Sunday, November 7, 2004

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Steve Rocco didn’t file a candidate statement or mount a campaign for the school board. He’s unknown to teachers and the district and only barely known to his neighbors.

Nonetheless, the man being called a “mystery candidate” easily beat an opponent who is active and relatively well known in the Orange Unified School District.

Now all that’s left is to find him.

“Absolutely nobody, but nobody has seen this guy,” said Paul Pruss, a middle school teacher and president of the union. “The whole thing is just bizarre.”

Mr. Rocco provided little information about himself in his candidate filings. He ignored mail from district officials and the teachers’ union during the campaign. When the PTA sent him an invitation to a candidate forum, the letter came back unopened.

He ran for mayor of Santa Ana in 2000 and raised eyebrows then as well. He declined to provide personal information or to discuss the campaign, and showed up at a candidate forum dressed in camouflage and sunglasses. He came in last place, with 12 percent of the vote.

What might have helped him this time around was that he identified himself as a educator/writer on the ballot, though he offered no proof of those occupations.

“Not knowing anything more, most people voted for the educator/writer over the park ranger,” said John Hanna, an attorney who ran successfully against an equally elusive Mr. Rocco two years ago for a seat on a local community college district.

No one came to the door Friday at Mr. Rocco’s home southeast of Los Angeles, where he lives with his bedridden parents. The front gate of the house is adorned with a fading Johnny Cash record album cover and 10 small American flags hang in the yard. Neighbors said they see him occasionally, usually on a bicycle.

He is 53 and was born in Italy, according to his voter registration, where he declined to state his party affiliation. The candidate did not respond to press requests for interviews during the campaign and didn’t bother with a ballot statement outlining his platform.

If he shows up for the monthly meetings of the district, Mr. Rocco will receive $750 per month. But officials are wondering what they will do if he is as scarce in office as he was during the campaign.

He will be one of seven board members in charge of setting policy for a district that has a budget of $230 million and serves nearly 32,000 students at 42 schools in Orange and surrounding cities.

The teachers’ union endorsed Mr. Rocco’s opponent, Phil Martinez, a park ranger who has three children in the district, is president of the PTA at his kids’ school and is active with the Boy Scouts.

Still, Mr. Rocco, who has no children and whose job is uncertain, won with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

Mr. Martinez raised contributions, attended forums and sent out a political mailing to homes of voters in the district — none of which his opponent did.

Mr. Hanna, who has followed local politics for 30 years, dismissed one scenario that has been suggested, that voters chose the non-Hispanic name over Martinez.

“This is just one of the rough edges in our electoral system, where the voters can elect someone they know nothing about,” he said.

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