Part of the confusion—and the pleasure—in Rob Ford’s recent tailspin has been about his provenance: This guy is from Toronto? Freebasing, dipsomaniacal, and openly fond of orally servicing his spouse—when Toronto is called “New York run by the Swiss,” they don’t usually mean Lou Reed’s New York.
However, Torontonians aren’t as surprised as the outsiders with a sudden interest in their municipal government. Prior to his election in 2010, Ford said he wanted Toronto be an “anti-refugee zone,” was convicted of a DUI, threatened reporters, offered to buy someone OxyContin, and made various racist, homophobic, and transphobic slurs. Once, after he was ejected from a hockey game, he then admitted, "I had one too many beers.” And then a majority of Torontonians decided he was the best candidate for mayor.
Many have chalked his victory up to his popularity in what Esquire’s Stephen Marche called “immigrant-heavy neighborhoods on the outer edges of the city. There’s some truth to that, but it’s not a full explanation. Even before Toronto’s borders were redrawn to include these neighborhoods, the city had a long-term relationship with another bigoted, adulterous, shady, and volatile mayor. Before Toronto elected Rob Ford, it elected Mel Lastman.
Lastman, who from 1972 to 2003 ruled the entire city or parts of it (before it was amalgamated into a single mega-city in 1998), proved that Torontonians would tolerate an inordinate degree of outlandish behavior. Looking to his example, Ford must have gotten a sense of what he could get away with—even if, eventually, he would push it further.
Like Ford, Lastman was a wealthy man. Unlike Ford, he didn’t inherit his wealth. Lastman founded Bad Boy, a furniture chain that eventually boasted 40 stores across Ontario. Among his publicity stunts in the 1960s was to visit the Arctic to “sell furniture to an Eskimo.” Bad Boy is best known for its slogan ‘Nooooobody’ in its television commercials. Some 1993 ads with Lastman featured lookalikes of Bill and Hillary Clinton extolling the low, low prices of Bad Boy. The White House sent a cease and desist letter to Lastman, demanding Clinton’s likeness not be used for commercial purposes. Lastman refused, arranging more commercials in response. In another ad, he appeared in prison stripes to emphasize the store’s ‘steals.’
Foreshadowing Ford’s antics, Lastman earned international attention in 2001 by colorfully expressing his reservations about visiting Kenya as part of Toronto’s Olympic bid. "What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?” he said. "Snakes just scare the hell out of me. I'm sort of scared about going there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me."
Lastman proved similarly ignorant about health issues. That same year, Lastman went on CNN to complain about the World Health Organization’s SARS travel advisory for Toronto. He said, "They don't know what they're talking about. I don't know who this group is, I never heard of them before. I'd never seen them before." Forty-four Torontonians eventually died from the virus.
Like Ford, Lastman was also known for his threatening behavior and womanizing. After a reporter leaked a story about the mayor’s wife being caught shoplifting, Lastman stepped to him in council chambers and said, "Leave my family alone. If you don't leave them alone, I'll kill you." He threatened to have the journalist fired from his job.
Earlier in his career, Lastman ran into trouble with women in the workplace when he told a reporter, "These pretty little things in miniskirts are cheerful and beautiful in the office, but they are not workers. They spend most of their time talking about last night and the other half talking about tonight."
In 2000, a 68-year old woman and her two children sued Lastman for $6 million, saying he failed to pay child support for the kids, who were borne from a 14-year affair. Lastman admitted his adultery but refused to support the family, saying they weren’t his love children. Subsequent tests proved they were. The children said they had repeatedly tried to contact their father, who rebuffed their efforts. Maybe they asked their millionaire father for money they desperately needed—they couldn’t afford braces, lived on welfare, and wore rags.
This announcement came soon after Lastman wrote to the Spice Girls, begging the English pop group not to break up. Lastman also shook hands with members of the Hells Angels, then claimed to be unaware of the gang’s distribution of illegal narcotics. He bullied unions, provincial leaders, and prime ministers.
And Torontonans never ceased voting for the man—they reelected him 11 times. Lastman maintained his popularity by keeping property taxes low, maintaining close personal contact with constituents, being an out-sized personality, slurring squeegee kids and the homeless (“I don't want to have them sleep in the streets, because when they sleep in the streets they use the streets as toilets"), and staying beloved in the suburbs.
Still, in voting for Lastman, the people of Toronto desensitized themselves to unacceptable, boorish, and illegal behavior. They prepared themselves for the rise of Rob Ford. Lastman himself has seen the connections between the two, declaring himself thankful for the current mayor’s behavior: “I’m not a genius, obviously, but he makes me look like one.”
Jordan Michael Smith, a Toronto-born writer living in Washington, D.C., is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.