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Would Winner of Trustee Race Please Phone In?

Times Staff Writer

Forget provisional ballots in Ohio and hanging chads in Florida. The Orange Unified School District has its own election woe: It can’t find the winner of Tuesday’s board election.

Public records point to the fact that Steve Rocco really does exist.

He’s a registered voter. He owns a home in Santa Ana. And he filed paperwork in July to run for the school board.

“He is not a figment of your imagination,” said Christina Avila, a campaign disclosure filing officer at the Orange County registrar of voters and apparently one of the few people who can confirm his existence, because he handed his papers over to her. “He’s a real man.”

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After that, the details start getting sketchy.

He is registered to vote, though he declined to state a party. Neighbors who have lived next door to him for years say they’ve seen the 53-year-old man only occasionally, when he takes out the trash from the home he shares with his parents. On the ballot, he listed his occupation as teacher and writer, though proof of either is elusive.

Neither the district nor the registrar has a phone number on file for him, and nobody answered the door at his home.

Somehow, though, without mounting a real campaign, filing a candidate’s statement or showing up at a community forum, he managed to upset his formidable opponent, Phil Martinez.

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Meet Mr. Martinez: father of three kids in the district, a county park ranger, president of a local PTA, endorsed by the teachers union. Not to mention the fact that he spent more than $6,000 trying to get elected.

His goals were succinctly laid out in the county voter guide. Among them: “provide a quality education for all students, work closely with our educators and parents and bring fiscal solutions to our school budget crisis.”

“It’s out of my hands,” Martinez said of Tuesday’s election results. “What they voted for is what they got: the mystery person. I think everybody is just scratching their heads.”

In the days since the election, word has spread about the unlikely victory. Although the results are not yet official, Rocco won nearly 54% of the vote.

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He’s become a bit of an urban legend, a kind of political Loch Ness monster or Sasquatch.

“I haven’t met him, that I know of,” said outgoing Trustee Bob Viviano. “I hear he’s kind of a recluse, but then that’s just hearsay.”

Said Trustee Kim Nichols: “You hear things because people are desperately trying to find some info on him. I heard he rides his bike. He likes garage sales. He hangs out at a 7-Eleven. I don’t know if any of that is true.”

When the district sent him mail during the campaign, it was returned unopened. He was invited to a PTA candidates forum via registered mail. That letter came back marked “Refused.”

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“We have never seen him. We don’t know what he looks like,” said Paul Pruss, president of the teachers union.

The district serves about 31,800 students in Orange and surrounding cities, and operates on a budget of more than $230 million.

It is not the first time Rocco has run for public office. He ran for mayor of Santa Ana in 2000 and for the Rancho Santiago Community College District board in 2002. He tried to also run in Santa Ana for mayor in 2002, but that candidacy was nullified because the two offices were incompatible. There has been one unconfirmed sighting of him at a city forum, wearing military fatigues.

His opponent for the college board, John Hanna, said Rocco’s behavior was the same in their race.

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“The guy never showed his face,” said Hanna, who added that he had been following Orange County politics for 30 years and had never seen anything like it.

The best Hanna can figure, voters chose Rocco because he was first on the ballot and they liked his stated occupation -- teacher -- over Martinez, the park ranger.

District lawyers, meanwhile, are trying to figure out what to do if Rocco doesn’t show up for the swearing-in ceremony Dec. 9.

For that matter, they’re wondering whether they’ll recognize him if he does show up.

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“I will be there,” Martinez said, “just to see who this mystery person is.”


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