My first interaction with Mel Lastman was utterly unforgettable and took place in a huge scrum with plenty of other journalists. Yet you probably never heard about it, because no one reported it.
Things were different back in the day.
I was a cub reporter in the early 1980s and had been sent to North York City Hall, where the municipality’s mayor was neck deep in scandal. Even for a diminutive mayor such as Lastman, that was plenty deep.
We learned that one of the city’s more prominent developers had been caught potentially trying to influence the city’s planning commissioner by offering him a sweetheart loan on a big new house. The whole thing stank to high heaven. The bureaucrat responsible for shepherding development proposals through city hall had been caught red-handed taking an obvious inducement from a developer. How far did the scandal go? Did it reach into the mayor’s office?
A gaggle of reporters — who typically would have ignored the normally sleepy city-council meetings — descended en masse to get to the bottom of the story.
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After the council meeting ended, the media pack surrounded Lastman, the camera operators fired up their “sun guns” and blasted Lastman with white light, and the questions began flying.
“What did you know about this arrangement?”
“Are you going to fire your planning commissioner?”
“Should the developer be charged?”
On and on it went.
After several minutes, a mild-mannered Globe and Mail reporter with a delightful English accent asked, “Do you intend to resign over this matter?”
Lastman began to chuckle, and then he uttered the unforgettable: “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
The media pack burst out in laughter. And that was the end of the scrum. To show you how different things were nearly four decades ago: not a single reporter used the comment in the coverage of the story. There was just a different understanding of how things worked back then. I know I’d never heard a politician use the F-bomb so publicly before, and I suspect none of the others had either. Back then, the use of that word was considered so inappropriate that none of us dared include it in our reportage. Had we tried, it surely would have been excised by an attentive editor.
Both the developer and planning commissioner ultimately had to face the music, but Lastman, who had no connection to the malfeasance, would continue along his merry way in municipal politics for another two decades and more.
Lastman’s ill-advised and offensive comments were well-reported over the years and have been republished during the spate of obituaries over the past couple of days. Yes, they were a major part of the Lastman story, but they shouldn’t obscure the fact that Lastman was a remarkably effective politician. He had excellent relationships with the ratepayers’ groups of North York, who saw him, despite his business background, as an honest broker between developers and neighbourhood interests. However, once Lastman got a bee in his bonnet over an issue, woe betide the politician at a senior level of government who tried to ignore Mighty Mel.
Ontario premier Mike Harris found out the hard way. Whether it was battles over provincial funding, downloading services, or building the Sheppard subway (which the mayor ceaselessly championed), Lastman was a frequent pain in the neck when he wanted something, first for North York, and then, after the year 1997, for the newly amalgamated “megacity” of Toronto, of which he was the first mayor.
Candidly, Lastman wasn’t a great fit as megacity mayor. His act definitely played better under the gentler spotlights of North York, and there were frequent references to his being not quite ready for prime time under the harsher spotlights of a city of more than 2 million people.
But Lastman figured out what has been the secret formula to victory — namely, be the champion of the inner suburbs (Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough) and get enough support in the old city of Toronto to cross the finish line first. It’s a strategy that worked for Lastman and for his successors David Miller, Rob Ford, and John Tory, all of whom defeated candidates who were seen as “too downtown.”
When Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto in 2010 — much to the chagrin of the elites in the old city — his family began promoting the notion that he’d won the most votes ever in the city’s history. It was a way of trying to add legitimacy to Ford’s victory in the face of all the doubters.
The only problem: it wasn’t true. In fact, Ford’s 383,000 votes are now only the fifth-highest total in Toronto history.
Who was number one? Why, Mel Lastman, of course: 483,000 votes in the first megacity election in 2000.
Who got more votes in an election than Lastman?
You knew this line was coming: “Nooooooooobody!”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Mel Lastman won the municipal election that made him Toronto's first megacity mayor. TVO.org regrets the error.