A reporter and a rabbi remember Mel Lastman

Former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman

Sue-Ann Levy, former City Hall reporter for the Toronto Sun

Sue-Ann Levy was driving through Lake Worth Beach, Florida, on Saturday when the veteran Toronto journalist suddenly remembered that this was the community where the late former mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman, used to own a vacation home.

A few hours later, Levy, who said she had a love-hate relationship with him while covering City Hall for the Toronto Sun, would learn of the flamboyant politician’s death at age 88 on Dec. 11.

“I thought of him as I was driving up, and of course, he died yesterday, so of course it was very bizarre for me,” Levy told The CJN.

Levy chronicled Lastman’s political career as the first mayor of the amalgamated “mega-city” of Toronto, beginning in 1997, and during his second term which ended with his retirement in 2003. While she acknowledged her stories were often critical of Lastman, she had “tremendous respect for him as a politician.”

Lastman was born in 1933 and raised in the city’s heavily Jewish immigrant neighbourhood of Kensington Market. The son of Polish Jews, Lastman began selling appliances at a store where his then-girlfriend Marilyn Bornstein worked on College Street. The couple married in 1953.

Two years later, Lastman founded the Bad Boy chain of furniture and appliance stores, which made him a wealthy man.

“Let’s be honest here: he was a millionaire, he didn’t have to run for politics but he did, and he was a tremendous city builder,” Levy said, referring as well to Lastman’s first 25 years in politics as mayor of the former Borough of North York.

With twice-weekly garbage pick up, and a development plan that brought over 100 condominiums and commercial buildings to the Yonge Street corridor, Lastman also gave his name to the municipal square and public space outside the civic building.

“He built up the downtown of North York, North York ran like clockwork, and he was very constituent-minded. A few politicians now could learn from him,” Levy said.

After ten terms in office in North York, Lastman won the election as mayor of Toronto in 1997, after Conservative premier Mike Harris forced six boroughs and cities to merge into one new large mega-city. It took a lot of skill to wrangle six cultures of six different cities, not to mention their former mayors.

“He had tremendous political insights and he saw the big picture,” Levy said. “I had tremendous respect for him as a politician.”

Sue-Ann Levy campaigns in 2009 with former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman.
Mel Lastman, centre, campaigned with Sue-Ann Levy, left, during her run for MPP in 2009. (Photo courtesy Denise Alexander)

However, his legacy will always be marred by some of his more “outlandish” remarks while he was mayor of Toronto, including some that were clearly racist. When the city was bidding to host the 2008 Olympics, Lastman was scheduled to travel to Kenya for meetings with IOC decision makers. He told reporters that he was nervous about going, for fear he would be boiled alive in a pot and eaten by African cannibals.

“That would never fly [today] he would’ve been cancelled in a minute,” Levy said, but adding that Lastman was in his late sixties at the time. She did commend him for marching in the city’s Gay Pride parade in 2001.

“I wasn’t out at the time, but I remember I was tremendously proud at the time for him doing that, but he said things that were outrageous.”

In 2003, when Toronto was hit by the SARS virus that would kill 44 people, the World Health Organization warned people not to travel there during the outbreak. According to Levy, Lastman was worried about the impact on the city’s image internationally.

“When he was on CNN during SARS and he was very upset that the [World Health Organization] had issued a travel advisory that people shouldn’t come to Toronto and he said ‘Who the heck is the WHO?’” Levy said, chuckling.

Although he had two sons with his wife Marilyn, who died in 2020, two men who claimed Lastman was their father filed a lawsuit against him, demanding compensation for leaving them in poverty.

The mayor was forced to go public after the bombshell revelation in 2000, and admitted that he had carried out a long extra-marital affair—14 years—with their mother, a former employee of Bad Boy.

Lastman never officially said they were his, but said he earlier paid Grace Louie $27,500 in an out-of-court settlement if she would drop any further claim.

While some of Lastman’s critics slammed him for throwing a lavish bar mitzvah party for son Dale, with 650 guests at the posh Royal York Hotel, Levy insists the mayor stayed in touch with the lived experiences of ordinary voters.

“He always had an eye to the little guy, and to people who were struggling and this is why I think he brought in that zero per cent tax increase [in his first three years in office],” Levy said.

Once when Lastman was being interviewed for a story, they went to a place where a bagels and lox were on the menu, which charged $18 for a sandwich.

“And Mel said ‘this is outrageous’ that they would charge people $18,” she recalled.

Lastman retired in 2003, and went back to work at Lastman’s Bad Boy, now run by son Blayne and a granddaughter, Samantha. It was apparently the senior Lastman who came up with the company’s trademark slogan “Who’s better? Noooobody!” that showcased father and son hamming it up in television and radio commercials.

“He was an excellent retail politician and he was a true salesman. He really was committed to selling Toronto,” Levy said.

Rabbi Shmuel Spero of Anshei Minsk Synagogue in Kensington Market

There are still some pieces of furniture donated by Lastman’s Bad Boy in use at the Anshei Minsk. After an arsonist caused $200,000 worth of damage in 2002 by setting off a fire in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue built in 1930, the Lastman family helped with some restoration and fundraising.

It was where the mayor had been raised—and even had his bar mitzvah.

“They have a very warm feeling towards the synagogue and towards the market and that unique period,” recalled Rabbi Shmuel Spero, who has been spiritual leader of the “Minsker” congregation for more than 30 years.

When the mayor heard about the late night fire, he wanted to help, Spero said. Aside from the donations, Lastman made sure law enforcement officials didn’t ignore trying to find out who did it. He also would pay visits in person, which Spero said were “very meaningful.”

Lastman would visit the synagogue a few times a year while marking the anniversary of the deaths of his parents, known as the yahrzeit—and took time away from his nearby office to attend the Yizkor memorial services on Jewish holidays.

He would call the rabbi in advance, arrange to sponsor a substantial table of refreshments for the congregation, and then Lastman would have his driver deliver him to the synagogue on the designated day.

“He’d tell me he was coming to Mincha/Maariv (the early-evening dual prayer service) and then he would say ‘I want to put on a nice spread’, they call it a Kiddush,” Spero said. “When he would come, he would spend time, he wouldn’t rush out, he would shmooze, about his growing up in that area.”

As far as the rabbi knows, Lastman celebrated his bar mitvzah in the synagogue, a few months after the end the Second World War. Seven years later, it was where he had a special pre-wedding-day blessing known as an aufruf.

“We were all proud that his roots were in Kensington Market, his roots were in the Anshei Minsk, and he was an example of those Jewish immigrants to Toronto, who really received, and, in their growing up in Toronto had a great love for the city and really gave back.”

The last time the rabbi visited with the elderly Lastman was in January 2020, during the shivah after the death of Lastman’s wife. Although he told The CJN he had hoped to call on Lastman’s sons, the funeral notice says the family is observing this week of mourning privately.

“Now Mel is moving on to the next world,” Spero said of Lastman, describing him as a man who lived a life of purpose, raised a family, and affected the community. “Our prayers are with him and he should be well received.”

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