TORONTO — Canada’s largest city is witnessing the end of a political era: Mayor Mel Lastman, a Jewish millionaire businessman who has spent the past 30 years as an unbeatable municipal official in the Toronto area, will be missing from the ballot in November.
Lastman, 70, is ailing from hepatitis C treatments and will not seek a third term as leader of the Greater Toronto Area, the so-called “mega-city” of almost 5 million people that resulted from the merger of Toronto and suburban municipalities in 1997. Lastman was elected in 1998 as the first mayor to preside over the combined administration and was re-elected in November 2000.
While his victory was a source of pride to the Jewish community, a series of gaffes in recent years has detracted from Lastman’s self-styled image as the “little mayor with a big heart” and branded him a buffoon in the eyes of many. “Fiorello La Guardia he is not,” said Howard Moscoe, a Jewish city councilor and longtime Lastman adversary. “Mel reflects the stereotype we’re trying to avoid: loud, brassy, ostentatious, given to excesses and extremes.”
But Larry Tanenbaum, a construction magnate and co-owner of the Maple Leafs hockey team and Raptors basketball team, said Lastman has done “a truly outstanding job. He has built and promoted this city. He has kept Toronto clean, safe and growing. Everybody can point to the odd slip-up, but you can’t judge his record on that.”
Lastman grew up in a working-class family. At age 22, he launched his first Bad Boy furniture and appliance store with the help of a used truck and a $2,000 loan. Through flamboyant marketing stunts — such as selling refrigerators to Eskimos — he built a chain of 40 stores grossing $35 million annually.
After achieving success in business, Lastman turned to politics, spending 25 years as mayor of North York, a suburban municipality with a heavy concentration of Jews and blacks. Lastman kept his electorate happy by providing reliable snow removal in winter and spurring the development of a downtown commercial core with a stylish performing arts auditorium.
When Lastman was elected to lead the newly created Greater Toronto Area, he pursued a number of popular policy initiatives: He held the line on property taxes, improved urban waste removal and tried to spearhead development of Toronto’s waterfront. But his most effective political handlers departed after his first term, and Lastman increasingly spoke without a script, often to bizarre effect. His off-the-cuff remarks damaged his public image, and he soon began to lose the golden touch he had maintained in his earlier post.
He had been praised for handling snow removal in North York but when a massive storm hit the Toronto region in January 1999, Lastman declared himself “petrified” and called in the army to deal with potential emergencies. When the troops arrived, little snow remained, and the over-reaction made Toronto the butt of nationwide jokes.
His wife, Marilyn, was allegedly caught shoplifting in a suburban mall a few months later; she was not charged, according to a police report, “due to her age as well as no outstanding offenses on her record.” Although the local media initially ignored the story, Lastman blasted a television reporter for the CBC whom he believed was privately gossiping about the incident. “Leave my family alone,” Lastman warned the reporter. “If you don’t leave them alone, I’ll kill you. I’ll write every letter I have to, to the CBC to get you fired.’’ The mayor later apologized.
This incident paled, however, next to the bombshell that landed just days after his re-election in November 2000: that Lastman was named as the defendant in a $4.2 million paternity suit brought by Grace Louie, his former Bad Boy employee and mistress of 14 years. She was seeking retroactive child support for her two grown sons, whom she alleged were Lastman’s progeny. Lastman said he was “mortified,” but he admitted having the affair, and did not deny being the boys’ father.
The lawsuit was later dismissed, but the scandal destroyed the mayor’s reputation as a good-hearted, if sometimes goofy, soul. The media made harsh comparisons between the Louie boys, who were abandoned by Lastman to grow up in poverty, and his two legitimate sons, whose bar mitzvah celebrations were the most lavish the community had ever seen.
Lastman continued to put his foot in his mouth on several occasions. In June 2001, while en route to Mombasa, Kenya, to enlist African support for Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Lastman told a reporter: “What the hell do I want to go a place like Mombasa? Snakes scare the hell out of me. I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” Another apology was forthcoming, but Beijing defeated Toronto’s bid, and some Canadians blamed Lastman’s mouth.
In April 2003, when the World Health Organization imposed a travel ban on Toronto due to the SARS outbreak, Lastman called a news conference and mistakenly confused the international body with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interviewed on CNN, he fumbled when asked the number of SARS cases identified in Toronto.
Even as Lastman faces his final months in office, his public remarks continue to land him in hot water. After electricity was restored to the northeastern United States and the province of Ontario following the massive blackout in August, the Ontario government warned that it might have to subject the province to rolling power blackouts. Lastman demanded that Toronto be exempt because it is the “economic engine” of Canada. Mayors in the rest of Ontario did not appreciate his chutzpah.
Verbal missteps aside, Lastman’s political legacy as the first mayor of the “mega-city” appears mixed. While the mayor’s critics fault him for the weakening of the city’s social service safety-net, his supporters credit him with the commercial real estate boom. But both groups agree that Toronto will be a duller burg without him. Moscoe, an inveterate Lastman-basher, conceded: “He’ll be remembered as a colorful mayor who grabbed attention for the city. He did put us on the map, even if sometimes it was for the wrong reasons.”
Lastman did not respond to a reporter’s request for an interview by press time.