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Progressive Conservative candidate Rocco Rossi, left, is joined by Doug Ford at an outdoor BBQ at the Columbus Centre in Toronto on Aug. 24, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Progressive Conservative candidate Rocco Rossi, left, is joined by Doug Ford at an outdoor BBQ at the Columbus Centre in Toronto on Aug. 24, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ridings to Watch

Ontario PCs and Liberals battle for the heart of Toronto Add to ...

Rocco Rossi has a story he likes to tell when he’s asked why he spent most of his life in the Liberal Party.

He was only 12 or 13, he says, when he attended a Progressive Conservative riding association meeting at the invitation of then-MPP Dennis Timbrell – only to feel “extremely uncomfortable” among a crowd of older Anglo-Saxons who made disparaging references to “those people.” At the end of the meeting, he says, Mr. Timbrell apologized that the party was not “where we need to be,” and Mr. Rossi defaulted to the party his Italian-Canadian family had always supported.

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Today, by his account, the Tories finally are where they need to be. So less than two years after leaving the Liberals, he is both the PC candidate in Eglinton-Lawrence and the most public face of Tim Hudak’s party in Toronto – an immigrant-heavy city where provincial Conservatives have yet to win a seat this century.

Others ascribe less noble motives to him. At the campaign-office opening for Mike Colle, the veteran Liberal MPP whom Mr. Rossi will try to unseat, volunteers were more inclined to spit Mr. Rossi’s name than say it. Last year’s failed mayoral bid drew contempt from some, and others dismissed him as a crass opportunist.

Mr. Colle, a 16-year incumbent, insists that Mr. Rossi’s entry has motivated more Liberals to help his own campaign. But most everyone expects this campaign to be heated and emotional and a little bit nasty. Because if there is a battle for the heart of Toronto, Eglinton-Lawrence might be it.

***

The riding is effectively two places, and it once would have been easy to guess which party would prosper where.

East of Bathurst lies North Toronto – upper-income, highly educated, and primarily families with deep roots in Canada. It’s the sort of place that would have been safe ground for the Big Blue Machine back when Mr. Rossi was scared away.

These days, North Toronto should be fertile ground for Dalton McGuinty – a place where a long-term vision (which he’s decent at communicating) matters more than connecting with people’s day-to-day challenges (which he finds difficult). The fact that this was one of the few parts of the city where Rob Ford trailed former Liberal deputy premier George Smitherman in the mayoral election suggests it’s not clamouring for the Tories’ pocketbook populism.

West of Bathurst lies the more working-class part where Liberals have long dominated, and where they are now struggling.

Here are the Italian-Canadians who have voted Liberal since they got their citizenship; the growing Filipino population that once would have rushed to the party long perceived as the default choice for newcomers; and minority groups in public housing. Mr. Ford carried every neighbourhood here last year, and Mr. Rossi could find an audience for the Tories’ message that policies like the new harmonized sales tax mean Liberals have lost touch with everyday people.

Take into account that the large Jewish community running down the middle of the riding has found a champion in Prime Minister Stephen Harper and it’s clear why the Conservatives heavily targeted Eglinton-Lawrence in this spring’s federal campaign. Although they won it by a smaller margin than some other Toronto seats, they knocked off a 23-year Liberal incumbent in Joe Volpe.

Now, Mr. Rossi is aiming to piggyback on Mr. Ford’s gains – trying to get his former rival to appear alongside him at events – and those of his new federal cousins, and hoping people realize they can vote something other than Liberal.

An evening canvass this summer through a predominantly Italian neighbourhood seemed to give credence to his optimism. Speaking to voters in their first language, Mr. Rossi got a warm response and a surprising number of commitments to put up his lawn signs.

Liberals argue that politely agreeing to put up a lawn sign isn’t the same as abandoning long-held voting allegiances. And when it comes to reinforcing old loyalties, they have quite the horse of their own.

***

Less than three months before the 2007 election, a scandal over grants to multicultural groups forced Mr. Colle to resign as Mr. McGuinty’s Immigration and Citizenship Minister.

But while his margin of victory was much narrower than before, he still won by more than 2,000 votes.

A heart-on-the-sleeve sort of guy, Mr. Colle has clearly worked diligently to build long-standing relationships – and not just among fellow Italian-Canadians. From the Jewish men at a retirement facility near Bathurst Street to the women at a community centre in low-income Lotherton and the Jamaican-Canadian merchants along Eglinton Avenue, most everyone greeted him warmly on a recent tour of the riding, usually with a story about how he helped them.

There’s something endearingly old-school about the slightly shameless way Mr. Colle presses the flesh. And the premature end to his cabinet career has allowed him to champion causes that matter to his constituents rather than just implement and represent the government’s agenda.

This campaign has the feel of a final bow for Mr. Colle. But the stakes seem high for him too; it would be a cruel blow if his constituents rejected all that work he’s put into the riding.

For Mr. Rossi, a victory would validate his decision to leave the party he once served federally as executive director. A defeat, after last year’s dismal mayoral campaign, would make him the butt of jokes.

Eglinton-Lawrence presents a big test. For the Tories to prove they’re not the same old PC Party, they need to win this kind of riding. For the Liberals to prove they haven’t lost touch with their traditional supporters, it’s the kind of riding they can’t afford to lose.

At the core is the question Mr. Rossi confronted nearly four decades ago. When it comes to representing the new Toronto, which party is where it needs to be?

BY THE NUMBERS

16 - Number of years Liberal incumbent Mike Colle has served in the Ontario legislature. He represented the riding of Oakwood from 1995 until 1999, when Eglinton-Lawrence was created. He has won Eglinton-Lawrence in every election since then.

7 - Number of consecutive federal elections former Liberal MP Joe Volpe won in the riding. He represented Eglinton-Lawrence in Ottawa from 1988 to 2011, when Conservative MP Joe Oliver took it by a plurality of 4,062.

$80,666 - Median family income in 2005, before taxes. That’s more than $10,000 above the province’s median family income.

110,065 - Total population

42,490 - The number of people living in the riding who immigrated to Canada. At nearly 40 per cent of the riding’s population, that’s about 11 per cent higher than the percentage of immigrants living in Ontario.

34,500 - The number of people over the age of 15 with a bachelor’s degree. That’s nearly double the proportion of people over 15 across Ontario who hold the degree.

340 - The number of people who identify as aboriginal. Provincially, about 20 per cent of people identify as aboriginal.

- Kim Mackrael

Sources: Statistics Canada 2006 census; Parliament of Canada; Legislative Assembly of Ontario

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