Article: Lastman Becomes a Bit Player in His Own Show

National Post, Nov. 1, 2000.

Article: Lastman Becomes a Bit Player in His Own Show: Political Goliath Going Out of His Way to Avoid His Cast of Opponents

The billboards and bus-shelter posters heralding Mel Lastman’s campaign for re-election as Mayor of Toronto have finally started showing up all over town. “Toronto runs with Mel,” the signs proclaim.

But with the 2000 municipal vote now just 12 days away, the slogan begs a very big question: What, exactly, is Mel Lastman running from? For a guy who was supposedly at 80% in the public opinion polls in the dying days of the megacity council’s inaugural term, Lastman’s political behaviour of late has been extremely strange; some might even say bizarre.

His campaign team raised almost $1-million with which to do electoral combat against 25 challengers who will likely spend well less than $100,000 between them. Yet this political Goliath has done everything in his power to avoid the field of battle where his opponents are milling around with slingshots, or — in the case of Tooker Gomberg — a toy bow and a handful of rubber-tipped arrows.

When the mayoral race officially began on Oct. 13, His Melness claimed that he took all of his challengers seriously, but trusted that his record of achievement during the past three years would adequately shield him from their slings and, in Gomberg’s case, arrows.

But, soon after that, Lastman went underground. Not only has he steadfastly refused to attend any debates or forums where his adversaries might have a chance to question his record or challenge his vision of Toronto’s future, the Mayor has gone out of his way to avoid the media when he makes a well-choreographed appearance at the occasional public function.

Time was that political candidates with an eye on getting themselves elected hereabouts went out of their ways to make sure the press had their daily itineraries well in advance to best capitalize on the available publicity.

But not so Lastman, the man who once boasted that he never met a TV camera that he didn’t like. When journalists manage to track down the chief magistrate on the campaign trail these days, he tends to get snarly and accuses reporters of divulging his whereabouts to the opposition.

“You guys are giving the people who are running against me where I’m going, so I’m not telling you guys all the places I’m going,” Lastman pouted during a recent walkabout on College Street.

The person running against him who the Mayor seems to fear most is the aforementioned Gomberg. The former Edmonton alderman and worm composter of increasing renown has become a real pain in the Lastman butt over the course of the past month. Gomberg figures if the Mayor won’t come to the debate then he’ll take the debate to the Mayor. And so it is that there have been a few notable “encounter sessions” between the two diminutive candidates in recent weeks — the latest one yesterday at Yorkdale Mall where police were once again on hand to ensure that Gomberg didn’t get close to the object of his oratorical desires.

Lastman, of course, calls Gomberg’s behaviour deplorable and figures the public will be equally disgusted with the antics of his iconoclastic challenger. But the more the Mayor tries to avoid contact with his opposition — be it Gomberg, transvestite “supermodel” Enza Anderson, street singer Ben Kerr, sidewalk artist Victor Fraser or comic Frenchie McFarlane — the more he lends credence to the argument that he’s showing contempt for city voters and the democratic process.

You’d think a man with three decades of political experience would have nothing to fear from such a cast of characters. But Lastman is behaving like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Except, in this case, it’s Gomberg’s bicycle. And the wily challenger –who issues more news releases in a single day than the Mayor has in the entire campaign to date — is attracting far more attention than he ever would have received had Lastman just agreed to debate him and the rest of the crowd of mayoral wannabes.

But debates have never been the Mayor’s strong suit. Indeed, they almost cost him the 1997 election against former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall. He started that campaign with a popularity rating in the 80% range, too, and watched in terror as it was eroded by his almost daily gaffes on the podium. By the time the campaign ended, Hall had narrowed the gap to just a few percentage points and had the race lasted another week she might well have won.

Clearly, Lastman’s handlers are of the opinion that their candidate is as susceptible to foot-in-the-mouth disease today as he was three years ago. Never mind there’s no one of Hall’s stature and experience to give the Mayor a run for his money. They just don’t have the confidence that they won’t be embarrassed by Lastman’s performance.

Alas, the Mayor’s reluctance to truly involve himself in the electoral battle has been equally embarrassing.