This is the eighth in The Globe's series of profiles of the Liberal leadership candidates.
TORONTO - When people talk about Joe Volpe, the conversation frequently turns to 1988 and his hardball fight to wrest the Liberal nomination from a Toronto MP.
Roland de Corneille, an Anglican clergyman popular with the big Jewish community in Eglinton-Lawrence, had survived the 1984 election that devastated the Liberals. But he was facing a challenge from Mr. Volpe, who was then a 40-year-old high-school vice-principal and party organizer.
More than 4,000 people packed a hall in a Toronto airport hotel to settle one of the year's biggest local Liberal disputes.
Mr. Volpe addressed the meeting first. His supporters went to the voting booth en masse as Mr. de Corneille headed to the podium.
"He cued everybody. He organized everybody to get up and block the voting booths, so only his people could get in there," George Berger, who was then Mr. de Corneille's constituency assistant, said of Mr. Volpe in an interview. "If you have 2,500 people waiting in line before you, you're going to say 'the hell with it, I'm going home.'"
But veteran party organizers express little sympathy for such allegations, saying hardball is the name of the game in organizing for nominations and leadership campaigns.
While the tactics may have been routine, the battle was not. Knocking out a sitting MP from your own party is both daring and controversial in the ethos of party politics.
Today, Mr. Volpe makes no apologies to those who think he violated some unwritten rule.
"I don't know whether it's Marquess of Queensberry rules that applied or didn't apply. If you have nominations that are open, presumably it means that all those who can garner the support can run," he said. Even now, some Liberals point to it as a nakedly ambitious step - a "Shakespearean act," in the words of a former senior Liberal government aide - more in the style of a warring chieftain than a prospective statesman.
But Mr. Volpe's supporters see it differently: It was a contest where the outsider asserted his right to upset the notions that protected a political elite, and rallied people in his community to his side.
In their eyes, Mr. Volpe, an Italian-born immigrant of working-class parents, represented much of Toronto then: immigrants and ethnic community members who got ahead through hard work and did not need what Mr. Volpe called a "white-bread and pretty exclusive" elite to represent them.
Mr. Volpe earned his stripes as an organizer as part of a group that was criticized for recruiting "instant Liberals" from ethnic communities for the 1984 leadership race. He insists they were simply trying to expand the role of those communities in a party that was still "pretty restrictive."
Now, after 18 years as an MP, two cabinet portfolios and a stint as Ontario's senior political minister, Mr. Volpe's background as an organizer is seen as both a strength and a weakness in his Liberal leadership campaign.
His campaign is considered an organizing success, recruiting thousands of new party members to support his candidacy. Although a recent poll showed that Mr. Volpe had the support of only 2 per cent of party members, many organizers for competing campaigns predict that when delegates are chosen for the leadership convention, Mr. Volpe's block of delegates will rank in the top five.
But it is a block they predict will lay there like a slab of concrete, unable to grow. Its weight is important because they think Mr. Volpe will eventually lug it over to another candidate, although some question whether his endorsement will taint the candidate who receives it.
Mr. Volpe's leadership campaign was knocked off stride by a fundraising scandal in June, when he was forced to return five donations of $5,400 each from the under-18 children - including 11-year-old twins - of current and former executives of drug maker Apotex Inc.
For some Liberals, the incident added to their view of Mr. Volpe as just a machine-politics organizer, the poster boy for backroom boys.
"So where are all the backroom boys?" Mr. Volpe asked.
The big-time political operatives have gone to others camps. Even those with past ties to Mr. Volpe have gone elsewhere, saying privately that he doesn't have the royal jelly of a leader or that they just aren't committed to his bid.
His campaign has also been plagued by defections. B.C. MP and organizer Sukh Dhaliwal left after the fundraising scandal. National campaign manager Jim Karygiannis, a Scarborough MP, left over Mr. Volpe's staunch pro-Israel stand during the Lebanon war.
Mr. Volpe likes praise for his organizing prowess. But he also comes across as someone who resents being stuck with an organizer's tag. He started as a local party policy official, spent decades as an active Liberal, MP and minister, has three university degrees, is hard-working and well spoken and boasts of a block of supporters. But still, he's not a golden boy.
"Part of it is the reputation that people want to label you with if they think it's to your disadvantage," he said. "Because the term organizer has taken on a rather pejorative meaning."
He said he wants to be prime minister to press his ideas about rising challenges such as demographic change and international competition. The answer, he says, is to build an inclusive society that accepts immigration and to expand the economy by creating a competitive educational and skills-training network.---As he walks through his riding, Joe Volpe is a gregarious man about town with an Old-World charm. When a woman offers a gift of pizza, he laughs and stands up to kiss her hand. He watches over guests to make sure they have eaten well.
People walk up in a constant stream to give him their views on politics, and chat. It's like the opening scenes of King of Kensington, except that instead of Larry King's blue-collar style on the 1970s TV show, Mr. Volpe carries himself more like an affable town squire.
