Lastman remains a contender, rivals say
Mayor's resilience surprises councillors
Bruce DeMara
city hall bureau
Police Chief Julian Fantino and Mayor Mel Lastman talk to reporters at City Hall January 14.
Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman shakes hands with Tony Biancafiore, a member of the Hells Angels biker gang, on Jan. 11, 2002.
Speak Out on Mel's Hells Angel handshake
Lastman in his own words (Jan. 15)
James: Face it, Mel is unmanageable (Jan. 16)
Quebec angered by Angel handshake (Jan. 14)
Linwood Barclay: Can Angels survive the shame?(Jan. 14)
Storm brews over handshake (Jan. 13)
Biker war costs Quebec $100 million (Jan. 13)
Party to be missed by an Angel (Jan. 10)
'Puppet clubs' are Angels' muscle (Jan. 9)
Mayor Mel Lastman is "down but not out" as far as city politicians are concerned, though a Star-EKOS poll on his leadership also offers some hope for future contenders.

The poll of Toronto residents, conducted by EKOS Research Associates last week for The Star, suggests a dramatic slippage in Lastman's traditionally high support. But a solid majority of those surveyed 62 per cent are opposed to his immediate resignation.

When asked if they'd vote for Lastman if an election were held today, 47 per cent said yes, 53 per cent no.

In the 2000 election, Lastman won 80 per cent of the votes in an undistinguished field.

But the poll found that most city residents remain confident Lastman can lead the city and negotiate a new deal with senior levels of government.

Lastman couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.

The mayor "is down but not out," said Councillor Paul Sutherland (Ward 33, Don Valley East), himself a possible mayoral candidate in 2003.

Even potential rivals acknowledge that Lastman's popularity remains unexpectedly strong. "The only thing that surprised me was his resilience," said Councillor David Miller (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park).

"Given what's happened over the past while particularly the scandals that result from the sort of deal-making atmosphere he's created at city hall I would have thought he might even be less popular," Miller said, referring to contracts with MFP Financial Services and others that are under investigation.

Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) said the poll results show Lastman needs "to wake up and smell the coffee.

"He can't afford any further erosion of his support. Clowning around and failed photo-ops have really hurt his credibility," McConnell said.

"People are really looking for strong visionary leadership ... and he either needs to show that kind of leadership or he should get out of the way."

While 34 per cent would like to see Lastman resign immediately a figure McConnell called "quite dramatic" the fact that 47 per cent would vote for him today suggests he still has strength.

"We should all be so lucky to have 47 per cent of decided voters," McConnell said.

Councillor Betty Disero (Ward 17, Davenport), a Lastman supporter, said the poll results may simply reflect the attitude of voters in the middle of a council term.

"I think that's pretty good, given the fact we're middle term, because people during middle term want to send some kind of message. Maybe this is a message," Disero said.

Councillor Jack Layton (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth) said the decline in support is interesting because Lastman has "enjoyed extraordinarily high popularity over many years."

"It's the beginning of a slippage, for sure, and I'm sure he is going to take it to heart and see what he can do to turn that around."

Councillor Brad Duguid (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), considered a Lastman loyalist, said the poll was taken "at the worst possible time" just after Lastman's much-publicized handshake with members of the Hells Angels at a downtown hotel.

"So if this is rock bottom for him, then that's not so bad. There are some politicians across the country that would die for these numbers."

Two other councillors expressed dismay that Lastman continues fairly strong in terms of public support.

"I guess I'm still astounded that so many people still support (Lastman). Some people pay attention and other people maybe aren't," said Councillor Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre).

Councillor Brian Ashton (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), whose relations with the mayor have deteriorated rapidly over the past year, called the survey's positive results "frightening" and "frustrating."

"It's frightening because the city is bumbling in a leadership vacuum, like a headless chicken. We need a champion who's got great ideas, boundless energy and razor-sharp management skills," Ashton said.

"The public seems so passive to the future of this city," he added. "It looks like he is more than hanging on, he's still sitting on the throne. I just don't know what type of throne it is."

But Holyday said the numbers are encouraging enough for possible contenders in November, 2003, when the next municipal election will be held.

"I personally would not mind running against Mel. The only deciding factor for me was whether or not I could raise the money. If I could raise the money, I would be prepared to run against anybody," Holyday said, adding he does not expect Lastman to seek re-election.

McConnell called the poll results "a good-news story" for those who may challenge Lastman's leadership.

Miller agreed.

"If somebody was thinking about running for mayor, even if Mel Lastman runs again, it would be worth running against him," Miller said.

Sutherland said the poll results suggest a strong contender could beat Lastman. "If there was one other candidate running of good stature, (Lastman) is in trouble," Sutherland said, adding the result might well be different if several serious candidates opposed the mayor.

Layton cautioned those who believe Lastman is vulnerable.

"Anyone would look at the poll and say ... (Lastman) may not be unbeatable. But knowing Mel, he's the type who's going to say, `Oh yeah? Just watch me,'" Layton said.

"Nobody should ever underestimate his ability to come back and win over an element of the public that has been very loyal to him."

The results of the telephone poll of 404 Toronto residents, conducted on Jan. 16 and 17, are valid within 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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