REGION — An attorney turned full-time Democratic candidate, Joseph Rocha, spoke with The Coast News about his campaign to unseat incumbent State Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) in the 40th State Senate District primary race.
A former Navy sailor, Rocha was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” After joining plaintiffs in a landmark decision ruling the former policy was unconstitutional, Rocha joined the Marines, served as a military police officer, completed Officer Candidate School and climbed to the rank of captain.
Rocha, a gay man and son of Mexican immigrants, was also the first in his family to graduate college and law school after earning his associate’s degree from a community college.
For Rocha, taking care of veterans is an important issue, along with housing and the cost of living.
The Democrat said he’s put his career on hold to run for this seat against Jones. Since Jones and Rocha are the only two candidates in the primary race, Rocha will likely go head-to-head against the long-time state Republican legislator from Santee in the November general election.
The newly-drawn 40th State Senate District covers East and North County from El Cajon to Mount Laguna, north to Borrego Springs, west to Fallbrook and Bonsall and includes San Marcos, Escondido and Rancho Santa Fe.
For years, critics of the California legislature have decried the state’s alleged ongoing push to erode local control. A recent example of what many believe is state overreach has been Senate bills 9 and 10.
SB 9 allows up to four units and a total of eight market-rate units on lots zoned for single-family housing, while SB 10 allows buildings of up to 10 market-rate units on single-family lots.
Rocha argued that many of the issues must begin at the municipal government level since they know and understand issues of concern as they are more closely connected to voters and understand the issues.
However, due to the pandemic and current economic instability furthering the crisis of unaffordability, Rocha said it is appropriate for the state to take action.
“Once you reach that crisis level, it is absolutely the responsibility of the state as a good steward to encourage cities who want to ignore those needs,” Rocha said. “You have some cities that absolutely push back on any housing requirements. We all have to lift this burden together and it’s not fair for any other municipality to be carrying this responsibility any more than any other.”
In regard to the apparent overreach of SB 9 and SB 10, Rocha said progress in housing is needed, but he is cautious about the secondary effects of legislation. For example, in both recent housing bills, there are concerns about rushing to pack a large number of housing units on the market and the impact such action would likely have on local infrastructures, such as roads, water and schools.
Rocha said if the state wants to enact a law but runs up against municipal feasibility issues, both individual cities and state officials should work together to figure out the best solution.
Regarding development and transportation, Rocha said it’s helpful to approach those issues by building safer, increasing green spaces, and completing simpler transportation projects, such as protected bike paths and walking trails, to allow residents the option to integrate these options into their lives.
“It’s about giving cities the support necessary to solve these issues, not being heavy handed,” Rocha said. “Allow them to handle the issue at the local level, when possible, not when we’re facing crisis levels in these issues.”
Arguably one of the pressing issues facing the state is homelessness, which has exploded over the past decade. Accordingly, California has dedicated $12 billion over the past three years and at least another $3 billion over the next two years to address the issue.
Rocha said a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not the way to go. Instead, Rocha endorses using a multi-prong approach to target the root problems of homelessness, including mental health, drug addiction, housing affordability and supply.
Rocha said he suffers from a service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder and what comes with it is post-traumatic growth, famously championed by former Marine Gen. Jim Mattis.
“People who experience trauma, and many of our unhoused population do, can come out the other side stronger, better equipped and with more tools than before the trauma,” Rocha said. “I think it’s necessary for us to approach homelessness with this kind of mindset.”
For example, the former approach to helping homeless veterans was looking at those individuals as broken due to their trauma. Rocha said once that idea was reshaped, veterans had a better opportunity to escape homelessness and re-join society.
Rocha said access to long-term recovery services rather than cycling through expensive and ineffective programs is a better solution.
Another potential challenge is the “gray tsunami,” Rocha said, referring to seniors on fixed incomes and struggling to afford their homes. Additionally, he said it is important for the state not to be hijacked by corporations and for workers to be earning the wages they need to thrive.
“As much as candidates will tell you there is a single solution, that’s just not true,” Rocha said. “We are going to have to tackle these root causes. It’s a massive issue. I’m not interested in excuses, and I want to find solutions.”
