He was the least likely political success story: a high-school dropout with reading difficulties whose greatest natural talents were selling refrigerators and placing his foot in his mouth. Yet, over a career in municipal government that spanned 35 years, Mel Lastman proved an outstanding salesman in the realms of both politics and appliance sales.
Mr. Lastman died Saturday at 88 years old. His funeral is scheduled to take place on Monday at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel in Toronto.
He will be forever remembered for calling in the army to shovel Toronto’s wintry sidewalks, for imploring the Spice Girls to reunite and for his fear of African “natives” who would boil him alive, but between these gaffes lived a serious politician staggering under the burden of an amalgamated Toronto.
He was elected the first mayor of the new “megacity” of Toronto – taking office on Jan. 1, 1998 – and re-elected in 2000. Before that, he had been elected 10 times as mayor of the municipality of North York, on the city’s northern edge, a record – as the mayor liked to remind people – acknowledged by The Guinness Book of Records.
For a very short man, Mr. Lastman had a very large mouth, a quality that endeared him to allies and infuriated foes, including much of the intelligentsia of downtown Toronto. Mr. Lastman, a successful furniture salesman, entered politics in 1969 as North York’s controller, while proclaiming, “I don’t really know what a controller does.”
In 2000, shortly after winning re-election in Toronto, Mr. Lastman announced he was “mortified and ashamed” when a former lover and her two adult children launched a lawsuit claiming he was the boys’ father and seeking financial support. By the time he left office in 2003, city hall would be embroiled in a corruption and kickback scandal that would tarnish his legacy as a get-things-done, tax-freezing mayor.
In between these brackets, he made a series of gaffes that would have kneecapped a more polished politician: claiming there was no homelessness in North York on the very day a homeless woman was found frozen to death in a service station; shaking hands with a member of the Hells Angels biker gang; and delivering a high-profile TV interview that damaged the reputation of Toronto just as it was reeling from the devastating effects of the SARS health crisis. He also said he was terrified of raccoons and called Edmonton “a clapboard outhouse,” but those were considered minor missteps by the standards of Megacity Mel.
But Megacity Mel was also a talented retail politician who honed his skills selling appliances at his successful Bad Boy chain of stores. Some critics claimed he was too close to the developers who wanted to take advantage of Toronto’s growing wealth and population, but even the most vocal admitted that Mr. Lastman was able to take what had been a backwater, North York, and turn it into a bustling urban centre. If, along the way, there was a North Korean-level of civic veneration – Mel Lastman Square rings every day with the sound of a carillon playing Mel’s Bells – well, that was the price to be paid.
Many years later, long after he’d retired, Mr. Lastman would call his decision to enter politics “a moment of insanity.” His private character and his public persona would always hint at a certain tension. Though he was often called a flamboyant showman – his penchant for hair plugs, Rolls-Royces and diamond jewellery emphasized this – he was actually a shy man who was uncomfortable in large public gatherings. He was overshadowed by his glamorous wife, Marilyn, who was as fond of large jewels and glitzy parties as she was of the man she publicly called “that little schnook.” Marilyn died in January, 2020.
In the words of Mr. Lastman’s most famous critic, and his longest-standing sparring partner, former Toronto councillor Howard Moscoe, “He considered himself a man of the people, but I’m not sure he really was. He was shy, and he didn’t really relate. But he did understand power.”
Melvin Douglas Lastman was born into a family of Polish immigrants in Toronto on March 9, 1933, a salesman almost from the beginning. His parents, Rose and Louis Lastman, had married in 1932 and not long after, lost their savings in the Great Depression. The Lastmans had a second son, Allen.
Louis sold Toronto Star newspapers and worked in a hat-making factory, where he was a union steward. His wife worked in her parents’ fruit and vegetable store in the bustling immigrant enclave of Kensington Market, where young Mel would sit on the sidewalk, as he later recalled, “selling pickles for a nickel.” The family lived in an apartment above the shop.
As a boy, though small, Mel Lastman was a successful athlete, and though plagued by what he later called dyslexia, he was a popular student at Toronto’s Central High School of Commerce, where he was elected president of the student council.
A local girl caught his eye, though at 13 she was too young for dating, according to her father. Marilyn Bornstein had her first date with her future husband on her 14th birthday. Four years later, in 1953, they were married.
They would remain together until the end, through controversial episodes such as Marilyn’s “abduction” in 1973, and her alleged shoplifting episode in 1999. She was arrested, but never charged, and it is a sign of Mel’s uxoriousness, or his bad temper, that he threatened to kill a CBC reporter who mentioned the episode. That reporter, Adam Vaughan, later served as a Liberal MP.
“Mel fails miserably at marriage,” Marilyn said in a 1998 Toronto Life profile. “But I do like him. He tries.” The couple had two children: Dale, who became a lawyer, and Blayne, a businessman who would go on to run the Bad Boy furniture chain.
Mr. Lastman’s reading disability led him to drop out of school after Grade 12, and Marilyn got him a job at the Toronto appliance store where she worked. From that moment, Mr. Lastman discovered a natural affinity for salesmanship which, partnered with a flair for publicity, would eventually spawn a chain of 42 appliance stores called Bad Boy, and a fortune that would keep both Lastmans in diamonds and elegant cars.
