the hell's angel handshake may be the straw that broke Mel Lastman's political back in the eyes of the average city voter, but a brain-numbing address to the Toronto Board of Trade's annual black-tie dinner had an even more devastating effect on the mayor's standing in the business community. Word of Lastman's mindless and oft-times tasteless "welcoming" remarks to a commercial crowd of 2,000-plus professional diners began spreading almost the moment he stepped back from the microphone in the Westin Harbour Castle ballroom.
"It was so bloody obvious the emperor has no clothes," says a consulting-firm executive who sat through last week's "weird, meandering speech." He says he was stunned that the sorry offering could be so long on offensive one-liners from a bygone era and devoid of a single reference to the challenges facing the municipal corporation.
"People were rolling their eyes in disbelief at what they were hearing," the entrepreneur says. "Most of them sat on their hands through the entire thing. You could hear people talking about how bad it was the whole time Mel was up there."
Councillor Brian Ashton, chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, was a head-table guest at the dressy affair. When the dinner ended, he had to run a gauntlet of underwhelmed ticket-buyers who wanted to make their dissatisfaction known to someone with an office on the same floor as the city's chief magistrate.
"It's the first time I've had senior business people in this community pass comment so easily and freely," an obviously dismayed Ashton says. "They were embarrassed by the mayor's performance. Not often in the past would they say that to a councillor. They may have mumbled it in a dark corner or something, but to just blithely come right out and say it was very different from what I've experienced in the past."
As a former head of city council's economic development committee, Ashton says he understands the negative reviews.
"It's extremely frustrating," the councillor advises. "Here you had a meeting of some of the biggest movers and shakers in this city, people who can make things happen in Toronto, in Ottawa and at Queen's Park. The mayor gets up at their gala dinner with an enormous opportunity to pursue the city's agenda -- and nothing. You get nothing. The maitre d' could have made a better speech."
Looks like John Honderich, publisher of the Mel-lovin' Toronto Star, came away with the same impression. He ordered up a lead editorial on the subject of the mayor's performance before a corporate assembly hungry for more than off-colour jokes and "stream-of-consciousness musings about a weak dollar and his own political woes."
"Lastman's antics are wearing thin," declared the Star's editorial headline. The pointed, albeit long-overdue, missive charged that "His Worship cannot be trusted to handle even the routine duties of office responsibly." Lastman should either "pull himself together" or "step down," it concluded.
Pandemonium soon engulfed the mayor's office. Rumours began circulating that Lastman's chief of staff, Alan Slobodsky, was going to be sacked for failing to keep the boss focused on whatever the approved political message was supposed to be.
Saner minds did eventually prevail, and Slobodsky was spared the role of sacrificial scapegoat. Instead, Bob Richardson, a member of Lastman's dwindling inner circle who served some lucrative time as chief operating officer for Toronto's failed 2008 Olympic bid, has been enlisted to reshape the mayor's public image. A greatly relieved chief of staff will be left to work on boring policy matters.
"We're going to take a last shot at rehabilitating him," said one of His Washup's long-time political associates. "It's going to be the old college try. Everybody realizes the mayor has been squandering opportunity after opportunity to make it look like he's still the man in charge at City Hall. We'll see if more air can be blown into the old punching bag."
That's hardly an encouraging message for the folks who've been watching Lastman self-destruct these past 14 months. It has not gone unnoticed that Richardson was the guy in charge of keeping the mayor on a short leash during his travels abroad last spring to promote the city's Olympic dream. Try as he might, the assigned chaperone couldn't keep Lastman from blabbing about a fear of being eaten by cannibals in Kenya.
Maybe Mel and Bob will be handcuffed together 24-7 this time out. ("Move over, Marilyn. You're taking up all the room.")
Given the way Lastman courts political disaster (no politician makes an impression by confessing -- and frequently these days -- "I don't even know what I'm saying any more"), Ashton wonders if all the spin doctors in the world have the smarts to help the mayor pull off a huge political recovery.
"Does he have the capability?" the councillor asked. "I'm not even sure any more."
Ashton should know in six months. That's when Operation Save Mel is scheduled to be re-evaluated.
The wait could be a real killer.