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Where’s Rocco? Answer May Come Dec. 9

Times Staff Writer

Folks in the city of Orange -- known for its quaint bungalows, charming downtown and brutal school board politics -- are bedeviled this week by questions about a man named Steve Rocco.

Who is he? What does he stand for? Why has no one seen him?

And why did voters in this city, which cares deeply about education, elect him to the school board last week?

Rocco turned the Orange Unified School District upside down Nov. 2 when he defeated a heavily favored candidate for a seat on the district board without ever handing out a campaign flier or making a speech.

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Since his victory, Rocco, 53, has holed up inside the home he shares with his mother, ignoring calls from district officials and a growing number of news organizations. A local education watchdog group -- itself shrouded in secrecy -- is so desperate for a glimpse of the man that it has announced a cash prize for the first person to snap a photo of him.

“I’ve been getting calls on this from all over the country,” said an exasperated Paul Pruss, president of the local teachers union. “We don’t know anything about this man.”

Even neighbors are baffled, recalling him only as an eccentric figure who bicycles around town.

There are, however, a few hints in the public record.

Born in Italy, Rocco is a registered voter without party affiliation who lives in a part of Santa Ana that adjoins Orange and is within that city’s school district. With elementary and secondary teaching credentials earned in 1989, he identified himself on the ballot as a teacher, though it is unclear if he has ever been employed as one. He’s run unsuccessfully for public office before: in 2000 to be mayor of Santa Ana, and two years later for a seat on the Rancho Santiago Community College District board.

Rocco attended Santa Ana College off and on from 1969 to 1991, earning associate degrees in criminal justice, sociology, history, liberal arts, anthropology and speech communication.

While at the college he was befriended by the chairman of the criminal justice department. George Wright said his former student telephoned Thursday morning to say he plans to reveal himself at the Dec. 9 swearing-in ceremony.

“He’s going to show up, and he’s going to serve,” Wright said, adding that Rocco told him he had been avoiding contact with the public because he has been busy making funeral arrangements for his father.

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Wright described Rocco as a “very bright, very intelligent” man who spent hours meticulously researching theories about local politics -- a man who sometimes became “scattered.”

“Some of what he would say made a lot of sense, but often he crossed the line and took it further than he should have.”

Indeed, when he filed candidacy paperwork for the school board seat, Rocco included a homemade manifesto of sorts -- a sheet of densely typed text cut and pasted together, and filled with rambling prose.

Rocco further explored his theories in a lengthy self-published book, “Behind the Orange Curtain: Secret Chronicles and Public Record Accounts of Corruption, Murder and Scandals of Corporate and Political California.” He also served as host on 17 episodes of a self-produced interview show on a public access cable channel in 1993 and 1994. Videotapes show a mustached Rocco conducting interviews from behind dark glasses with guests who included a self-proclaimed witch and a drummer from a 1960s rock band.

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In 1996 he produced one episode of another series, “Political Murder,” but lawyers for the cable company and Santa Ana College -- where the show was taped -- refused to let it air. College spokeswoman Judy Iannaccone declined to comment further on the show.

That such an eccentric and little-known man would earn more than 30,000 votes and get himself elected is particularly ironic in Orange, where in the past the parents have waged pitched battles over governance of the schools. Orange Unified School District is one of Orange County’s largest, with a $230-million annual budget and more than 31,000 students at 41 schools in Orange and surrounding cities.

In 2001, the district was gripped by an angry political battle. A group of parents and teachers successfully campaigned to oust three conservative trustees in a recall and then crushed attempts by two of them to win back their seats. This year, supporters and opponents of a proposed school construction bond measure ran aggressive campaigns. When the measure failed to pass in March, supporters mounted another effort, but lost again this month.

In recent years, a shadowy Internet newsletter dubbed Orange Net News has criticized trustees and district officials over spending and test scores. Authors of the newsletter last week announced a $200 prize for a photograph of Rocco.

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Some local political observers suspect that voters, distracted by the presidential race and state propositions, were influenced by Rocco’s description of himself on the ballot as a teacher -- enough for him to triumph over Phil Martinez, a park ranger and PTA president endorsed by the teachers union. More than 31,000 people voted for Rocco, who won with nearly 54% of the vote.

Still, Fred Smoller, a political scientist at Chapman University and political consultant who supported the 2001 recall campaign, said he was surprised that Orange residents, who have demonstrated their passion for school issues, were willing to vote for a mystery man. “We put a lot of responsibility on the electorate. These are the snafus that happen in a democracy.”

Several voters agreed. Katie Parsons and Jeff Avis, for example, said they had not followed the school board race. Neither knew anything about the candidates and relied on the ballot descriptions to make their choices.

“It’s my fault for not knowing enough and not caring enough to learn about the candidates,” Parsons said of Rocco’s victory.

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“Someone else could be much more educated than me on the candidates and I could just go down the ballot checking off names, but our votes count exactly the same,” Avis said. “That might not be a good thing, but that’s democracy.”


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