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Talk about being pressed into service.

Until this week, backbench MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti's claim to fame was getting a movie star's name put on a street sign. Casting around for another cause, he considered sponsoring a private member's bill to put Terry Fox's face on the $5 bill. He also mulled over the establishment of an official Peacekeeper's Day.

Apart from jurisdictional issues, the problem was that Sir Wilfrid Laurier is already on the fiver and a cabinet minister had designs on peacekeepers.

Then the 43-year-old lawyer discovered his new bride Michelle's dry-cleaning bills, and an unlikely women's rights crusader was born.

As a well-appointed political couple on a backbencher's salary, the Berardinettis couldn't help but observe the difference in their respective clothing-care costs at their Bay-and-Bloor-area cleaner. They later discovered other discrepancies between prices for women and men.

"He really noticed it," says Ms. Berardinetti, adding that she's been "into gender issues" since university. "I said, 'This is what you should do with your private member's bill.' He had other ideas, but then he thought, 'This is really important.' We found this one would be really effective and would count for a lot of people, economically, within Ontario."

Mr. Berardinetti's bill, which would make it illegal to charge women more than men for similar items and services, will be debated in April. It has triggered a lively national debate over gender-based pricing, which sees everything from women's clothing and personal-hygiene products to hairstyling priced higher than comparable offerings for men. California already has a law on the books theoretically prohibiting the practice, which is estimated to cost North American women hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Leaving it to the free market isn't working, Mr. Berardinetti contends. "Where could you find a drycleaner that offered the same price for a woman's shirt as a man's?" He points out that if race were substituted for gender, there's no question such differences would attract the scrutiny of government regulators and human-rights advocates. "I have to shop around for my rights," his wife adds. "Why should I have to do that?"

Mr. Berardinetti, a former Toronto city councillor who now represents Scarborough Southwest at Queen's Park, says he's long been motivated by a desire to improve his local community and its image. But his move this week came as a bit of a surprise to those who've worked with the veteran politician and regard him as a thin-skinned figure who has never identified himself strongly with any one issue.

"To be honest, I don't know" what drives him, says Scarborough city councillor Michael Thompson, who grew up with Mr. Berardinetti in the quiet east-end neighbourhood of Ionview and later worked as his executive assistant. "I've spent a lot of time with him. We're still waiting for the passion to really happen."

Asked to name one big project that really motivates her husband, Ms. Berardinetti replies, "You know, generally to do good will. Just to make a difference in politics."

A veteran Liberal source notes that there's a cabinet shuffle in the offing, and the bill may represent Mr. Berardinetti's bid to raise his profile among those angling for promotions. "It seems to me like he's going after the consumer-affairs portfolio."

But Mr. Berardinetti is adamant that he's not doing this to promote himself. "I have no interest in serving in the cabinet of this government." He and his wife are planning to start a family, he says, and he doesn't believe he has time for additional responsibilities.

Mr. Berardinetti started his political career in high school, as student council president, and later joined the Liberal Party's youth wing. The party affiliation runs in the family: his cousin is Liberal MPP Michael Colle, who represents Eglinton-Lawrence.

Soon after graduating from the University of Windsor law school, he won a seat on Scarborough Council in 1988, defeating by just two votes an unpopular incumbent with a drunk-driving conviction. A major issue at the time was a decision to locate a 40-bed emergency youth shelter in Scarborough's Ward 4. Mr. Berardinetti, then 26, promised to fight the move and even rented a bus to bring residents to an Ontario Municipal Board hearing to denounce the $2.5-million project, which nonetheless received the go-ahead.

As part of a reformist group on Scarborough council, he opposed perks and pay hikes for politicians and exposed secret meetings being held by mayor Joyce Trimmer. He set up a business-improvement area on Kennedy Road, and got a Scarborough street renamed after the suburb's most famous émigré: comedian Mike Myers.

During Berardinetti's time on Scarborough council, he had another encounter with the politics of gender-based consumer goods, albeit from a different angle: he was chair of a council committee that asked for a display of unbleached feminine hygiene products to be removed from the Civic Centre. Responding to a few complaints, he said he personally had no problem with the display, but allowed that "there are two sides to the issue. The world is changing and some people are changing faster than others."

After amalgamation in 1998, Mel Lastman elevated this young councillor to key political positions, first as Scarborough community council chairman and later as head of the administration committee. Though the committee was responsible for the new city's purchasing decisions, Mr. Berardinetti managed to avoid being drawn into the MFP computer-leasing controversy. Before the scandal broke, he had called for more disclosure about the use of tickets to sports events by politicians.

Mr. Berardinetti and Brad Duguid, another Scarborough councillor and frequent rival, were both elected to the provincial legislature in October 2003. Berardinetti met his wife-to-be, a former Liberal staffer from Chatham, when he moved into the Queen's Park office across the hall from her.

Until this week, Mr. Berardinetti has endured the political limbo that is the lot of all backbenchers. Last spring, he was briefly tapped to chair the standing committee on government agencies, but lost the job after just three weeks when Tory MPPs complained that the post had traditionally been held by an opposition member.

But those anonymous days are officially over now, and will invariably be replaced by the sort of controversy and media exposure that accompanies political prominence.

Mr. Thompson congratulates his former boss's bill as "a welcome initiative," but notes that he's already had several calls from constituents who are less than impressed. As he puts it, "I thought there were more pressing social issues at Queen's Park."