The buzz on the streets running south from Dupont to the lake between Dovercourt and Avenue Road says Rosario Marchese, a politician with a proven ability to schmooze the most hardened of electors, is suddenly vulnerable on his home turf. The garrulous pol has been a fixture at Queen's Park as the MPP for the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina for 13 years. Between 1990 and 95, the former teacher and school board trustee was minister of culture and communications in Bob Rae's Ontario NDP government.
Eight years ago, Marchese managed to survive that government's resounding defeat by the Mike Harris Tories with his seat intact. And when the socialist party was nearly annihilated as a legislative force in the provincial vote of 1999, he held on again - topping the polls in his inner-city constituency with 7,274 more votes than the second-place Liberal challenger.
That's what you usually call a safe seat when an election rolls around.
But on paper at least, there may be some cause for the boisterous confidence of the current Liberal candidate.
"If the people of Trinity-Spadina are truly in favour of change in Ontario, they have no alternative but to vote for me," says Nellie Pedro.
The Toronto district school board trustee and Portuguese-language broadcaster is considered one of the Liberal party's star candidates in the GTA. Hey, she wasn't afraid to take on hockey nut Don Cherry for pushing Bubba kegs on impressionable young shinny fans during the playoffs this past spring.
Pedro is also well bankrolled thanks to Tony Dionisio and Local 183 of the Labourers International Union.
And her strong ties to Paul Martin's federal Liberal machine should provide her with seasoned ground forces as the provincial campaign moves into high gear.
The Ontario Grits are hyping Pedro as a high-profile up-and-comer cut from the same "progressive" cloth as the NDP incumbent, but with the advantage of belonging to a political party that has a chance of toppling the Conservative government and removing Ernie Eves from the premier's chair.
"We think there'll be a lot of New Democrats who will hold their ideological noses and vote Liberal in order to get rid of the Tories," says one Liberal organizer who has spent considerable time at Pedro's Portugal Village campaign office on Dundas West.
"It's going to be a gut-wrenching political decision," the strategist adds. "But it's one we think a lot of NDPers are going to make in the privacy of the voting booth on election day."
But even Pedro concedes there are some "very hardcore" Marchese supporters in the riding she wants to make "the door and the corridor to change in the rest of Toronto and the GTA. I don't totally understand how these people can say they want change and continue to vote NDP," she says.
Easy, replies the incumbent from a seat outside his campaign headquarters just south of College on Bathurst. "They like what I am. They like what I stand for. It feels good wherever I go."
Marchese says the Liberals "always have more money than we do," so it won't be a big surprise when Pedro outspends him by a considerable margin.
"But credibility isn't something you buy with money. Credibility is something you build over a long period of time, and that's something I believe I have," he advises.
Trinity-Spadina is an ethnically diverse riding that includes the U of T, Chinatown, Kensington Market, the entertainment district and the CN Tower within its electoral boundaries. Considerable condo development in the south end has brought a new dynamic to the voters list in recent years. The area is represented at City Hall by NDP councillors Olivia Chow and Joe Pantalone. They've both endorsed their provincial colleague and are lending his campaign a helping hand.
Marchese recalls that all the stuff about the Liberals and the portal to change at Queen's Park has made the rounds of the riding before.
"That was supposed to be the case in 1999, and the votes went my way," he says. "Historically, the fight has been between us and them," Marchese relates. "But to be fair, the Tories do well. They always get their 7,000 votes no matter what."
And it isn't beyond the realm of imagination that the Conservatives could pick up a few votes in the aforementioned condos this time around. Helena Guergis, a member of the party executive and an aide to Finance Minister Janet Ecker, is the Tory candidate. But she hasn't changed the incumbent's thoughts on the final outcome. "I think people here want an NDP voice. I really do," Marchese says.
Nellie Pedro isn't buying that, of course. There's that damned buzzing again.