His bonhomie is not quite, as he calls it, wearing his heart on his sleeve. He also has a stiff-upper-lip ethic that dictates he be a master of his emotions. Friends and staffers say they've never heard him yell or kick over a garbage can - although he feels slights and seethes when he is angry.
He is, by all accounts, a family man dedicated to his four children, who loves playing with his six grandchildren and is devoted to his elegant wife of 33 years. He told few about his wife's battle with cancer over the past nine years, and won't discuss it now. Mirella Volpe, 57, says only that everyone gets sick some times. "I'm fine," she said.
Mr. Volpe, who turns 59 today, greets people with a warm smile, and is famous for telling long stories aimed more at being engrossing than reaching a conclusion.
Much of Mr. Volpe's ideals are patterned after those of his father, Luciano, a factory worker from humble circumstances who educated himself, carried himself with elegance and was so respected in the community that others went to him for advice. To his son, he was an example of uncomplaining hard work, drive and learning.
Ask Joe Volpe now what he wanted to be as a child, and he blurts out: "I wanted to be a man, like my father."
When Luciano Volpe grew up in Monteleone di Puglia, a hilltop farming town near the top of the heel of the boot of Italy, there was one five-grade school. But he learned to read and write Italian, German and later English, and, Mr. Volpe noted with pride, could do his son's Grade 13 math problems.
Less than four years after Joe Volpe was born in 1947, Luciano Volpe joined a stream of postwar emigrants heading to Toronto.
He worked to sponsor his wife, Rocchina, and his three children to join him. In 1954, they landed in Halifax and rode a train to Toronto's Union Station, where the first person seven-year-old Joe saw was his father. "It was the anticipation of a child," Mr. Volpe said. "He was larger than life. He had to be a great person. And he was."
Joe was immediately immersed in an ethnic, urban Toronto that belied the city's Victorian image. His family moved to a Jewish neighbourhood around College Street and later to a working-class Italian neighbourhood at St. Clair and Dufferin, in polyglot West Toronto, where his father worked in a warehouse of a prescription-drug distributor, and insisted Joe attend De La Salle College, then a private Catholic school.
At the University of Toronto, Mr. Volpe studied history, thought about joining the foreign service, but instead entered the College of Education.
He earned a reputation as a dedicated, strict but well liked teacher, basketball coach and vice-principal, but moonlighted in real estate when he and Mirella had four children in five years. Politics was always discussed at the dinner table, and it was always in the back of his mind. And they were his father's Liberal politics.
When he volunteered for a local Liberal in Ontario's 1981 election, he was persuaded to run in a neighbouring riding instead. The incumbent was a popular New Democrat and the Liberals needed a doomed standard-bearer. Mr. Volpe entered with little party help but lots of student volunteers, and almost won. He chalked up his loss to a more well-oiled NDP organization and learned a lesson: "Get ready."
Mr. Volpe started popping up in Liberal circles and in the community. He wrote commentaries in Italian-language newspapers, hosted an Italian-language radio show, volunteered with a string of community organizations and built a reputation as an organizer.
By 1988, he was ready. All that was left was to win the nomination over Mr. de Corneille, and then win the election by 8,000 votes. Mr. de Corneille campaigned for the Tory candidate.
In opposition, Mr. Volpe was a Paul Martin supporter, bolstering his reputation as an organizer in the 1990 leadership race. When Jean Chrétien led the Liberals to power in 1993, Mr. Volpe had no expectation of a cabinet post, and as a backbencher his influence was modest. He was interested in education and immigration and known for staunch pro-Israel views, but was not seen as the leading advocate of any cause except for federal funding for Toronto facilities.
Mr. Chrétien's aides eyed him warily as a Martin loyalist, and he was one of the MPs who lined up colleagues to press Mr. Chrétien to leave in 2003. When Mr. Martin formed his cabinet, Mr. Volpe became both Ontario minister and human-resources minister. He was deemed hard-working and intense, with an affinity for the struggles of immigrants. When he became immigration minister in 2005, he spent a lot of his time planning an amnesty for some illegal workers, despite stiff cabinet resistance.
But his style as Ontario's senior political minister - the overseer of appointments, projects and strategy - ruffled feathers with cabinet colleagues, the Prime Minister's Office and key figures such as Toronto Mayor David Miller.
At the world dragon-boat championships in Toronto in August, Mr. Volpe pointed to the $23-million course as one of his accomplishments. But he insisted he had to embarrass the city into supporting it, and they fought about the site.
Mr. Miller credits Mr. Volpe with successes such as a new Toronto soccer stadium. But he said that when the MP became Toronto minister, he wanted to make all the decisions. "He was a very hands-on minister in certain files, like the waterfront," he said.
Even some close to Mr. Volpe believe his style of wielding power hurt him. Other Ontario ministers chafed under his whip-cracking style, and his famously long speeches. And his penchant for guarding decisions to himself was reinforced by his tendency to act as his own political adviser.
"Joe's a bit of an 'I fought for this my whole life, and I want to keep it to myself' kind of guy," said one former aide. "But the way to build power in politics is to share it."