Dramatic drop in voter support for mayor
47 per cent would now vote for Mel Lastman
Laurie Monsebraaten
Police Chief Julian Fantino and Mayor Mel Lastman talk to reporters at City Hall January 14.
Toronto's mega mayor is down but not necessarily out.

Just 47 per cent of decided voters would cast their ballot for Mayor Mel Lastman if an election was held today, according to a Star-EKOS poll conducted last week.

That's a dramatic drop from November 2000 when Lastman was re-elected with 80 per cent of the popular vote.

However, 73 per cent still rate the mayor's overall performance in the city's top job as average or good, according to the poll of 404 Toronto residents.

"There has been a clear decline in his popularity," said EKOS senior director Christian Boucher, who noted that Lastman's electoral support has dropped across all income groups and among both men and women.

"But he could probably be re-elected if an election was held and there was no strong opposition," Boucher said.

"The level of enthusiasm is down, but he's not out."

Boucher said most leaders would expect to see a drop of about 10 percentage points in their popularity 12 months to 18 months after winning a new mandate.

"But to drop by almost half is quite dramatic," he said.

The results of the telephone poll, conducted during the evenings of Jan. 16 and 17, are valid within 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll was conducted in the wake of Lastman's controversial handshake with a member of the Hells Angels biker gang during a highly publicized gathering of the group in downtown Toronto last weekend.

A photo of the handshake caused national outrage when it ran in a local newspaper.

The handshake also drew ire from communities like Montreal that are fighting to rid themselves of the criminal organization.

The biker gang, notorious for drug dealing and prostitution, has been linked to more than a hundred killings in Quebec.

Toronto police are concerned the group will cause similar problems here, if its recent growth in Ontario isn't checked.

Many local officers also said the mayor's glad-handing photo was a slap in the face.

However, Lastman, who said "curiosity" drove him to visit the biker convention, claimed he didn't know the extent of the gang's criminal activity.

During his first term as mayor of the amalgamated city of Toronto, Lastman held the line on property tax increases, championed the cause of the city's homeless and generally managed with a light touch.

But since his re-election, Lastman has been dogged by an embarrassing paternity suit, international ridicule on the Olympic stage and political sniping at city hall.

Lastman rocked the city last winter when he acknowledged a 14-year affair with a married woman that ended in 1971, before he became mayor of North York.

`There has been a clear decline in (Mel Lastman's) popularity. But he could probably be re-elected if an election was held and there was no strong opposition. The level of enthusiasm is down, but he's not out. '

Christian Boucher

EKOS senior director

However, he denies that he fathered the woman's two sons who are now suing him for paternity.

Barely recovered from his domestic tribulations, the mayor made international headlines last June when he jokingly told a reporter he was worried about being boiled in a pot by cannibals while he visited Mombasa. Lastman was in Africa to push the city's 2008 Olympic bid shortly before the vote on where the Games would be held took place.

Such an offensive comment from the mayor of a city billing itself as the most ethnically diverse and welcoming in the world was a crushing embarrassment for Toronto on the eve of the Olympic vote.

While the city's eventual loss of the Games to Beijing was not directly attributed to the remark, it left a sour taste in the mouths of the thousands of volunteers who had worked for the city's Olympic cause.

After last week's Hells Angels incident, many of Lastman's political opponents renewed their calls for the mayor to resign.

Lastman's term expires in November, 2003. He has not said whether he is considering running again.

The mayor's staying power is reflected in the poll results. Fully 62 per cent said the mayor should not resign.

Just 34 per cent said the mayor should quit. The remainder had no response.

Last summer, the city auditor released a scathing report on the city's finance department, noting the absence of rudimentary accounting procedures had lead to millions of dollars worth of questionable consulting contracts.

Serious irregularities in a computer leasing deal with MFP Financial Services Ltd. of Mississauga, in which the city may have acquired millions of dollars of equipment it didn't need at inflated prices, is expected to result in a public inquiry.

But at a time when the city's finances are such a mess, 68 per cent — roughly two in three — still said they had moderate or high confidence in Lastman's ability to run the city, according to the poll.

Toronto has been severely short-changed by senior governments when it comes to money and power to keep roads and sewers properly maintained and social services like homeless shelters and recreation programs properly staffed, according to city staff.

Despite a looming property tax increase this year, 64 per cent of those polled said they are moderately or strongly confident that Lastman can lead the charge for an improved financial deal from the provincial and federal governments.

When compared to federal or provincial politicians, the precipitous decline in Lastman's electoral chances is noteworthy, Boucher said.

"I don't think I have seen something as drastic," he said.

"And when everybody agrees things are not going well, that's not good news."

However, on performance and trust measures, Lastman's scores are more in line with leaders like Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Boucher said.

In an October 2000 Star-EKOS poll, 87 per cent rated Lastman's performance good or average.

Last week's 14 percentage point drop is significant, Boucher said.

But he noted that a performance rating above 70 per cent is still strong.

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