NEWS February 24th, 2011

By Joshua Freeman

'They left me': Rocco Rossi

Ex-Liberal says his former party abandoned him, not the other way around

Those crying betrayal should take a good look at themselves first, says newly minted Progressive Conservative Rocco Rossi.

Responding to a chorus of criticism from former allies following his bombshell announcement that he is switching sides, the one-time national director of the Liberal Party of Canada called out Liberals who he feels abandoned him in the Toronto mayoralty race last fall.

Rossi appeared with Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak on Feb. 1 to declare that he’ll seek the PC nomination to run against Liberal MPP Mike Colle in Eglinton-Lawrence.

“There are several that throw around the term ‘loyalty,’ ” a weary Rossi later told Toronto Today. “Well, they left (me), so they should be looking in the mirror before they throw around the term.”

Maintaining that his PC candidacy is not about settling scores, he pointed to what he perceived as Liberal abandonment during his gruelling and unsuccessful 10-month campaign to become mayor of Toronto as the point at which he started to reconsider his political affiliation.

It was Conservatives, not Liberals, who rallied around his platform, he said.

“In fact, I had Liberals leave in the campaign, whereas the Tories stayed with me right to the end,” he said. “That was one of the great signs for me that where I’d gotten to from a policy perspective was more aligned with Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives than Dalton McGuinty and the provincial Liberals.”

Indeed, Liberal voters did little to hide the fact that Rossi was not their man. Most threw support behind their long-time provincial colleague, George Smitherman, who ultimately lost out to Rob Ford in a landslide.

During the campaign Rossi espoused fiscal policies, such as selling off public assets like Toronto Hydro, which were viewed as being more closely aligned with Progressive Conservative than Liberal positions.

Still, Liberals like Colle say Rossi’s reasons for switching don’t square with his past: “When you lose you always blame someone, you know.”

While acknowledging that “people can change their minds”, Colle said he has never seen “the number one paid position in a party” changing over.

“He’s always been a stalwart Liberal, bashing Tories all the time,” he remarked.

Rossi hints he might not agree with all PC values — “All parties by their nature are collections of diverse opinion”— but feels comfortable enough in a blue tent to support Hudak, who he says the party is fortunate to have as a resource.

He also says he is comfortable running against Colle in Eglinton-Lawrence rather than against Liberal newcomer Eric Hoskins in neighbouring St. Paul’s, his home riding.

Rossi lives less than half a kilometre from the Eglinton-Lawrence/St. Paul’s riding boundary.

With Rossi’s strong name recognition, Colle may face a tough challenge. He won re-election by a margin of only about 2,300 votes in the last election. However, Colle says, he’s never underestimated any of his opponents and isn’t about to start now.

“I’ve always had tough races,” Colle said. “It’s always a real challenge getting elected.”

Still, he acknowledges feeling buoyed by the negative reaction to Rossi’s defection. By mid-February his office had received about 70 calls of support from Liberals, constituents and onlookers who feel betrayed by Rossi, he said.

“You don’t get that many calls this early. He seems to have really struck a nerve with people.”

For his part, Rossi says he would lobby on behalf of constituents when it comes to local issues where the province has a role, such as with the controversial Lawrence Heights revitalization plans.

“I very much want to participate in public service at this point in my life,” Rossi said. “The next best thing to being mayor is helping to ensure Queen’s Park is a great partner for the city of Toronto.”

With lessons learned from the last campaign trail, he’s already gearing up for the fight.

Echoing Ford, Rossi took a shot at the McGuinty government by saying citizens deserve a fiscally responsible government that respects the taxpayer.

And for those who might accuse him of political opportunism for running under a different flag, Rossi has a message:

“I’m not doing this because it’s easy,” he said. “In fact, it’s very hard.

“I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day, when the final decision had to be made, it’s about public service and not party service.”