Michael Bryant: "I will keep my trap shut'

Michael Bryant, restrained? Fat chance. As John Allemang predicts, being a top Toronto booster will make him even more quotable.

John Allemang

Originally pubished May, 29, 2009

No longer Dalton McGuinty's minister of economic development, and not yet (officially at least) the chief executive officer of David Miller's new Invest Toronto corporation, Michael Bryant is content to strut towards a window table in Terroni and do what he does best – be the centre of attention, without even trying.

It's late afternoon at the Balmoral Avenue trattoria that's a short walk from Mr. Bryant's St. Clair and Avenue Road home, a time when mothers, nannies, the occasional stray dad and a lot of boisterous children gather for pizza and noisemaking. Yet in a room that attempts, quite successfully, to recreate the happy chaos of a Southern Italian family meal, Mr. Bryant knows how to be noticed – heads turn as he walks by, hard to ignore in the dress-for-success suit wrapped snugly around his taut boxer's body, and one captivated little girl stands up against the back of the neighbouring banquette and tracks his free-flowing chatter from inches away.

He turns and energetically greets her as if she were a voter waiting to be won over. The aloof Mr. McGuinty once imposed his infamous five-foot rule for media scrums, but Mr. Bryant exhibits no such aversion to human contact.

“Other than having to stand back from my aura, there's definitely no five-foot rule,” he says with a smile, trading on the self-deprecation available only to the highly secure.

A self-described man of “serious gusto,” he no longer has a political need to play to the crowd – not since he abruptly departed his cabinet post amid speculation of a rift with his boss to become the key player in Toronto's ambitious new economic development corporation. The control freaks in the Premier's office can rest easy – gone are the days when they'd turn on the TV and find Mr. Bryant talking up a new era of “reverse Reaganism.”

But even though he's given up the job of negotiating bailout packages for auto companies, Mr. Bryant still looks very much the flamboyant deal-maker among the pizza primavera crowd.

The immaculate suit and puffy tie are a given, but it's the huge, red-banded, bells-and whistles timepiece emerging from beneath his cuffs that's the real eye-catcher. “It's a monster of a watch from Novesa,” he says with not entirely serious gusto, “bought for 50 per cent off, I'll have you know. Definitely a bit of red Liberal bling-bling.”

Can you see why 43-year-old Michael Bryant may not have suited the cautious, close-to-the-chest McGuinty crowd? Or why he may have felt he'd be happier boosting Toronto in a wider world of international investment, where the city's quiet charms could stand to benefit from his brash, look-at-me salesmanship?


Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Michael Bryant

His camera-hogging independence worked successfully in opposition, and made him friends in the media who were bored by the official Liberal line of calculated blandness. But increasingly, his high-energy performances, though articulate, tried the patience of McGuintyites, who saw him as angling for the Premier's job.

“Personally, I hope no one mixes up extroversion and ambition,” he says. “They are two different things. I'm an extrovert for sure.”

Apparently the political operatives in and near the Premier's kitchen cabinet weren't so discerning in their judgment. They insisted, after his remarks about “reverse Reaganism” and “picking winners and losers” that he'd finally gone rogue.

“Well, it sure got the point across,” he now says. “Talking about winners and losers definitely bonks you over the head, and if it's a wake-up call for those on the right who don't like this, fine. And if it unsettled people, good. The Premier says he's leery of it? I'm leery of it too. Yeah, government should be leery of making these kind of investments. But we still do it.”

His new job, however, represents a role reversal of sorts: he wouldn't be figuring out how to spend capital. He'll have to attract it.

“He's pretty passionate about Toronto, which is what we need,” says Kyle Rae, the chair of the city's economic-development committee, who first spoke with Mr. Bryant about the Invest Toronto position in February. “And he's highly intelligent, a fast learner, good on his feet and reads the room well.”

Talk about learning fast: As part of the promotion for his upcoming Invest Toronto post, he was persuaded to pose for Hello! magazine with his wife, entertainment lawyer Susan Abramovitch, and their children, six-year-old Sadie and four-year-old Louis, who both attend tony, public-but-as-good-as-private Brown School. He and his wife met at the Supreme Court of Canada as law clerks, the most prestigious internship available to law's best and brightest. When they married in 1997, he pledged to raise their children in her Jewish faith.

