Gay vet Rocha seeks San Diego Assembly seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday January 19, 2023
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Gay veteran Joseph C. Rocha, with his dog Daytwa, has announced he's running for a San Diego County state Assembly seat in 2024. Photo: Courtesy Rocha campaign
Gay veteran Joseph C. Rocha, with his dog Daytwa, has announced he's running for a San Diego County state Assembly seat in 2024. Photo: Courtesy Rocha campaign

Two months after losing his bid for a state Senate seat, gay veteran Joseph C. Rocha of Escondido has launched his campaign for an open San Diego County Assembly seat that will be on the ballot in 2024. Rocha is the third LGBTQ candidate to officially announce his candidacy for a legislative seat next year.

In November, Rocha lost his contest against state Senator Brian Jones (R-Santee) in the newly drawn 40th Senate District in San Diego County. He had initially sought a U.S. House seat, announcing in 2021 his bid to oust Republican Congressman Darrell Issa from his suburban seat northeast of San Diego.

Facing long odds to win that race, Rocha, 36, then switched ambitions and jumped into the state legislative race. He again faced steep odds as a first-time electoral candidate running against an incumbent.

Now he is vying to succeed Assemblymember Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego), who will be termed out of his 76th Assembly District seat next year. First elected in 2012 as a Republican, Maienschein switched to the Democratic Party in 2019, upset with the GOP's embrace of extremist positions during the Trump administration.

"I'm running for state Assembly to put duty and service over self and to get things done for the people of our community," stated Rocha, who lives with his dog Daytwa, in a January 19 statement announcing his candidacy. "North Inland San Diego County and California are grappling with a range of crises, from housing and homelessness to the urgent threat of climate change, the need for better paying and more middle class jobs, investments in public schools, increased access to health care, safer neighborhoods and a more just society for all communities."

As the Bay Area Reporter reported last month, lesbian Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona) is seeking to succeed Senator Richard D. Roth (D-Riverside), who will be termed out of his 31st Senate District seat next year. Roth endorsed Cervantes, 35, in what is expected to be a competitive race for the open seat.

Running to succeed Cervantes is her younger sister, Clarissa, who also launched her candidacy in December for the Assembly District 58 seat. Clarissa Cervantes, 32, who uses she and they pronouns, identifies as bisexual and queer.

Should the sisters win their races, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ California legislator has been succeeded by their out sibling. They would also be the first pair of LGBTQ siblings to serve together in Sacramento.

The primaries for state legislative races will be on the March 5, 2024 primary ballot, as the election is being held early due to it being a presidential election year. Under California's top-two primary system, the trio of out candidates will need to place either first or second in their respective Southern California contests in order to advance to the November 5 general election that fall.

Number of endorsements

Rocha announced Thursday he had endorsements from a number of groups, officials, and LGBTQ leaders from around the state. The advocacy group VoteVets is backing his Assembly bid, as is Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Five of the current 12 members of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus also early endorsed Rocha in the race. Among them are three freshmen members of the affinity group: gay Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-West Hollywood), gay Senator Steve Padilla (D-San Diego), and lesbian Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley).

"The hard working communities across North County deserve a leader like Joseph who will roll up his sleeves and get to work just like they do," stated Padilla. "I know Joseph's ability to bring people together will help build consensus and find solutions to address some of California's biggest issues like affordable housing, homelessness, healthcare, and job creation."

Gay Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), co-chair of the Legislative Jewish Caucus, and lesbian Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), a U.S. Army veteran and current chair of the LGBTQ caucus, also are backing Rocha's Assembly bid.

"Joseph has always had the courage to lead with his convictions," noted Eggman. "When he was discharged from the Navy for being gay, Joseph showed he's not afraid to stand up for what's right and fought to overturn 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' — then returned to the military as a Marine Corps Officer. As a fellow veteran, I am proud to endorse a servant leader like Joseph Rocha for State Assembly."

Rocha's grandparents emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s and found work in California's tomato fields and canneries. His mother struggled with drug addiction and lost custody of Rocha when he was 7 years old after leading the police on a high-speed car chase.

Rocha's father, a truck driver, raised him and his siblings in Riverside. They had a falling out when Rocha came out of the closet at 17 and his father kicked him out of their house.

A year later Rocha enlisted in the Navy and served as a bomb dog handler in the Persian Gulf. But, in 2007, he was discharged under DADT due to his sexual orientation, having been hazed by fellow service members who suspected he was gay. Shortly thereafter Rocha's mother died.

He lent his story to the public, legal, and political fights to overturn DADT, pledging to re-enlist if the anti-LGBTQ policy were overturned. Meanwhile, he graduated first from San Diego City College then the University of San Francisco School of Law in 2016.

Rocha interned with the San Francisco District Attorney's office. He also served as a field coordinator on gay former supervisor Bevan Dufty's unsuccessful 2011 bid to become mayor of San Francisco.

After former President Barack Obama signed the bill repealing DADT in December 2010, Rocha was accepted to the Marine Officer Candidate School. He rose through the ranks and served as a judge advocate.

Having satisfied his eight-year commitment with the Marine Corps, Rocha two years ago moved back to the San Diego area from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to focus on running for elected office. The San Diego Union Tribune had endorsed him for the state Senate seat last year.

"As someone who has dedicated my life's work to defending our nation and protecting our freedom, I'm excited to stay in the fight, building a broad coalition and earning the support of voters in every corner of the 76th District," stated Rocha.

Should he win, Rocha would help maintain there being three out members of the Legislature from San Diego County. In addition to Padilla, who will not be up for reelection until 2026, gay Democratic Assemblymember Chris Ward also represents a San Diego seat.

With lesbian Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) termed out in 2024, Ward could opt to seek to succeed her in the Senate. Elected in 2020 and now vice-chair of the LGBTQ caucus, Ward could also choose to seek reelection to his Assembly seat next year.

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