Ever since Steve Rocco won his race to join the Orange Unified School Board of Trustees Nov. 2, the entire nation has but one question on its collective mind: Who the hell is this guy?
It's a reasonable question. Rocco filed no paperwork for his campaign other than a candidacy form in which he described himself as a “writer/educator”; that's the description that appeared next to his name on the ballot, and it was apparently enough to persuade voters to choose him over opponent Phil Martinez, a “park ranger” backed by the Orange teachers union. Rocco still hasn't shown up at school-district headquarters to claim his prize, and nobody there has seen him—ever—or knows who he is.
Rocco's victory garnered national attention, with bemused dispatches from the New York Post, National Public Radio,Canada's Ottawa Citizen, even NBC's Todayshow. Each focused on the central mystery: How could voters elect someone so shadowy he won't even answer the door when reporters knock at the Santa Ana house where neighbors say he lives with his bedridden parents?
His front yard is decorated with American flags, rusting chairs, broken pottery and an abandoned ski pole. A Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prisonalbum is attached to a metal gate on his front porch.
When I tried to talk to him, a TV-news van pulled up, and a producer with Katie Couric's Todayshow jumped out and shouted at me, “Hello, Mr. Rocco?” I hate to disappoint, but I did. At that point, a curious neighbor shared a few tidbits about the mystery candidate.
The neighbor, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation—by Rocco, she claimed—said the new trustee has lived in his parents' home for at least 20 years and often holds garage sales. She used to visit Rocco's mother, the neighbor said warily, but stopped several years ago because Rocco's father was “kind of creepy” and would “park himself on the couch between us, recounting all his war exploits in Italy.”
She said Rocco's parents took to their beds several years ago. Once, she recalled, Rocco asked her home-care nurse to help him pick up his father, who had fallen. The nurse obliged but refused to go back to the house when Rocco asked for help again. “The nurse said, 'I'm not going over there again because it smells so bad,'” the neighbor recalled.
“They do some funny things over there,” she added. The garage sales have allegedly drawn some attention. “The police came here and wanted to know where he got his things.” But that “was 20 years ago.” More recently, the neighbor said, social-services workers and police visited the home, apparently to check on Rocco's parents.
The neighbor said she worries about Rocco's ability to care for his parents. “He leaves the house each morning at 9 on his bicycle,” she said. “I don't like the idea that he leaves his parents there alone. I think it's bad he runs in the election without telling anybody who he is.”
A major piece of the Rocco puzzle comes from Rocco himself. Eight years ago, Rocco gave me a copy of his 1992 autobiography, ROCCO Behind the Orange Curtain. That book, published by a Colorado vanity press called Mountain Sun Productions, is attributed to Petruccelli S. Rocco, author of at least two other works, Raven in the Shafts (“delivers where Catcher in the Rye only hinted”) and 1975: The Year Vietnam Ended (“a tumultuous look at an era that changed the world”).
ROCCO purports to reveal “secret chronicles and public-record accounts of corruption, murder and scandal of corporate and political California, written by America's premier legal technician.” Its cover bears the aphorism “Ignorance is Expensive.”
The book is illustrated throughout by the author's doodles; the narrative is, well, tumultuous, beginning with Rocco, now 53, losing his job as a northern California camp counselor in 1979 and going home to Orange County to look for work as a substitute teacher. No detail is too small for the storyline: Rocco records his weight (about 140) on various occasions, the temperature, time of day, what he ate for breakfast (a memorable one includes peaches) and whether the many women he meets resemble Diane Keaton. At camp, Rocco tells us, “I now have a fourth blister. They have evened out to two on each foot.”
The book's central conflict takes place on July 20, 1980, when Rocco says he was arrested while trying to leave a Santa Ana Albertsons supermarket with four rolls of Kodak film and a sausage he hadn't paid for. Rocco claims he had already purchased the film on a previous visit to the store and just happened to have it (but not the receipt) with him when he went there to return the sausage (also no receipt), which his father had recently purchased.
We learn that on the day of his arrest, the temperature was “to peak at 78 degrees,” but that when he awoke at 8:54 a.m., it was “pleasantly mild.” We also learn that after Santa Ana police arrested Rocco for shoplifting and jailed him for several hours, he returned home at precisely 6:39 p.m.
ROCCO lays out the conspiracy he believes led to his shoplifting conviction and subsequent loss of work as a substitute teacher and telephone operator. The conspiracy, Rocco alleges, involved Kodak Film Co., Albertsons Supermarket and SmokeCraft Sausage. Among other things, the book claims that the son of a high-ranking Albertsons executive is the “largest drug dealer in the West” and that the company is complicit in murder.
A maker of film, a producer of fine wieners and a supermarket. But mostly the supermarket. Rocco claims Albertsons hired a man to steal his bicycle and was also behind his arrest in the early 1980s for allegedly stealing records from a local library.
According to Rocco, a judge dismissed the record theft because of an illegal search. But a source who asked to remain anonymous said Rocco was a frequent seller at the Santa Ana swap meet, where he routinely displayed albums clearly stamped as property of a public library. Rocco decorated his stall with signs that warned “I'm watching you” and “No bargains” and would chase away potential customers with angry threats.
“He didn't want anyone to think he could be talked down in price,” the source said. “He's really crazy. I'm glad he's finally done something for himself. Whoever voted for this guy deserves exactly what they get.”
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So who voted for him? Orange Unified isn't merely conservative. It's OC's Falluja. Voters there have proudly backed Christian trustees who banned a gay student club at El Modena High in 1999, refused a $25,000 grant for poor students under the pretext of resisting federal “control” and tried to add creationism to the curriculum.
Some hoped Orange would join the mainstream of American life after the teachers union led a 2001 recall of three trustees. But the margin of the union win was microscopic—just a couple of hundred votes. And exit polling by The Orange County Register showed an electorate split almost evenly between voters who identified themselves as supporters of teachers or moral conservatives.
Despite his own peculiar politics, Rocco may owe his victory to those moral conservatives. In a Nov. 9 letter to the Register, Jason Hufnagel claimed Rocco's victory was “an informed protest vote” against the union-backed Martnez. Offered the chance to vote for Martnez, Hufnagel figured “many voters would have proudly voted for Bozo the Clown.”
And that's pretty much who they got.
Research assistance by Gustavo Arellano.