Taxes, regulations and economy
It’s no secret the state has the fifth-largest economy in the world and is expecting a record budget surplus of $97.5 million this year.
Rocha said for most residents, California is unaffordable, with growing issues of homelessness, mental health and housing impacting voters’ daily lives the most. According to Rocha, something has got to give, such as easing the tax burden and providing housing or “it will bust.”
Rocha said he is discouraged by corporate greed yielding record profits while residents struggle to pay for gas and groceries. Rocha said he is focused on curbing corporate greed and calling it out rather than blaming the president or governor.
Rocha said things like a first-time homebuyer program, easing student debt and helping small businesses get started are his top priorities.
“This recovery we talk about was built on the backs of workers who made a lot of sacrifices for us,” Rocha said. “Now that we are speaking of a recovery, the only people who are benefitting from it are these major corporations. They need to pay their fair share of taxes; we need to rein in this profiteering and there are ways we can do that.”
Another priority for Rocha is to combat price gouging of goods, such as baby formula, arguing companies should be taxed heavily as a disincentive. From there, the extra money should flow back to the working class or build back the economy through small businesses.
Rocha also noted the state should plan for another crisis by ensuring reserves are sufficient to help prevent businesses from going bankrupt and people from losing their livelihoods due to an economic downturn.
When it comes to housing instability and insecurity, Rocha said he spent most of his life in that situation. As it relates to affordable housing, yet another crucial issue in the state, he is a bit more optimistic about the future.
Rocha said many representatives will be termed out in the next cycle or two, thus giving newly-elected officials more power, or influence, to move quickly on housing. Rocha said he is tired of the excuses and believes special interest groups will have to play by the rules, especially when it comes to exemptions under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, a state law that he believes needs to be revisited.
Rocha said most Californians have been relegated to renters for life.
“We need to make sure that these contracts are going out to people who want to play well and build communities,” Rocha said. “It’s reimagining how build to build safety … and being mindful of building across the economic scale.”
Rocha said while there is a low-income housing crisis, not enough is being done to address middle-income homes, which he believes are critical in climbing the housing ladder.
For example, a middle-income family is one disaster away from being homeless instead of being able to move to a low-income residence.
Rocha stressed the importance of keeping workers in the cities they live in, rather than commuting, which exacerbates environmental issues by forcing workers to drive to work.
The state has been aggressive in its pursuit of lowering greenhouse gas emissions with a goal of reducing GHGs by 40% to 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% of the same baseline by 2050.
Rocha said the environment is one of his top priorities and said Jones doesn’t believe it’s man-made. Rocha said there are many layers to the environment, and he pointed to a longer fire season as wildfires have been raging every year across the state.
Rocha said dealing with ongoing issues such as retaining walls, fires and infrastructure will only be more expensive and a “fiscal hawk” should be on board with the state’s approach. Rocha said each issue has a solution and with those “hopefully good-paying union jobs.”
Rocha said it’s an opportunity to build the workforce, the UC and Cal State university systems to develop solutions. Those solutions will also benefit local and state economies.
Crime and public safety
According to a recent SANDAG crime report, crime across San Diego County rose by 9% between 2020 and 2021.
Rocha, a former military prosecutor, said he’s not soft on crime and cited his record in law enforcement. While crime is an issue, Rocha said criminalizing things does not always benefit a community or do anything to disincentivize crimes from happening.
Rocha said it comes back to the root cause, saying how does someone get to that point instead of prison. With prison, Rocha said it is less likely an individual will hold down a job or home, thus more likely to engage in recidivism.
“I think we need to be very mindful of that as lawmakers to ensure that we are as focused on creating opportunity as we are in public safety,” Rocha said. “I think those two things go hand-in-hand. The more opportunity there is, the more public safety there is. I absolutely support our law enforcement.”
Also, it is important to strengthen communities through public safety, though those who are in the system unfairly have a way out. Rocha said there are a number of laws that have caused a crisis of imprisonment from three-strikes laws, the War on Drugs, cash bail and for-profit prisons, to name a few.
“There are many laws that have made things worse under the guise of public safety,” Rocha said. “I’m a rare breed. I’m equally as committed to upholding the rule of law and being mindful that law is equitable and just.”