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Rocco Rossi is photographed outside Convocation Hall at an event in October, 2008. Rossi is considered a dark horse candidate if he runs for the mayor of Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Rocco Rossi is photographed outside Convocation Hall at an event in October, 2008. Rossi is considered a dark horse candidate if he runs for the mayor of Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Senior federal Liberal quitting to run for Toronto mayor Add to ...

The Liberal Party's national director has resigned to run for mayor of Toronto, a move that leaves Michael Ignatieff without his star fundraiser and alters the dynamic of the wide-open contest to lead Toronto.

Rocco Rossi, 47, confirmed in an interview Friday night he will formally announce his intentions Monday at Toronto City Hall.

"I have loved and cherished the time with the Liberal Party and Michael Ignatieff. But while I've been a Liberal since I was 11, I've been a Torontonian since I was born," he said. "I love the city, and I think I bring a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the job and want to spend a year laying those out to Torontonians."

A virtual unknown outside political backrooms, Mr. Rossi could nonetheless change the emerging storyline of the race to replace David Miller. The narrative so far has centred on a potential clash of political titans George Smitherman, the former deputy premier, and the still-undecided John Tory, former leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives.

But Mr. Rossi managed Mr. Tory's unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2003; the two would likely need to draw on the same organizers and financiers next year.

"It might mean that John Tory is not running," Councillor Adam Vaughan said. "[Mr. Rossi]has no real political connection to the city, except through the folks he worked with on the John Tory team. If he were putting together a team, my sense is he'd be pulling people from that team to run."

Mr. Tory declined comment last night. For his part, Mr. Rossi said it was be "an honour" to run against Mr. Tory.

The mayor's race blew wide open earlier this year when two-term mayor Mr. Miller announced he would not run again. Along with Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Tory, at least three city councillors have indicated they are seriously considering running. All are from the left and centre-left of the political spectrum, meaning Mr. Rossi could further crowd that part of the field.

Still, it is too early to dismiss a dark horse.

"I think there is lots of room for a third candidate, be it Adam Giambrone or Rocco Rossi," said Rob Silver, a Toronto consultant and prominent Liberal.

Mr. Rossi said he had "no illusions" his run will be anything other than uphill.

"George and John are the front-runners," he said. "My entering the race at this stage I don't think is going to change anybody's mind. I'm coming from behind."

Mr. Rossi, however, is banking on his charisma and quintessentially Toronto story to help him pull ahead by next fall.

He grew up in Toronto's east end as the son of Italian immigrants who came to Canada empty-handed. A precocious intellect, he won scholarships to Upper Canada College, McGill University and Princeton.

By his late 20s, Mr. Rossi had joined the Boston Consulting Group, which assigned him to review the finances of the Toronto Star. He so awed the paper's management they hired him to join their executive team.

Mr. Rossi later worked as Labatt's Breweries' head of interactive media and managed Mr. Tory's campaign in 2003 before taking the helm at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario in 2004.

"I have a story that is Toronto's story: that's the story of this diverse city and this city of immigrants," he said. "In some respects, you know, I am a dream that many immigrant families have for their children. That if you work hard, that if you sacrifice, that you study, that you can be anything."

Mr. Rossi was one of the few remaining members of Mr. Ignatieff's inner circle left standing after a shake-up this fall that was designed to reverse the Liberal Party's sharp decline in recent opinion polls.

He said he had been discussing his departure with Mr. Ignatieff for some time, but made it official Thursday.

"It was a bittersweet moment. He's saddened to see me go but delighted for me and gave me his blessing at the end," he said. "He said he thought 'Mayor Rossi' sounded pretty nice."

Since taking over as the Liberal Party of Canada's national director earlier this year, Mr. Rossi oversaw a jump in fundraising totals that helped his cash-strapped party close the gap with the Conservatives.

In two full quarters with him at the helm, the party took in $5.81-million to the Tories' $8.47-million, according to Elections Canada. While not yet at par with the Conservatives, the total was nearly equal to the $5.9-million the Liberal Party raised the previous fiscal year.

That fundraising prowess should serve him well in the Toronto race.

"If he can raise the [money]and if he can enunciate policy and platform which speak to the neighbourhood issues which dominate the political campaign, anything can happen," Mr. Vaughan said. "But he's a small name in a crowded field."

With reports from Adam Radwanski, Josh Wingrove and The Canadian Press

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