Rodriguez was born in Georgetown, Guyana, and moved to Canada in 1956. He attended Toronto Teacher's College, and began his teaching career in St. Catharines. He joined the New Democratic Party upon its formation in 1961. Rodriguez moved to Coniston in 1962, and was appointed as Principal of St. Paul School. He also attended Laurentian University, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Spanish Literature.
Rodriguez became president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association in 1968. The following year, he led a protest outside Queen's Park to call on the provincial government to extend separate school funding to grades 11, 12 and 13. He also served on the Board of Governors of the Ontario Teachers' Federation, and encouraged greater connections between teachers and organized labour.
Rodriguez ran for mayor of Coniston during the 1960s, and lost to Michael Solski. He was elected to the Coniston town council in 1971. When Inco shut down its Coniston operations that year and appealed part of its municipal business tax, Rodriguez argued that the company had a moral responsibility to continue paying into a community that it helped to create.
Rodriguez chose not to seek re-election when Coniston was amalgamated into the new community of Nickel Centre. He instead moved to federal politics in the 1972 election, and defeated incumbent Member of Parliament (MP) Gaetan Serré of the Liberal Party in the riding of Nickel Belt.
The Liberals won a slim minority government in this election under Pierre Trudeau's leadership, and governed for the next two years with unofficial parliamentary support from the NDP. Rodriguez opposed this arrangement, and broke party ranks on two occasions to support non-confidence motions against the government. Identified with the left-wing of the NDP, he strongly supported his party's pledge to nationalize Inco, and also called for the nationalization of Bell Canada and Canadian Pacific.
In 1973, Rodriguez participated in a study group on Northern Ontario that described the region as a "social, economic and political ghetto" in relation to the rest of the province. In the same year, he led a campaign to allow Chilean refugees to resettle in Canada following the overthrow of Salvador Allende's democratically elected government.
Rodriguez was re-elected in the 1974 election, in which the Liberals won a majority government. The following year, he participated in efforts to prevent black activist Roosevelt Douglas from being deported from Canada. On one occasion, he recommended Liberal Solicitor-General Warren Allmand as a sympathetic contact in government. It was later revealed that a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) informer monitored conversations of both Allmand and Rodriguez regarding their views on Douglas. Also in 1975, Rodriguez publicly criticized a sexist Canada Post advertisement which showed a man writing a postal code on the bottom of a thonged woman, next to the rhyme We're not 'stringing' you along/Use postal codes—you'll 'thing our 'thong'/Don't be cheeky—you've all got 'em/Please include them on the bottom. Postmaster General Bryce Mackasey apologized for the ad.
In 1976, Rodriguez was one of two MPs who called for the Atomic Energy Control Board to release all of its information about the health hazards posed by radiation in Elliot Lake. The following year, he engaged in a filibuster against an income tax reform package that contained financial benefits for wealthy Canadians. Although filibusters are common practice in some parliamentary assemblies, and later become more common in Canada, this was the first such instance to occur in Canadian House of Commons in several years. Rodriguez spoke on the bill for six hours and ten minutes over a period of two days, setting a contemporary parliamentary record.
In the late 1970s, Rodriguez called on the federal government to buy up Inco's excess nickel stock in order to prevent job losses until world prices increased. Prime Minister Trudeau rejected this proposal, arguing that it would depress the market even further. Rodriguez joined with other Sudbury-area NDP politicians to support a major strike by Inco workers in 1978, arguing that the workers would have faced massive layoffs had they not taken this action.
Rodriguez broke party ranks again to oppose the suspension of Progressive Conservative MP Roch LaSalle from the House of Commons in 1978. LaSalle had referred to Finance Minister Jean Chrétien as a liar on three occasions, and refused to apologize. The rest of the NDP caucus supported his suspension.
Rodriguez was re-elected again in the 1979 election, as the Progressive Conservatives won a minority government under the leadership of Joe Clark. He was appointed as his party's labour critic in the parliament that followed.
In late 1979, Rodriguez emerged as the most prominent member of the NDP's "Left Caucus", a successor group of sorts to The Waffle. In a Globe and Mail interview, Rodriguez said that the new group differed from The Waffle in that its ultra-left elements were minor, and that it would abide by the results of NDP conventions even if it did not agree with them. The Left Caucus was nonetheless opposed by the party hierarchy, which argued that its activities would hurt the NDP's chances of election. Rodriguez spearheaded the group's only successful motion at the NDP's 1979 convention, which protested a jail sentence handed out to Jean-Claude Parrot of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
The Clark government lost a non-confidence motion in late 1979, and Canadians returned to the polls for another election in 1980. In this election, Rodriguez lost the Nickel Belt riding to Liberal candidate Judy Erola. Some local Progressive Conservatives later indicated that they ran a deliberately weak campaign, in order to consolidate the opposition vote around Erola. Rodriguez, for his part, criticized the Liberal campaign for portraying him as a borderline Marxist. He was forced to supplement his small pension by working as a janitor for a month, before winning back his job as a high school principal.
