By: Tomasz Bugajski

Rossi rocks the vote

Tomasz Bugajski

Rocco Rossi is now one of the two most important figures in Toronto’s mayoral bid. With Adam Giambrone’s surprise withdrawal from the race on February 10, only George Smitherman and Rossi remain as serious contenders.

According to the latest poll released on January 14, before Giambrone’s exit, Smitherman stood at 44 per cent support, Giambrone at 17 per cent, Rossi at 15 per cent, and veteran city hall councillor Joe Pantalone at four per cent. It is still unclear where Giambrone’s support will go, but pundits speculate that Smitherman is most likely to benefit.

Rossi might slag in the polls, but he insists that at this point in the race, he does not read much into them. He cites the John Tory example: In 2003, Rossi ran Tory’s mayoral campaign against David Miller. He pointed out, when speaking to the newspaper, that Tory was polling in the single digits until Labor Day, and finished the race at 38 per cent.

Sachin Aggarwar, Rossi’s campaign manager, told supporters at Rossi’s February 21 open house at campaign headquarters, that they are facing an uphill battle. He enthusiastically added that Toronto loves underdogs.

Rossi is a centre-right candidate and former Liberal Party organizer. In 2009, he joined Michael Ignatieff in a project to overhaul the Liberal’s finances. He takes credit for tripling Liberal party membership and restoring the party’s financial position in less than a year. As a businessman, Rossi’s professional experience speaks to his financial acumen. He has held senior executive roles at The Boston Consulting Group, The Toronto Star, Labatt/Interbrew, Advanced Material Resources (now NeoMaterials), and MGI Software. He was also CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.

So far, Rossi’s campaign has centered on three pillars: fiscal stability, transportation, and economic development. His emphasis has mostly been on the city’s finances, which he criticizes as unsustainable.

The Toronto Board of Trade has estimated that under current conditions, Toronto will be short $1.2 billion annually in the next ten years. The city has been increasing spending since David Miller became mayor in 2003. His first 2004 operating budget was $6.6 billion. Since then, it has skyrocketed to $9.2 billion in the latest 2010 budget. Many people in the city, including the mayor, blame provincial downloading for much of Toronto’s budget problems. Rossi and Smitherman, however, see deeper problems with Toronto’s finances, including waste and mismanagement.

“The City of Toronto has to be the last multi-billion dollar operation on earth that plans on a year-to-year budget basis,” Rossi said at the Empire Club on January 21.

“We can’t just paper over, as we’ve been doing on a year-by-year basis,” Rossi further explained to the newspaper. “We need some structural changes to the budget, and we have to start by planning more than one year in advance.”

On the top of Rossi’s agenda is a plan to sell city assets like Toronto Hydro, Enwave, and municipal properties. He also wants to outsource city services to the private sector and rein in the unions.

“Last summer’s city workers’ strike showed just how weak the city has become in the face of its major unions,” Rossi complained at the Empire Club. This position has made him popular with many who are frustrated with the relatively high pay public employees receive compared with the private sector.

Rossi has also called for a pause on Transit City, the multi-year and multi-billion dollar plan to expand the public transit system. Although the provincial and federal governments are supposed to provide the majority of the funds for the project, Rossi is worried that Toronto will not be able to afford the operating costs. He has also called for the replacement of city councillors who sit on the TTC board with private sector experts. He cites negligence on the part of those councillors and their lack of expertise for many of the transit system’s problems.

When criticized for being against public transportation, Rossi responds that he is “not against mass transit, just mass incompetence.” He owns a metropass, and takes the subway several times a day. It is simply a matter of what the city can afford, he maintains.

Downtown residents who rely on bikes may have reservations about Rossi. He has sharply criticized city council’s recent decision to allow bike lanes on Jarvis. Despite being an avid bike rider, he opposes bike lanes on arterial roads to avoid congestion.

While the October 25 election is still months away, unless something unexpected happens, Rossi and Smitherman will be the main candidates. Whoever wins, Toronto is heading for a transformation. Seven years of David Miller have left many Torontonians looking for a major change. The new mayor will be under pressure to deliver it.

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