Indomitable showman

Can Rocco Rossi’s unabashed style help fill Liberal coffers?

Indomitable showman

Rocco Rossi, the man Michael Ignatieff has chosen to restore the Liberal party’s financial health, might just be the reason Ignatieff is the party’s leader. The link goes back to 1998, when Ignatieff, then a globe-trotting author and broadcaster, gave a talk at the University of Toronto on the future of liberalism. Attending together were Keith Davey, the Liberal backroom icon, and Rossi, a young businessman and party stalwart. Davey was so impressed he told Rossi afterwards that Ignatieff might make a future Liberal leader.

Six years later Rossi was lunching with Davey’s son Ian. They were bemoaning the state of the party, which was then being battered by the sponsorship scandal. Who, they wondered, could revive its fortunes? Rossi recalled the elder Davey’s instinct on Ignatieff. Ian Davey soon led a small delegation to visit Ignatieff, who was by then teaching at Harvard, to try to coax him home. The rest is recent history.

If that makes Rossi sound like a secretive figure manipulating politics from the shadows, then it’s completely misleading. In fact, the newly appointed Liberal national director is outspoken and evidently likes the spotlight. Before Ignatieff tapped him last week, Rossi was chief executive officer of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, where his fundraising stunts included biking 1,900 km from northwestern Ontario to the foot of Toronto’s Yonge Street, kayaking solo from Toronto to Ottawa, and climbing office tower stairs equivalent to the height of Mount Everest.

He also built a solid reputation for managing the foundation’s financial operations. And the Liberals—who lag far behind the Tories on pulling in money from members—desperately need him to turn things around for them. But better online techniques and systems for organizing volunteers will only work, he says, if the rank and file feels valued. “The most important part,” he told Maclean’s, “is to give meaning to membership.” For instance, he’d like to see the party eventually drop its old delegated convention system for picking leaders in favour of one member, one vote—the method adopted in recent years by the Tories and NDP. That Rocco is willing to speak out on such a contentious issue when there’s no formal move afoot to change the party’s leadership selection rules, and before most Liberals have even learned his name, is revealing. Unlike past national directors, he’s unlikely to work quietly behind the scenes.

Rossi says his personality was shaped by the sprawling, boisterous Italian family he was born into in Toronto in 1962. As the youngest child in a “mangia, mangia” household that included not only his mother, but also four aunts, he wasn’t exactly neglected. “I was a fat kid,” he says. “I had 15 meals a day.” Despite a classic ethnic upbringing, he got an establishment education, attending Upper Canada College on scholarship. Politics was an early passion. “The only two times as a child that I went to Maple Leaf Gardens was not to see a hockey game,” he says, “but to see Pierre Trudeau speak.” He went on to McGill University, where he lived in an apartment not far from Trudeau’s art deco mansion. But it wasn’t Rossi’s admiration that led to him meeting the great man—it was the former prime minister’s undiminished eyesight. Trudeau paused on the street one day to strike up a conversation with Rossi’s attractive girlfriend. “I was of very little interest,” Rossi remembers, “but she was quite remarkable.”

After McGill and a stint at Princeton University, Rossi returned to Toronto and launched what turned into a remarkably varied business career, including jobs in the minerals, newspaper, beer, and software industries. The turning point was a tragic one. In 2001, while working for the Belgian beer giant Interbrew, Rossi was the last person to see Canadian brewing executive Don Kitchen alive before he suffered a fatal heart attack in a hotel room. Kitchen was only 44, and his two sons were in school with Rossi’s son. “It became my wake-up call,” he says. “I was really lost.”

Still unsettled a year later, he set out on Spain’s Camino Santiago, a legendary pilgrimage route. “It was not really for religious reasons, just to clear my head,” he says of the 900-km walk he completed in 30 days. He soon shifted away from corporate life, first blurring partisan lines to manage the unsuccessful 2003 Toronto mayoral campaign of John Tory, now leader of Ontario’s provincial Conservatives, and then taking over the Heart and Stroke Foundation in 2004.

He vows to bring to the party both a fascination with managerial problem-solving, and his trademark heart-on-his-sleeve personal style. He wants to get Liberals buzzing: “There’s no more powerful way to build a movement than to have neighbours talking to neighbours, family members to family members.” He may be taking a job long associated with party backrooms, but Rossi seems determined to persuade Liberals to change by being an unguarded, unabashed front man.