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Dominic Agostino, a youthful veteran of the hard-edged politics of Hamilton East, died yesterday in hospital, battling for his causes until almost the very end. He was 43.

A nine-year Liberal MPP, Mr. Agostino was suffering from liver cancer after previously coming close to death in a battle with pneumonia during last fall's provincial election campaign.

His sudden death came as a shock. Few people outside his family and his staff even knew that he was seriously ill. And when the news came, almost everyone at Queen's Park had difficulty accepting the loss of an energetic colleague who had entered politics at age 20.

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Word of the death of the popular Mr. Agostino had even the most partisan MPPs from all three parties in tears as the legislature marked his death by unanimously agreeing not to sit for two days.

His desk was adorned by a bouquet of red roses.

Among the grief-stricken was John Baird, a Progressive Conservative MPP from Nepean-Carleton whose politics are so different from Mr. Agostino's that their friendship surprised those not familiar with the unique and forgiving culture of the political arena.

In a voice choking with emotion, Mr. Baird told the legislature, "He was a small-l liberal's Liberal. He cared passionately about the disadvantaged. I can tell you that in our first year in government, he was Mike Harris's worst nightmare."

The former energy minister stressed that Mr. Agostino's life wasn't just politics and heated partisan battles. "Our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with his family. . . . His nieces and nephews he was so proud to put on his Christmas card with a big smile, and to his many friends who will miss him greatly."

Even the most steadfast of Tories could not help but admire Mr. Agostino's drive and determination. Born in Italy and raised among the families of steelworkers in Hamilton, he was educated at the very-disciplined Cathedral Boys High School before going on to Mohawk College. After school he became a rehabilitation counsellor with the Ontario March of Dimes and was elected as a separate-school trustee in Hamilton-Wentworth.

He learned many of the techniques of fighting backroom battles from the federal occupant of his riding, Sheila Copps, who recently lost her own attempt to stay on in the national scene.

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Liberal MPPs and staffers learned of his death at a hastily convened meeting in the party's caucus room shortly after 1 o'clock. Most cried openly and hugged each other in grief.

Marie Bountrogianni, who represents the riding of Hamilton Mountain and fought many political battles alongside Mr. Agostino, testified to his tenacity. "Right up until the last he was a fighter," she said.

The Minister of Children and Youth Services said she had talked to him from his hospital bed the day before he died. He had been organizing Liberals to fight back against the Hamilton Spectator over an editorial-page cartoon that criticized the performance of the city's Liberal MPPs.

In the legislature, Premier Dalton McGuinty had trouble maintaining his composure to announce Mr. Agostino's death and to deliver a short tribute. He paused for a long time after rising and kept his comments short.

"The greatest loss today is felt by his family," the Premier said. "Our thoughts and our love are with Dominic's mother Theresa, his brother Ralph and his wife, Rose, and Dominic's sister, Mary, and husband, Tony, and Dominic's beloved nieces and nephews."

New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton stressed that the sense of loss was universal at Queen's Park.

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"We looked forward to his wisecracks, and there are always many. We looked forward to his interventions. Because of our particular nature, we really did appreciate his scrappiness -- the fact that here was somebody who, on any issue, was going to make his views known."

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