Sources: (left) The Don Mills Mirror, November 19, 1969; (right) The Enterprise, November 12, 1969.
He had never attended a council meeting. He admitted he didn’t know what exactly the duties were for the position he was running for. He was unable or unwilling to partake in certain traditions of the campaign trail, like handshaking. None of these factors hindered Mel Lastman in his quest to become a North York Controller in 1969: his inexperience was seen by voters and several publications as a plus.
The Mel Lastman that entered municipal politics was a thirty-six-year-old millionaire who had gone from selling appliances out of the back of a truck to owning fifteen Bad Boy stores. He gained a reputation for attention-grabbing sales gimmicks such as running down Yonge Street in a mini skirt, selling fridges to Inuit, and standing on street corners handing out two dollar bills for a buck. His ignorance of the workings of municipal politics was seen as a breath of fresh air in some quarters, such as the endorsement he received from the Don Mills Mirror: “In his attempt to educate himself about the workings of municipal government, Lastman, in our opinion, will ask the questions which trouble many voters, but rarely trouble politicians.”
Source: The Enterprise, November 26, 1969.
Lastman’s platform stressed his business experience by questioning how anyone could trust politicians who emptied the financial coffers of North York and Metropolitan Toronto. Among his platform planks, the item that gained the most attention was “Lastman’s Loop.” He proposed to use sixty miles of railway track that CN and CP planned to phase out for passenger service on as a commuter loop operated in a manner similar to the then-recently-introduced GO transit system. The scheme would have used a CP line from Union to Doncaster Avenue in Thornhill, turned west along the track north of Steeles, then used CN lines on the east side of Keele to head back toward Union. Lastman claimed that a trip from Union Station to Doncaster would take half an hour. He also provided for extensions of the service using existing rail lines to the airport. According to a blurb in a Bad Boy ad shortly before the election, Lastman estimated that a system following his plan could build 200 miles of surface rapid transit for the same cost as one mile of subway (which he estimated to be twenty million dollars).
Several aspects of Lastman’s platform were tailored for the youth vote, including a vow to fight pollution (“something must be done immediately about pollution or ten years from now, we will all be going in for blasts of oxygen to cleanse our lungs”) and offer clinics for users of illicit substances (“speed freaks and LSD bad trippers will kill themselves before they reach twenty. If they want help, give it to them. Turn your back on a child and you’ll never bridge the generation gap”). Lastman also supported amalgamation of all the municipalities within Metro Toronto, the expansion of North York into parts of Vaughan and Markham townships, improved facilities for students with special needs, private funding for a domed stadium, and an improved Landlord and Tenant Act to favour apartment dwellers.
Lastman’s campaign was marked by the candidate’s unwillingness to do the usual rounds of door-knocking and hand-shaking. “I’m so shy,” he told the Star. “I didn’t have the guts to go out and shake anyone’s hand. I tried it once in a restaurant and the woman told me to go away because she was eating. That was the last time.” This quirk didn’t harm Lastman’s chances among the nine candidates who sought the four available controller seats. When the ballots were counted on December 1, Lastman came in third with just under thirty-six thousand votes. Amid the cheers and high spirits of supporters at his victory party, the Star noted that Lastman looked “bewildered but happy.” If the accounts of his speech that night are taken at face value, it appears that Lastman was still unsure of what his new job entailed: “now, all I want to know is what does a controller do?”
When asked why he didn’t set his sights on the mayor’s chair, Lastman replied “well, then everyone would have thought I wanted to be king.” He bided his time as a controller before mounting a challenge to the throne in 1972. Once the crown was in his grasp, he held onto it for the next quarter century before overseeing the amalgamation he had supported during his first electoral campaign.
Additional information from the February 1968 issue of Toronto Life and the following newspapers: the November 19, 1969 and November 26, 1969 editions of the Don Mills Mirror; the November 19, 1969 edition of the Enterprise; and the November 29, 1969 and December 2, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.
Get more municipal election coverage from Torontoist here.