While he occasionally shows up at the Temmy Latner Forest Hill Jewish Centre, he chooses to hold on to what he calls his Protestant guilt. So at the personal level, at least, he knows how to yield – even if it means that Sadie will say, in the middle of a Hebrew conversation, “Don't forget, everybody, Daddy's not Jewish.”

In public life, the slow and delicate art of compromise seems to have become more of a challenge. His provincial Liberal colleague and parliamentary assistant to the attorney-general David Zimmer notes that Mr. Bryant “is definitely a high-energy guy. He's the kind of person who can see every side to an issue in a nanosecond, so he becomes very impatient when things bog down – you can see his feet vibrating on the floor when things aren't moving fast enough.”

How long can a man like this last in politics? “I'm going to miss a lot of what I've been doing for the last 10 years,” says the Harvard-educated lawyer who was first elected as MPP in the midtown riding St. Paul's in 1999 and became a hyperactive attorney-general at the age of 37. “But I'm really looking forward to executing a strategy without being limited by the need to hit certain political points along the way. At Invest Toronto, I'm the first employee, and I'm going to run a shop we can create from the ground up. There's a measure of independence with this that you just can't get in politics. It's accountable to its board and to the Mayor, but there's an opportunity to try different things, to innovate without limitations.”

And if he's not the best team player? “Michael's got exactly the kind of temperament we want,” says Toronto councillor Joe Mihevc, who worked alongside Mr. Bryant on controversial projects like the Wychwood Barns and the rebuilding of the St. Clair streetcar line. “He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he's a quick actor who knows how to intervene the moment it's needed.”

Politics isn't the preferred profession for people who prize their independence, which is what made the Mr. Bryant such an anomaly within Mr. McGuinty's highly centralized administration; first as a camera-loving attorney-general crusading against pit bulls and other law-and-order targets, later as a minister for aboriginal affairs cleaning up after the Mike Harris government before he was handed the economic development portfolio when the recession broke.

He'll have encouragement to talk this way at Invest Toronto, an arms-length public agency that will allow him greater leeway in asserting his personal style. But the greater freedom to speak his mind comes with a trade-off: It slows down his rapid political ascent.

“I'll be done as a politician,” he says with what sounds like finality. “So when people ask me questions about bike lanes on Jarvis Street – I've had people come up to me and say, ‘Let's talk about economic development and Jarvis Street' – I'm like, ‘Talk to the hand, or talk to the Mayor.' I'm not in that business any more. I'm sure there'll be moments when I find it difficult to keep my trap shut. But I will keep my trap shut.”

For someone who counts Muhammad Ali as his idol, it's an improbable resolution. And it hardly fits the pugnacious streak of a man who's been a boxer since the age of 10 in Victoria, B.C. “I loved it from the start. It didn't matter how big you were, you could get in the ring and compete against people your own size. Plus, it's pretty primal. And it also assisted in giving people the wrong impression that they better not mess with me – which, mercifully, was rarely tested.”

His longing to be a lawyer and a politician could be rooted in the same scrappiness. But he was also born to the role: His father, a lawyer as well, was mayor of Esquimalt, B.C., and much of Michael's intellectual development as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia and later as a law student was shaped by the struggle for aboriginal rights – his Harvard masters thesis was a comparative North American study of state-aboriginal confrontations, a topic he would returned to in political life.

In the hierarchical world of provincial politics, Mr. Bryant's transfer to aboriginal affairs from the AG's office was regarded as a demotion, yet he relished the job – he sees it as his most successful period in office, and is still enshrined in the YouTube videos he posted during the conflict over land rights in Caledonia.

So it's a mistake, at least from his perspective, to view his exit from the Ontario cabinet as anything other than an opportunity. “It's not like I'm throwing myself into something that doesn't have a public-service component. But if I'd wanted to stay in politics, I'd have stayed in politics. You've got to be willing to give it up and not come back.”

He definitely isn't devising a plan to run for mayor (“No, not ever. We have a fabulous mayor who I support, and he's the chairman of my board”). And he cites his mentor Frank McKenna, another politician who was able to move on, for the view that “politics is so intense, so all-consuming, so unreal, that he didn't want to go back to it.”

And yet, like the fighter he is, he can't bring himself to throw in the towel. “I may have the same experience as Frank,” he says above the roar of young Torontonians devouring their pizza. “But if I said ‘Never, never, never, it's absolutely ruled out,' nobody would believe me.”