Rodriguez was returned to the Canadian House of Commons in the 1984 federal election, as Erola slipped to third place in a rematch from 1980. The Progressive Conservatives won a landslide majority government under Brian Mulroney, and Rodriguez was appointed as his party's critic on Unemployment Insurance (UI).
Rodriguez served on the Commons Standing Committee on Labour, Employment and Immigration from 1984 to 1988. He was a vocal critic of the Forget Commission's 1986 report on unemployment insurance reform, arguing that its provisions would take Canada's social policy back to the nineteenth century. (One of Forget's recommendations was that persons unemployed for more than a year be forced to live on benefits as low as $40 per week.) Rodriguez later supported a committee report that rejected most of Forget's recommendations, and made a series of more generous counter-proposals. Employment and Immigration Minister Benoit Bouchard ultimately rejected both Forget's report and the committee's recommendations, and chose not to undertake significant UI reform during this parliament. In November 1987, Rodriguez argued that newly-appointed committee chair Claude Lanthier was unfit for the position, after Lanthier supported the principle of work-for-welfare schemes.
Rodriguez criticized aspects of the Mulroney government's lobbyist registry in 1988, arguing that it would not adequately cover the heads of industry associations. He nevertheless acknowledged, two years later, that the registry had changed the culture of lobbying in Ottawa for the better. He was skeptical about the FedNor initiative launched in 1988, noting that the northern Ontario agency would have only limited advisory powers.
Rodriguez was re-elected in the 1988 federal election, as the Mulroney government was returned with a reduced majority status. He was appointed as his party's consumer and corporate affairs critic, and became a prominent spokesperson in opposing the Mulroney government's Goods And Services Tax. He took part in a committee filibuster with fellow MP Dave Barrett, and at one stage sought to have public hearings on the tax across Canada. Rodriguez was also strongly critical of the severe anti-inflationary policies pursued by Bank of Canada governor John Crow, and argued that the recession of the early 1990s was exacerbated by high interest rates that undermined consumer confidence. He called on the federal government to set credit card interest rates, following dramatic increases at several major banks.
Rodriguez criticized the Mulroney government's reforms to unemployment insurance during its second term in office, arguing that the greatest burden would fall on those who could least afford it. He opposed the 1991 Bank Act, Trust and Loan Act, on the grounds that it would allow major banks to take over smaller competition. Along with other MPs, he criticized the government's $4.4 billion bailout of Central Guaranty Trust.
Notwithstanding his frequent criticism of major banks, Rodriguez spent a week observing the inner workings of the Bank of Nova Scotia in the summer of 1991, as part of an immersion course program arranged for MPs through the Parliament, Business and Labour Trust. Scotiabank senior vice-president Geoff Bellew said that most bank leaders were impressed with Rodriguez, who in turn said that the experience expanded his knowledge base. He rejected claims that the program made him less critical of the banks, quipping that it allowed him to "concentrate his fire".
Rodriguez opposed the 1990 Gulf War, and called for Canada to play a peacekeeping role overseas.
Rodriguez was known as a colourful and outspoken MP during his time in parliament, and often provided the media with clever and amusing quips. On one occasion, he described the president of a crown corporation as having the consultative skills of an oyster. On another, he referred Brian Mulroney as a "narrow political partisan" before adding "he's just the same as I am".Party affairs, 1989-1993
The NDP's failure to move beyond third-party status in the 1988 election was regarded as a disappointing result for the party and, in January 1989, Rodriguez became the party's first MP to publicly suggest that party leader Ed Broadbent should considering resigning. Although he later backed away from this statement, Broadbent actually did announce his resignation in early March. There were rumours that Rodriguez would be a candidate in the leadership contest that followed, but he instead chose to support Dave Barrett. Barrett was defeated by Audrey McLaughlin at the final ballot of the party's 1989 convention. Rodriguez subsequently ran for party whip, but lost to Iain Angus.
Divisions within the NDP rose to the surface in 1993, when MP Steven Langdon was removed as financial critic after criticizing the economic policies of Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae. Rodriguez said that he admired Langdon's stand, and added that he did not support the Rae government's decision to cut jobs and make spending cuts to target the provincial deficit. He also accused Rae of alienating the party's labour allies, and was particularly critical of Rae's proposed social contract legislation (which was enacted later in the year). Unlike Langdon, Rodriguez was not sanctioned for his comments.