Although he sold the Bad Boy chain in 1976, Mr. Lastman’s son, Blayne, revived it in 1991 and provided a generation of late-night TV-watching Torontonians with a slogan that could not be dislodged from the brain: “Who’s better?” Mel Lastman, clad in prisoner’s stripes, would say on the commercials. “Noooobody!”
A conservative, business-minded mayor, Mr. Lastman was a champion both of the ill-fated Sheppard subway (truncated by the provincial government) and the more successful development of North York’s showy, bustling downtown. Mr. Lastman’s friend and the late former Toronto city councillor Gordon Chong once recalled: “When I first moved to North York there was nothing there. In the space of a decade or two he managed to get a lot of development.”
During his time in North York, Mr. Lastman would form two of his most lasting political relationships: with Paul Godfrey, the Postmedia chairman who would spearhead his Toronto mayoral bid; and with his main foe, Howard Moscoe.
The theatrics of Mr. Moscoe and Mr. Lastman became legendary: At one point, Mr. Moscoe’s wife bought Mr. Lastman’s toupee at a charity auction, and Mr. Moscoe would bring the hairpiece in to North York council and pretend to dust his seat with it.
“I never really disliked Mel as a person. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for him, either,” Mr. Moscoe says. “He was a precursor to Rob Ford or Donald Trump. He was on the outrageous side, larger than life. He did what he could within his limitations.”
By the late 1990s, the province had forced a controversial amalgamation on Toronto and its five sister municipalities, and someone was needed to steer the new, unwieldy, haphazardly funded ship. Mel Lastman decided he was that man. He challenged the sitting mayor of Toronto, Barbara Hall, in a contest that was seen as hugely in Mr. Lastman’s favour at the outset but became much narrower after Mr. Lastman performed poorly during a series of debates and interviews.
Large swaths of downtown opposed Mr. Lastman’s tax-freezing, laissez-faire agenda. As Margaret Atwood said in a speech supporting Ms. Hall: “To represent us, we want a mayor whose foot won’t always be in their mouth.”
That remark proved prophetic after Mr. Lastman won the 1997 election handily to become the first mayor of the “megacity.” In January of 1999, Mr. Lastman inspired mockery when he requested the army’s help digging Toronto out after a particularly bad winter storm. “I will not risk the lives of people in Toronto,” the mayor said as 400 soldiers in tanks rolled through the streets to rescue Torontonians from their snowbanks.
This was followed by an escalating series of what the BBC would call “a string of verbal gaffes.” Some of Mr. Lastman’s blunders were merely amusing – such as asking Spice Girl Geri Halliwell to get the band back together. Others would leave a lasting scar on the city’s reputation.
In 2001, prior to leaving for Kenya to gain support for Toronto’s Olympics bid, Mr. Lastman said, “What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa? ... I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” Toronto, perhaps not surprisingly, did not win the 2008 Olympics.
Two years later, in 2003, the city was gripped by a debilitating SARS crisis, which crippled tourism. In a disastrous performance on CNN, Mr. Lastman revealed that he did not know what the World Health Organization was, nor how many people were ill with SARS. It was the mayor’s very imperfections that many people found refreshing. He seemed authentic, like a real person, not a career politician. Even before Rob Ford, he returned citizens’ phone calls and listened to their complaints on his cable TV show, Megacity Mel.
When asked to reflect on his successes, Mr. Lastman mentioned the regeneration of North York’s downtown and the Toronto waterfront, as well as the establishment of committees to study race relations and drunk driving, and the successful World Youth Day to accompany Pope John Paul II’s visit to Toronto in 2002.
But the later years of his career were marred by two scandals. One involved the misuse of millions of dollars of municipal funds in a computer-leasing boondoggle during the first years of amalgamation, a scandal that brought allegations of corruption and financial kickbacks at city hall. They cast Mr. Lastman’s administration in a bad light but did not involve him directly and did not result in criminal charges.
A second scandal hit closer to home when, just two weeks after his re-election as Toronto mayor in 2000, Mr. Lastman’s former lover and her two adult sons launched a lawsuit seeking $6-million in retroactive child support payments. Grace Louie said that Mr. Lastman had fathered her two sons, Todd and Kim, during a secret 14-year affair. (Mr. Lastman had provided Ms. Louie with a financial settlement in 1974, three years after the affair ended, on the condition that she not speak about it.) With Marilyn by his side, Mr. Lastman admitted to reporters that he had made “a terrible mistake” conducting the affair with Ms. Louie, who’d been one of his Bad Boy employees. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out of court.
After retiring in 2003, Mr. Lastman led a quiet life with Marilyn, dividing their time between a winter home in Florida and a condo in Toronto. He maintained a low profile and refused, for the most part, to be drawn into criticism of another controversial mayor, Rob Ford.
In 2013, Mr. Lastman spoke to then Toronto Star columnist Royson James about his marriage of six decades, about which he was unequivocally proud – “I love her more than I’ve ever loved her” – and his political career, which provoked a more ambivalent response: “I could have gotten out earlier; probably would have been better off. Would have avoided a lot of problems that I wouldn’t want to discuss. They are best forgotten.”