Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
In a crowded field of mayoral hopefuls during the 2010 election campaign, and with the help of the media, Rocco Rossi managed to shout louder than the rest of the pack. And that was not a good thing.
Announcing his campaign in December 2009, ten months before the election, the self-described “political outsider” embarked on a campaign of wedge issues to divide the electorate, mostly along suburban–urban lines. Rossi meticulously used populist strategies to grab headlines the media was all too happy to publish. His campaign was characterized by superlatives: bike lanes were “sheer madness,” transit initiatives were a “war on the car,” and Bloor Street construction was “embarrassing.” And how could we forget Rossi’s last act of desperate politicking, when he, to the bewilderment of many Torontonians, proposed to revive the long-dead Spadina Expressway through his Toronto Tunnel proposal?
The issue of Rossi’s campaign was not the fact that he ran one. In person, he was articulate, smart, and funny. He had the potential to run an inspirational campaign but instead, he used every opportunity to tell Torontonians what was wrong with their city. Early on, he lashed out at everyone and everything: TTC staff, cyclists, the budget process, politicians, and, of course, George Smitherman. Rossi’s policy announcements flew early, forcing other candidates to release theirs prematurely and drying up policy discussions far before the “real” campaign after Labour Day. By March, Rossi had set the tone of the election campaign, leaving the door wide open and the political environment ripe for the greatest populist of all: Rob Ford.
After Ford entered the campaign in March, the mayoral field splintered further, and Rossi was left in an unfortunate position. He had positioned himself early as the right-leaning candidate and with Ford’s dominance on that side of the spectrum, Rossi ended up in the narrow electoral space between Smitherman and Ford. Despite constantly disappointing polling numbers, almost always in the single digits, Rossi inexplicably insisted on trudging on.
Whether it was honourable persistence or just plain stubbornness, his decision to remain in the race made it more difficult to focus on the front-runners, and it appeared Rossi’s only purpose was for producers to easily fill three minutes of a nightly newscast with some new crazy Rossi idea. Finally, on October 13, just twelve days before the election, after one last devastating poll, Rossi dropped out of the campaign. By then, it was too late: the damage to the discourse of the campaign was done and too little time was left for the remaining campaigns to recalibrate.
Rossi’s failed campaign was clearly the result of bad judgment by the candidate and his advisors. Why did his campaign fail to connect? Perhaps voters were skeptical that the former National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada could be a cast as a “political outsider.” It could also be that his more nuanced ideas were drowned out by his grandstanding and over-the-top rhetoric. It is our hope that Rossi has learned some lessons from this campaign, for with name recognition he could be an ideal centrist candidate four years from now—as long as he dials down his bocce balls.