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Rose Rocco, Hernando official who urged work across party lines, dies at 78

Rocco served one term as Hernando County Commissioner, from 2006 to 2010, and later ran for a state House seat.

BROOKSVILLE — Long before today’s political polarization discouraged a reach across the aisle, Rose Rocco built a reputation on wanting to help everyone, regardless of party affiliation.

She crossed the party line herself, shifting from Republican to Democrat and winning a Hernando County Commission seat in 2006. Before that, she was active in community organizations and founded Operation PRIDE, a community cleanup group. And after her commission tenure ended in 2010, she kept running for office, as she emphasized community over party in unsuccessful 2012 and 2014 bids for a state House seat.

“She didn’t have an ulterior motive for running for County Commission other than doing good for our community,” said Diane Rowden, a former commissioner who served alongside Rocco.

Rocco died last week. She was 78.

Rocco’s last bid for office was a 2016 run for a Hernando County School Board seat. She dropped out before the election when the cancer she had beaten years earlier returned. But even as she went through cancer treatments, Rowden said, she still came to community events, often in the company of her husband, Peter.

Born in Brooklyn, Rocco moved to Hernando County in 1993. She worked in accounting and customer service and as a sales representative before retiring. She twice ran unsuccessfully for County Commission, in 2002 and 2004, as a Republican. In 2006, she faced Nancy Robinson, who’d held the seat for 12 years and beat Rocco handily in 2002, when Robinson was a Democrat and Rocco a Republican.

Rocco ran a campaign that criticized tax cuts and suburban sprawl. Robinson outspent her 8 to 1, but Rocco won in what the Hernando Times called a “stunning upset.” Robinson sued to keep the seat, arguing that Rocco was ineligible because she lived outside the district she ran in on Election Day. But a judge ruled that Rocco only had to live in her district by the time of her swearing-in two weeks later.

Rowden said the incident clarified a muddled law and proved one of Rocco’s most distinct qualities: “Rose is a fighter, OK?”

As a commissioner, Rocco supported local public transit, which was then a point of controversy. And she pressed for revitalization in neglected south Brooksville. She lost a 2010 bid for re-election to Wayne Dukes, who earned the Republican establishment’s support with a low-tax, low-spending platform. Dukes still sits on the commission today.

Rocco continued to speak as a citizen at commission meetings, and in 2012, ran against incumbent state Rep. Robert Schenk. She pushed for communication across party lines and between levels of government, and said the state needed to focus more on local issues. In her 2014 campaign, she promised to prioritize the needs of residents and not bow to lobbyists or political powers.

“I’ve always been big on communicating," she said in 2012. “We need a voice and not empty suits up there.”

One other constant during her political career, Rowden remembered, was the presence of Rocco’s husband, Peter. He sat in the back of the boardroom during every commission meeting, she said, and though Rocco could drive, he chauffeured her.

After meetings ended, they would walk out of the courthouse together, holding hands as they headed home.

The Brewer & Sons Funeral Home announced that it’s holding a Celebration of Life for Rocco at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The funeral home is at 280 Mariner Blvd. in Spring Hill.