Following an impressive but unsuccessful showing in the 2022 elections, Marine veteran and lawyer Joseph Rocha has doubled down on his commitment and qualifications to lead San Diego. Rocha has now set his eyes on open race for California’s Assembly District 76, which includes parts of northcentral San Diego and the cities of San Marcos and Escondido.
Rocha, who is openly gay, rose to national prominence in advocating for repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and by providing key witness testimony in one lawsuit’s successful constitutional challenge.
Rocha’s testimony in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States details his exemplary dedication to service and commitment to excellence against the backdrop of dehumanizing harassment.
On his eighteenth birthday, Rocha signed up for service. Because he was not admitted to the Naval Academy right out of high school, Rocha set his sights on achieving entrance to the Officer Training School through hard work and diligence.
Following promotion from basic training, Rocha received training in counterterrorism and force protection and volunteered for deployment in Bahrain. There, Rocha volunteered his off-duty time to earn qualifications for more elite and competitive units with explosive-device canine handlers. Rocha also voluntarily participated in extra martial arts, swimming, and combat operations training, hoping to improve his Naval Academy admissions chances.
Once assigned as kennel support to the canine unit, court records indicate that Rocha “was hazed and harassed constantly, to an unconscionable degree and in shocking fashion.” Incidents detailed include supervisor-assigned beatings on Rocha’s 19th birthday; forced simulation of oral sex on other servicemembers; and a particularly egregious incident where Rocha was “leashed like a dog, paraded around the grounds in front of other soldiers, tied to a chair, force-fed dog food, and left in a dog kennel covered with feces.”
Despite harassment, Rocha earned achievement medals, recommendations for early promotion, and nominations for entrance to the U.S. Naval Academy, choosing instead to apply for the Naval Academy’s preparatory school. It was there that Rocha reflected on what 15 to 20 more years of closeted service would entail. He came out to his superior officers, was discharged under the DADT policy, and subsequently was diagnosed with service-related disorders including “post-traumatic stress disorder with major depression.”
Despite challenges, Rocha’s testimony was admitted at trial and relevant to the trial court’s decision. In October 2010 the court ruled that the policy violated the constitutional rights of its servicemembers and issued a permanent injunction barring further enforcement.
Just two months later, while Rocha’s case was under appeal, congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, repeal legislation in December 2010. The case was dismissed as moot, though the legislation did not go into effect until September 2011, following comprehensive implementation measures.
Continuing to Serve
Rocha has previously worked as a field coordinator for San Francisco mayoral hopeful Bevan Duffy and interned at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, according to the Bay Area Reporter. Rocha graduated law school in 2016 and has completed service as a judge advocate with the Unites States Marine Corps.
“I served for years under the Trump presidency. I saw the transgender ban, the Muslim ban, and an insurrection,” noted Rocha to the Bay Area Reporter.
His hope then continues to resonate today: “I certainly hope my sort of adversity and fighting and never giving up, even circling back later in life with my dad, serve as inspiration for others to wage their own battles in service of their country, of their communities.”
After initially announcing a bid for a congressional seat, Rocha shifted his focus to challenging incumbent state Senator Brian Jones in 2022.
As a first-time candidate, Rocha ran a spirited and impressive campaign. He raised over $1.5 million and demonstrated strong cross-political party appeal. Rocha earned 149,948 votes, almost 47 percent of the roughly 320,000 votes cast, according to County election results. Results within AD 76 are particularly impressive: Rocha won the district, earning 50.5 percent of the vote, despite losing districtwide.
2024 Race for AD 76
California’s presidential primary is set for March 5, 2024, with mail ballots sent out about 30 days before the election (less than a year from today). AD 76 has a seven-point Democratic Party advantage though voters indicating no party preference make up nearly a third of voters. Assemblymember Brian Maienschein won his six sixth and last race for the district, by just under 5,000 votes. With no incumbent, the 2024 race is expected to be more competitive.
Republican and second-place finisher in the 2022 AD 76 race, Kristie Bruce-Lane is set to compete again in 2024, with early support from County Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson as well as numerous municipal elected officials in San Diego County, according to her campaign website.
Also in the race is Poway school board president Darshana Patel. Patel has served on the school board since 2016 and in various leadership roles, including on the Police Captains Advisory Board and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. Patel’s list of early endorsements includes former state senator Dede Alpert, Assemblymember Tasha Boerner-Horvath, San Diego City Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, and many education board leaders across the district, according to her campaign’s announcement.
Notably, Patel may also arguably hold a strong intra-party advantage for the coveted Democratic Party endorsement. Patel was elected to the Democratic State Central Committee, according to the California Democratic Party’s website, which published results of the often-overlooked intra-party leadership elections. In the same contest, Patel also won a seat on the Party’s Executive Board, by earning the most votes in the district, with 189 votes.
Rocha has a history of putting in the work despite obstacles, institutional or otherwise. This may serve him well in this new fight. Since announcing, Rocha has earned institutional support from Equality California and Painters and Allied Trade District Council 36. Local supporters include State Insurance Commission Ricardo Lara, state Senator Steve Padilla, retired Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, and retired San Marcos Councilmember Randy Walton, according to his campaign website.