a charter school in Oceanside. Consumed by financial troubles, it shut down six years later. He ran twice for mayor of Oceanside and was trounced both times.
But he did win election to Oceanside's City Council and the state Assembly. And now, he's determined to beat the odds and capture Democrat Barbara Boxer's Senate seat next year, even though it's widely assumed no Republican will get the job.
FOR THE RECORD:
Rocky Chavez: In the May 31 California section, an article about GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, who is running for U.S. Senate, stated that he is the Legislature's sole Latino Republican. In fact, Chavez is one of two; the other is Assemblyman Eric Linder of Corona.
Chavez, 64, sees himself as just the kind of Republican who can win, a Latino whose politics are not too conservative for California, particularly on immigration. And his service in the Marines, Chavez says, makes him uniquely qualified to handle national security matters.
"I had a great career," Chavez, a retired colonel, said as he drove his pickup truck across Camp Pendleton one recent morning.
The Marine Corps dispatched Chavez to Japan, South Korea and other outposts across Asia. He was also stationed in Hawaii, California and states in the Midwest and South.
For years, he served in big-gun artillery units. A career highlight was nuclear weapon exercises on Hawaii's Big Island. In the Midwest, Chavez supervised recruitment and processing centers for newly inducted service members. At Camp Pendleton, he was in charge of logistics.
Chavez left the Marines in 2001 and still lives with his wife, Mary, in an Oceanside tract house overlooking Camp Pendleton. From the backyard, he watches Marines fire shells across the dry hillsides.
"That whole thing's Pendleton," he said at his backyard bar, the Back Gate, named after a nearby base entrance.
Chavez faces a growing field of rivals a year ahead of the June 2016 Senate primary. They include Democrats Kamala Harris, the state attorney general, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, as well as Bay Area Republican Tom Del Beccaro, a former state GOP chairman.
The son of factory workers, Chavez grew up with three siblings in Redondo Beach and Torrance. His passion was wrestling, a sport well suited to his stature (just under 5 feet 4) and burly frame. "Wrestling teaches discipline," he said.
His respect for a high school math teacher, still vivid 50 years later, foreshadowed his ease with the military's rigid structure.
"You had to have your homework paper in the center here, your pencil here, your hands crossed looking forward," he said, tapping a finger to show where things belonged.
As his 1969 high school graduation approached, the Vietnam War was raging, and a cousin was "shot up really bad," he recalled.
But Chavez was apolitical then. He had long enjoyed the Armed Forces Day Parade in Torrance, and he was uninterested in antiwar protests at the nearby Dow Chemical factory where napalm was manufactured.
As a student at Cal State Chico, Chavez worked odd jobs. He picked almonds, boxed fruit and assisted a mortician at a funeral parlor.
"The only thing you had to do was go pick up dead bodies, bring them back and help drain them," Chavez said. "When you're hungry and you've got to get through college, you do anything."
Chavez enlisted in 1973. His first wife and their three children joined him on far-flung deployments, but after a decade, the couple divorced. Chavez won custody of the kids.
His second marriage was brief, but the third has lasted 25 years. Chavez left the Marines in 2001.
His final station, Camp Pendleton, had put Chavez in close contact with Oceanside leaders. Before long, he founded the charter school and won his council seat.
From the start, his School of Business and Technology had a tough time enrolling enough students to keep it viable. In a speech urging Oceanside High School students to transfer to the charter school, Chavez made matters worse, according to local newspaper reports.
They said he told students they could own a Lexus, a boat and a $900,000 house if they transferred, but would get stuck flipping burgers and driving their mother's old car if they stayed put. Teachers were furious. Chavez was forced to apologize.
"A Marine doesn't waffle," he told one paper. "A Marine says 'I was wrong.'"
Chavez said last week it was actually a teacher who made the offensive comments, and he blamed some of his school's troubles on political rivals who wanted him to fail. "Oceanside politics is harsh," he said.
He could be aggressive. Carol McCauley, a City Council member ousted by Chavez, recalled a pie-throwing contest during the 2002 campaign at a Chamber of Commerce auction. She put her face in the cardboard cutout.
"He came running at me, and he hit me in the face so hard, it almost broke my nose," she said.
The room fell silent, and four women, including Chavez's wife, helped clean up her bloody nose in the restroom, she said. Chavez "was extremely intoxicated" and never apologized, she said.
Asked to explain, Chavez denied he was drunk and said he hadn't thought about the incident in years.
During his seven years on the council, Oceanside was torn over whether to promote growth as a beach resort or preserve its small-town character. Chavez sided with builders.
He left the council in 2009, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named him undersecretary of Veterans Affairs. In 2012, he ran for Assembly, defeating a Republican favored by the party establishment.
For the most part, Chavez votes with Republican colleagues. But his inability, so far, to gain endorsements from any of them reflects a go-it-alone manner that can rub some the wrong way.
"It's hard to be successful in the United States Senate if you're a Lone Ranger," said Matt Rexroad, a longtime advisor to GOP state lawmakers.
Chavez supports same-sex marriage, but typically opposes gun control and abortion rights. A Roman Catholic, he tries to attend church each Sunday (his wife's crucifix collection covers a dining room wall) and participates in Bible study at the Capitol but avoids discussing social issues.
"I'll vote what my conscience says, but I'm not going to be one of the guys out there thumping my chest," he said.
Chavez has praised steps by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to fight global warming but criticized environmentalists for opposing nuclear energy and new dams for hydropower.
As for immigration, Chavez, the Legislature's sole Latino Republican, favors a path to legalization for those in the country without permission. But he voted against some bills that Brown approved to curb the state's assistance in deportations.
"It was just too much at one time," he said — part of a larger pattern, he argued, of Sacramento passing more laws than needed.
"It's often about optics, and what can get you some press — not about trying to make anything better," he said. "That's why I'm running for U.S. Senate."
Occupation: State assemblyman
Age: 64, born in Los Angeles
Personal: wife Mary, three children, five grandchildren
Education: Bachelors Degree, English, Cal State Chico
Career highlights: U.S. Marine Corps, 1973-2001, Colonel at retirement; Oceanside School of Business and Technology, Chief Education Officer, 2001-2008; Oceanside City Council, Member, 2002-2009; California Veterans Affairs Department, Undersecretary, 2009-2010, Acting Secretary, 2010-2011; State Assembly member, 2012 to present.
Platform: Strengthen national security. Expand educational opportunities for children. Improve California’s economy.