No longer Dalton McGuinty's minister of economic development, and not yet (officially at least) the chief executive officer of David Miller's new Invest Toronto corporation, Michael Bryant is content to strut towards a window table in Terroni and do what he does best - be the centre of attention, without even trying.
It's late afternoon at the Balmoral Avenue trattoria that's a short walk from Mr. Bryant's St. Clair and Avenue Road home, a time when mothers, nannies, the occasional stray dad and a lot of boisterous children gather for pizza and noisemaking. Yet in a room that attempts, quite successfully, to recreate the happy chaos of a Southern Italian family meal, Mr. Bryant knows how to be noticed - heads turn as he walks by, hard to ignore in the dress-for-success suit wrapped snugly around his taut boxer's body, and one captivated little girl stands up against the back of the neighbouring banquette and tracks his free-flowing chatter from inches away.
He turns and energetically greets her as if she were a voter waiting to be won over. The aloof Mr. McGuinty once imposed his infamous five-foot rule for media scrums, but Mr. Bryant exhibits no such aversion to human contact.
"Other than having to stand back from my aura, there's definitely no five-foot rule," he says with a smile, trading on the self-deprecation available only to the highly secure.
A self-described man of "serious gusto," he no longer has a political need to play to the crowd - not since he abruptly departed his cabinet post amid speculation of a rift with his boss to become the key player in Toronto's ambitious new economic development corporation. The control freaks in the Premier's office can rest easy - gone are the days when they'd turn on the TV and find Mr. Bryant talking up a new era of "reverse Reaganism."
But even though he's given up the job of negotiating bailout packages for auto companies, Mr. Bryant still looks very much the flamboyant deal-maker among the pizza primavera crowd.
The immaculate suit and puffy tie are a given, but it's the huge, red-banded, bells-and whistles timepiece emerging from beneath his cuffs that's the real eye-catcher. "It's a monster of a watch from Novesa," he says with not entirely serious gusto, "bought for 50 per cent off, I'll have you know. Definitely a bit of red Liberal bling-bling."
Can you see why 43-year-old Michael Bryant may not have suited the cautious, close-to-the-chest McGuinty crowd? Or why he may have felt he'd be happier boosting Toronto in a wider world of international investment, where the city's quiet charms could stand to benefit from his brash, look-at-me salesmanship?
His camera-hogging independence worked successfully in opposition, and made him friends in the media who were bored by the official Liberal line of calculated blandness. But increasingly, his high-energy performances, though articulate, tried the patience of McGuintyites, who saw him as angling for the Premier's job.
"Personally, I hope no one mixes up extroversion and ambition," he says. "They are two different things. I'm an extrovert for sure."
Apparently the political operatives in and near the Premier's kitchen cabinet weren't so discerning in their judgment. They insisted, after his remarks about "reverse Reaganism" and "picking winners and losers" that he'd finally gone rogue.
"Well, it sure got the point across," he now says. "Talking about winners and losers definitely bonks you over the head, and if it's a wake-up call for those on the right who don't like this, fine. And if it unsettled people, good. The Premier says he's leery of it? I'm leery of it too. Yeah, government should be leery of making these kind of investments. But we still do it."
His new job, however, represents a role reversal of sorts: he wouldn't be figuring out how to spend capital. He'll have to attract it.
"He's pretty passionate about Toronto, which is what we need," says Kyle Rae, the chair of the city's economic-development committee, who first spoke with Mr. Bryant about the Invest Toronto position in February. "And he's highly intelligent, a fast learner, good on his feet and reads the room well."
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