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Ron Joseph didn't have to be prompted when Paul Ferreira knocked on his door looking for a bit of anger. He didn't need anyone to feed him lines about the seeming incongruity of Ontario legislators getting a 31-per-cent increase in their compensation while the working poor were being told not to expect a $2 hike in the hourly minimum wage.

"If everyone else is getting 2- or 3-per-cent raises, how come you get 30?" Mr. Joseph asked Mr. Ferreira, as if a sitting MPP were on the doorstep of his northwest Toronto home. "How come you get 10 times what the rest of us get? It's ridiculous."

Mr. Ferreira, who is a New Democratic Party candidate in the Feb. 8 by-election in York South-Weston, smiled broadly at Mr. Joseph's outburst. He knew it was one more vote in his pocket.

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That's been happening a lot lately for the 34-year-old community activist as he goes door to door in the low-income, polyglot riding. Sometimes Mr. Ferreira sets it up by reminding voters that Premier Dalton McGuinty gave himself a $40,000 raise just before Christmas, then asking those voters what their latest raise was. Other times, however, he is greeted with outrage about government resistance to an NDP proposal to hike the minimum hourly wage to $10 from $8.

"Even $10 an hour isn't enough," volunteered retired TTC worker Hylton Valentine. "You can barely make it on that."

Mr. Ferreira's canvassing experiences suggest that the outrage persists a month after Liberal and Progressive Conservative MPPs collaborated to close the gap between their salaries and those earned by federal MPs. It's reflected in a poll this week that showed an astonishing 84 per cent of Ontarians opposed the pay hike, and it's threatening to turn what should have been a Liberal cakewalk in York South-Weston into a contest.

When Mr. McGuinty called three by-elections last month, most of the interest centred on the races in Burlington and Markham because the 13,685-vote Liberal plurality in York South-Weston looked relatively unassailable. The Burlington contest between two former local politicians is still too close to call as the Conservatives seek to hold the seat. And in Markham, the race between two candidates of Chinese descent remains a nail-biter as the Liberals try to hold it.

But neither of those campaigns packs the potential for drama the way York South-Weston does. The NDP overcame a 16,572-vote Liberal plurality in taking the Parkdale-High Park by-election last September and is hoping lightning strikes twice. A Liberal loss -- or even a severe trim of its support -- should cause palpitations at party headquarters.

The Liberals' hand-picked candidate, Laura Albanese, a 49-year-old Italian-language television news reader, is seeking to take over where Joe Cordiano left off when he retired last fall after representing the area for 21 years. But the boundaries of the riding have shifted in the past two decades, so both the NDP and the Liberals can claim patrimony. As well, immigration has altered the riding dramatically in recent years, making it difficult to read.

There is no disagreement on the overarching local issue -- all three major candidates are opposed to the proposed Blue22 airport rail line -- so most of the discussion is on provincial issues.

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Mr. Ferreira is using the classic by-election strategy of telling voters that they are free to send a message because the fate of the government is not at stake. His commingling of the minimum-wage and MPP pay issues is central to that.

Conservative Pina Martino, a 40-year-old real-estate lawyer, talks of crime rates, health care and education but basically puts the Premier on trial. "He has repeatedly lied to you," she told a candidates meeting this week. "The by-election is your opportunity to tell Dalton McGuinty what you think of his broken promises."

Ms. Albanese, a surprisingly awkward communicator given her two decades in television, acknowledges some voters are talking about pledges not kept and minimum-wage hikes not given, but she defends the government's record.

"You can't do everything that you wanted when you wanted to do it," she said. "As long as the good intention is there and you mean to do more, that's what we have to look at."

It's her race to lose, but low voter turnout and a lingering sense of anger could make anything possible.

mcampbell@globeandmail.com

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