Surprise Orange School Board Winner Comes In From the Cold

Steve Rocco says he hasn't been avoiding the media and that he ran to fight 'the partnership.'

December 04, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Steve Rocco, the reclusive candidate who has had Orange County voters scratching their heads since his unexpected election to a local school board last month, broke his silence Friday.

Rocco -- who has eluded voters, reporters and even district officials after his election -- agreed to an interview with The Times and public radio station KPCC-FM (89.3), but offered little insight into his philosophy on education.

Instead, Rocco, who has run unsuccessfully for office before, described himself as a crusader who is the target of a well-orchestrated conspiracy by some of Orange County's top officials -- a group he calls "the partnership."

"I ran for the same reasons I decided to run in the past -- to fight the partnership," he said.

Political observers and voters were stunned when Rocco defeated a heavily favored candidate Nov. 2 for a seat on the Orange Unified School District board without ever handing out a campaign flier or making a speech. After his victory, he holed up in the house he shares with his mother, drawing widespread attention from the news media and stirring intense speculation among district residents.

Rocco is a frail man, with a pale, gaunt face covered partly by a scruffy beard. During Friday's interview, held at his lawyer's Santa Ana office, he wore large glasses with clip-on sunglasses attached. A frayed piece of black fabric tied around his left arm, he said, was to memorialize his father, who he said died Nov. 9. Rocco periodically scribbled notes on a piece of paper, meticulously noting the time each entry was made. He refused to be photographed.

Rocco refuted claims that he has been avoiding the spotlight since the election, saying that he has been mourning his father's death and consumed with arrangements for his funeral. He expressed surprise that his election has garnered so much attention and also frustration over news reports quoting those who described him as mysterious or unstable.

"The only thing I did was run. I didn't create this."

Rocco, who will take his seat as a trustee Thursday, ran unsuccessfully in 2000 to be mayor of Santa Ana and two years later for a seat on the Rancho Santiago Community College District board.

He attended Santa Ana College off and on from 1969 to 1991, earning two-year degrees in criminal justice, sociology, history, liberal arts, anthropology and speech communication. He holds elementary and secondary teaching certificates, but does not work as a teacher.

He also served as host on 17 episodes of a self-produced interview show on a public access cable-TV channel in 1993 and 1994.

Rocco said he was not surprised by his victory. He acknowledged that the ballot descriptions of him as a teacher and his opponent as a park ranger might have swayed voters. But he dismissed the idea that few knew whom they were voting for. Instead, Rocco said he believes people -- whom he did not identify -- photocopied the campaign fliers he left outside his house and dispersed them throughout Orange and the surrounding cities included in the school district.

"God bless [those] people," he said. "They saturated the entire town with [the fliers]. Our message was everywhere."

When asked to explain his message, however, Rocco faltered. He said he has no particular issues that he hopes to address as a trustee, but said he cares deeply about education and would diligently prepare for the district's monthly meetings.

But his election, Rocco said, also would give him a platform to counter what he believes is a 25-year conspiracy against him. Rocco said a cabal of county politicians, judges and officials -- "the partnership" -- have been trying to silence him as he works to uncover a tangled trail of corruption and scandal.

Those involved, Rocco said, have spied on him, stalked and harassed him and his parents, going so far as to arrange for county health officials to commit his sick father to a hospital against his wishes.

Rocco spoke in veiled terms of his beliefs, saying that to understand them one must first read a book he self-published in 1992, "Behind The Orange Curtain: Secret Chronicles and Public Record Accounts of Corruption, Murder and Scandal of Corporate and Political California."

Rocco said the book explores the effects of his arrest and conviction in 1980 for stealing a packet of sausages and a few rolls of film from a grocery store.

The incident, which he called a setup, had a big impact on his life, Rocco said. At the time, he says he was working as a substitute teacher in Orange Unified schools as well as other districts. His hopes to be hired as a full-time teacher in Orange, he said, were thwarted because of that arrest and another three years later on charges that he stole record albums from a library.

"Revenge," he said, is too strong a word to describe his goal -- but not by much.

"It's called justice. It's called righting a wrong," he said. "It's called something that never should have happened and that went too far."

As for what that means for students, teachers and parents of Orange Unified, Rocco said people would just have to wait and see. He said he is prepared for the media onslaught that is expected Thursday, but declined to comment on what he may or may not say. "I don't have to say a word [at the meeting]," he said. "At this point I don't know if I will. They're not expecting me to say anything. But I might. Be prepared."

His fellow board members, said trustee Rick Ledesma, are withholding judgment until they meet the man.

"We're taking a wait-and-see approach and giving him the opportunity to be an active and involved member like the rest of us," Ledesma said. "We all have a job to do and we look forward to him doing his job."

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