(Editor’s Note: Both the answers and questions have been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)
After serving 28 years in the U.S. Marine Corp, Rocky Chavez entered local politics in Oceanside in 2002, and was elected to the State Assembly in Nov. 2012. He is currently serving his first term.)
What is your background? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Los Angeles County Hospital in 1951. I grew up in the barrio in Redondo Beach. My father worked for U.S. Steel. Eventually we moved to Torrance and I graduated from Torrance High School in 1969. I first went to El Camino College and then transferred to Chico State where I got a degree in English in 1973. At the time I thought I would end up being an English teacher and a wrestling coach.
I was a wrestler and was pretty good. I was in the Olympic trials in both 1968 and 1972 for both Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling.
Your career path took a different route. What made you look to the military for a career?
When I was in college, I used to work at an almond packing plant in Gridley. After I graduated from college, I started working toward my teaching credential while still working in that plant. I realized that if I joined the military, I would qualify for the GI Bill, which would help pay for further education. At the time and into the mid-1970s, I was interested in becoming a lawyer. In fact, I eventually took the LSAT (Law School Aptitude Test) and was accepted to law schools.
But here it was 1973 and I decided to join the Marine Corp. I started with a two and a half year commitment and it ended up being a 28-year career. Over the years I did many things and kept getting promoted. By the time I retired I had served in all four division of the Marine Corp and held many different positions. I rose to the rank of Colonel and was chief of staff for the 4th Marine Division with 22,000 Marines under me.
How did you get involved in the political world?
I was always interested in local politics and so when I retired in September of 2001, I was urged to run for the City Council in Oceanside (near the Camp Pendleton Marine Base). I was elected in 2002 and got immersed in local politics for this small little town of 186,000 people. At the same time, I was the founding director of the School of Business and Technology, a charter High School in the Oceanside Unified School District. I was the school’s director for six years and I also coached wrestling, which I had actually started doing while I was still in the Marines.
I very much enjoy politics on the local level. I like governance and making a community work. I really like the process, which I’m sure comes from my years in the Marines.
What convinced you to run for a legislative seat?
During the Schwarzenegger Administration, I was appointed Undersecretary of the Veterans Office for the state and eventually became the Acting Secretary. When Gov. Brown was elected he eventually picked his own people and I came back to Oceanside. While I was in the Veteran’s Office, I interacted with legislators and that appealed to me. So when I came back to Oceanside I ended up running for the Assembly and won.
How do you rate your first year in office?
I think I was very successful. I believe I got the most bills passed of anyone in the Republican Caucus. I get along with everyone and just do my job. When I first came into the Legislature I was given three committees: Education, Higher Ed and Veterans Affairs. None of those are what you would call “juice committees.” But now I have Utilities and Health as well as the other three and I am on 17 Select Committees. I just do my job and try to get along with everyone. In fact, I am about to have a joint fundraiser with a Democrat.
The California Legislature does appear to be getting more done these days. Is that your sense? What do you think the difference is from a few years ago when it was accused of being stuck in gridlock?
I do think that’s true. Democrats and Republicans are talking and working together. I think the Open Primary system has a lot to do with that. Most of us have 15 to 25 percent of the voters in our district who decline to state a political preference. We have to be more pragmatic and work to accomplish more things. I also think the fact that we can stay in the position for as long as 12 years is very helpful. That allows you the opportunity to work on issues until you can get something done.
Is it your plan to stay in your seat for 12 years? Do you have any higher political ambitions?
My philosophy is to “bloom where you are planted.” If you try to reach too high you will fall. That philosophy has carried me through life. I thought I was just going to join the Marine Corp to get the GI Bill and I ended up commanding 22,000 Marines. I thought I was just going to be an English teacher and a wrestling coach and I ended up being the principal of the high school. I started out as Undersecretary in the Veterans Office and became the Secretary. I thought I was just going to be a city councilman and I ended up in the Assembly. I am just going to do the best job I can and we will see where that gets me.
Agriculture is an important part of California’s economy but the industry doesn’t believe it gets a fair shake in Sacramento. Do you agree?
I do agree. A lot of people don’t understand agriculture. In the Hispanic Caucus I have asked how many people have worked in agriculture and only a few of us can raise our hands. As I said I worked in almonds and much of my family has been involved in agriculture. I have relatives in the San Joaquin Valley who have worked in agriculture for many years.
I do have quite a bit of agriculture in my district and I have gotten out and met with many of the farmers including Fred Williamson and Paul Ecke. Not too long ago I went out to Jon Vessey’s farm in the Imperial Valley and got quite an education.
Some legislators get it — especially those from the (San Joaquin) Valley, but a lot don’t. They don’t understand that we need to create jobs and they don’t understand what agriculture contributes — especially some of the legislators from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Immigration reform is a big issue for agriculture. What are your thoughts on the subject?
We need to get something done especially for all those people who just want to come here and work. We need them. We also need to do something for the “dreamers.” They came here very young and they should be legal and be able to enter our labor force. This is a very serious issue and I am only sorry that I am just an assemblyman and it is not our issue to solve.
What are the top issues facing your districts?
Oceanside has three main components. We have Camp Pendleton, which I call a low return, blue chip stock. Even during the recession, the government continues to fund Camp Pendleton so Oceanside actually had lower unemployment than most areas.
We also have a high risk industry in tourism which includes the hotels, Torrey Pines and Legoland. And now we have a biomed manufacturing industry that is helping to create jobs.
Our biggest concerns are crime and education. And with the closing of San Onofre, we also have energy concerns.
I know water is a very big issue to agriculture and a big issue in the state but we are in the process of building a desalinization plant in Carlsbad which is going to help with our water needs.
Our members grow the finest fruits and vegetables in the world. Do you consume our products?
All the time. I love avocados and apples and anything that is citrus. My wife is trying to get me to eat more kale. I also eat at least 10 almonds a day…and where I’m from (Chico almond industry) we call them amons.
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