Always flamboyant, forever committed to his beloved city’s success and never forgetful of the constituents who helped make him the politician he was, a true Toronto legend has left us.
Megacity Mel Lastman, Mayor Mel – or as I like to call him, Melski – passed away from heart failure at the age of 88 on Saturday.
Among the tributes that flowed in his honour Sunday, the themes were consistent. During his more than 30 years in politics, he was dedicated to improving both North York and post-amalgamation Toronto, a mentor to many and a true retail politician who loved helping his constituents and loved getting things done.
I got to know Mayor Mel in early 1998 when I was sent to City Hall as the new post-amalgamation columnist for the Toronto Sun. Of the four mayors I ended up covering over my 20 years there, none was as colourful, was more devoted to putting Toronto on the map or better understood the political big picture than Mayor Mel.
He never forgot his humble working-class beginnings before building up a chain of furniture stores – reflected in part by his determination to give residents of the newly minted megacity a 0% tax increase for the first three years.
Winning as the first mayor of the megacity in a hard-fought race against Toronto’s socialist mayor Barbara Hall was easy in comparison to knitting six different cities with six different cultures and the egos of six different mayors together.
In a retrospective done to mark the 20th anniversary of the megacity in 2018, those politicians involved in the early days – and Mayor Mel himself – admitted to me it was a “huge challenge,” especially since the new city started with no structure whatsoever.
As mayor of North York, he’d not only developed the downtown but also gave his constituents such perks as twice-weekly garbage pickups – services the cash-poor and debt-ridden downtown Toronto was never able to provide because its politicians were too involved in funding socialist pet projects.
But Mayor Mel knew it was important to have smart and insightful people around him to steer the ship, including his loyal deputy mayor Case Ootes and his chiefs of staff, Rod Phillips (now Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care) and Alan Slobodsky, who tragically passed away in 2016 from pancreatic cancer.
He was also adept at making the left on council feel as much a part of the political process as the right, without pandering to their agendas.
At times, the Mel-o-dramas heightened the chaos–craziness I remember with fondness. There was the time during the 2002 SARs outbreak when Megacity Mel went on CNN, irate with travel advisories not to come to Toronto, and asked the interviewer, “who was the WHO (to presume to criticize his beloved city)?”
He had a close encounter with a member of the Hell’s Angel which was caught on camera. Worried that the yet-to-be-harmonized snow clearing services couldn’t handle the deluge of snowstorms in the winter of 1999, he called in the Canadian Army to help.
But ever-insightful about what he needed to do to bring the city together, he opted to march in his first Gay Pride parade in June of 1998, admitting to me afterwards he had incredible fun.
Always the salesman, nooobody since has come up with such wacky ideas to sell Toronto as Mayor Mel. There was the infamous Toronto Outdoor Art Moose-eum in 2000, which lined the city’s streets with about 400-500 moose. He also created an Official Toronto Millennium Coin – a $5 coin that featured the Toronto skyline on the front and Mel’s head on the back (with all proceeds going to charity).
Long after he’d retired from politics in 2003, Mayor Mel came out to canvas with me in September 2009 when I ran for Conservative MPP in St. Paul’s. Wherever we went that day, he was approached by adoring fans who wanted to tell him how much they appreciated his devotion to the city. A few days after we canvassed together, he contacted me with another idea for a campaign press event on the HST.
He was just that kind of mensch.
Melski will be sorely missed.