Rodriguez was defeated for a second time in the 1993 election by Liberal candidate Raymond Bonin. All NDP candidates in Ontario were hurt by the unpopularity of the Rae government in this election, and Rodriguez chose to focus on his personal record while de-emphasizing the national campaign. Although he polled better than any NDP candidate in the province apart from Langdon, he still lost by a significant margin.
In 1994, Rodriguez argued that provincial cabinet minister Shelley Martel should resign for violating the privacy rights of an Ottawa consultant. He endorsed Svend Robinson's bid for the federal NDP leadership the following year, after Audrey McLaughlin's resignation. Robinson led on the first ballot of the party's leadership convention, but gave his support to rival candidate Alexa McDonough when he realized he did not have sufficient support to win.
Rodriguez subsequently returned to the teaching profession as principal of St. David Catholic School in the Sudbury area. He was strongly critical of his forced retirement in 2005, saying "I'm not ready to retire, and I do resent being discriminated against because of my age". He also volunteered for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, and in 2003 received a commemorative medal for the Queen's jubilee. In 2005, he praised former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien for his role supporting Canada in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
In July 2006, Rodriguez announced his candidacy for mayor of Greater Sudbury in the 2006 municipal election. He received endorsements from several prominent local figures, including former mayor Jim Gordon, businessman and unsuccessful 2003 mayoral candidate Paul Marleau, and former city councillor Gerry McIntaggart. One of his campaign planks was to lobby for the city to receive a share of the corporate taxes paid by the mining companies to the federal and provincial governments; the inability to directly tax two of the city's largest employers has been cited in the past as a barrier to the city's economic and social development. His critics accused him of making unrealistic commitments. His pledge to eliminate homelessness was for instance criticized by councillor Janet Gasparini, who applauded the goal but expressed doubts that this "growing national crisis" could be resolved in the short term at the local level.
On November 13, Rodriguez unseated incumbent David Courtemanche with 51.9% of the vote. He officially took office on December 6. When he was sworn in, he announced an ambitious "first 100 days" agenda, which was highlighted by a reiteration of his pledge to seek a portion of existing taxes on mining companies. The agenda included the creation of citizen committees to oversee a number of projects, including implementation of Floyd Laughren's report on service improvements in the amalgamated city, reviewing the city's recreational facilities and pursuing the creation of an arts centre, pursuing economic growth opportunities in the health care sector, and devolving some legislative authority to the existing local Community Action Networks. Rodriguez promised the elimination of fees on the city's TransCab service which offers taxi service to residents of remote areas of the city not served by Greater Sudbury Transit; this fee was eliminated in the 2007 municipal budget.
Rodriguez announced at the beginning of his term that stores in the city would not be permitted to open on Boxing Day, and also authorized the Franco-Ontarian flag to be flown at Tom Davies Square. The latter decision invoked polarized opinion, with some praising the mayor for taking authoritative action and others accusing him of isolating other cultural groups in the community. Rodriguez also introduced a "311" telephone service to Greater Sudbury in early 2007, making it easier for residents to get information from city hall.
In the buildup to the 2007 provincial election, Rodriguez joined with four other Northern Ontario mayors to prepare a pre-election position paper that addressed issues of importance to the region, such as infrastructure renewal and water safety. He argued that he and his colleagues would have more influence by working in a collaborative manner. During the election campaign itself, Rodriguez attracted controversy by attending the opening of Liberal candidate Ron Dupuis' campaign office. Dupuis was the deputy mayor of the city, and Rodriguez's attendance led to conflicting claims about whether he had formally endorsed Dupuis. Rodriguez later clarified that he was not endorsing any candidate.
In February 2008, Greater Sudbury City Council faced controversy when it was revealed that city councillors were permitted to purchase over 100 tickets to an Elton John concert at the Sudbury Arena before ticket sales were opened to the general public. Rodriguez himself purchased 10 tickets. Council later returned 71 of the tickets. Rodriguez said that he followed an established city practice in making the tickets available to councillors, though he acknowledged that his decision to offer so many tickets was "rushed and not given sufficient consideration". The city council in Kitchener, Elton John's only other concert date in Canada during this tour, faced a similar controversy. After a public backlash, council decided to give up its preferential access to Sudbury Arena events. Rodriguez cast the deciding vote to eliminate the practice.
As Mayor of Greater Sudbury, Rodriguez has presided over a period of economic growth for the city, and has lobbied for more of the city's new-found wealth to be put toward new sectors such as research in mining and environmental sciences. He has said, "We have to seize the moment. We don't ever want to go back and be beholden to the big mining companies again.
Rodriguez challenged Mike Solski for mayor of Coniston at one point in the 1960s, and was defeated. He served on the Coniston town council from 1971 to 1972.