TORONTO – When Michael Bryant left Ontario politics four months ago, many believed it wouldn’t be long before the headline-grabbing cabinet minister made a splashy comeback and took his long-awaited shot at the province’s top job.
As one of the brightest stars in the Liberal government, Bryant had the world at his feet in late May when he stepped down for a plum position at Invest Toronto, a brand-new corporation tasked with attracting investment to the city.
Pundits predicted he’d be back, that Bryant couldn’t stay out of the political limelight for long. Ottawa, Queen’s Park – nothing seemed beyond his reach.
But that was all thrown into question Tuesday as shocking images of a stunned and wide-eyed Bryant in the back of a police cruiser topped newscasts across the country.
The accomplished lawyer and father of two now faces criminal charges after a late-night altercation in downtown Toronto left a 33-year-old cyclist dead.
The incident is still under investigation and experts agree it’s still too early to tell what impact it may have on his future. The charges could be dropped or Bryant may be acquitted, they say.
But the damage may have already been done, snuffing out a promising political future just as it was about to reach its full potential, said one expert.
“One would imagine that if these charges stick and get to a trial, no matter how that trial turns out, this is very damaging to his political career,” said David Docherty, dean of arts at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Even if Bryant clears his name, those searing images of Ontario’s former top justice official taken into police custody will likely come back to haunt him if he decided to seek public office again, Docherty said.
“In many ways, it’s also the product of the times,” he said.
“Twenty years ago, a picture like that might end up in a newspaper, but it wouldn’t be forever on a blog or Internet or that sort of thing.”
Intelligent, energetic, articulate and unabashedly ambitious, Bryant stood out from other politicians, said Bryan Evans, a politics professor at Ryerson University.
“He’s got a rare combination of talents which in political life really come together and allow someone to shine,” he said.
Those qualities also “clearly annoyed” some people, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, he said.
Bryant had long been considered a top contender to succeed McGuinty, despite his sometime frosty relationship with the premier who didn’t always approve of Bryant’s brash, attention-getting style.
“In politics, there’s a rule if you will – an unwritten rule – that when you’ve got an incumbent, when you’ve got somebody who’s currently got the job, you have to keep your ambition in check,” Evans said.
“And Bryant at times perhaps pushed the margin a bit too far and irritated the premier, or at minimum, the people working for the premier.”
Observers believe it was McGuinty’s decision to stay on for the 2011 election that ultimately prompted Bryant to strike out on his own.
Other Canadian politicians who got into legal trouble have managed to land on their feet with their careers intact, experts say.
In 1977, then-Quebec premier Rene Levesque hit and killed a man while driving home from a late-night party with his girlfriend. Police didn’t lay charges and Levesque kept his job.
British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell took a hammering after a 2003 drunk driving conviction in Hawaii. He went on to win two more terms, but his police mugshot continues to be a source of embarrassment.
A clearly shaken Bryant spoke briefly with reporters Tuesday to extend his “deepest condolences” to the cyclist’s family and plead for privacy.
His sudden twist of fate left many of his former colleagues in shock.
“It’s just very sad,” a sombre McGuinty said Tuesday.
“It is very tragic how events that unfold inside a minute can have such a profound impact on people’s lives.”
Born and raised in Victoria, B.C., Bryant boasted an impressive resume, with degrees from the University of British Columbia, Osgoode Hall Law School and Harvard University.
He practised law in Toronto, clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada, and taught law and politics at the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall, and King’s College in London, England.
He and his wife, entertainment lawyer Susan Abramovitch, have two young children, Sadie and Louis.
Bryant made his political debut in 1999 by defeating Tory cabinet minister Isabel Bassett in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s, holding the seat for a decade.
As the province’s youngest attorney general, Bryant grabbed headlines by launching a public crusade to ban pit bulls in 2004 and crushing cars in a dramatic display of the province’s crackdown on speeders.
Even his choice of clothes seemed designed to attract attention. Expensive suits, statement ties, loud colours – Bryant never went unnoticed, even if it meant enduring a few jabs about his flashy attire.
He relished the justice portfolio, and took on lesser-known reforms such as regulating paralegals, de-politicizing justice of the peace appointments and overhauling Ontario’s human rights system.
Being the attorney general was his “dream job” and it was difficult to let go of it, he said in a recent issue of the Law Times, a trade publication for Ontario lawyers.
When he was shuffled to aboriginal affairs after the 2007 provincial election, he took on the job with gusto, tackling the recommendations of the Ipperwash inquiry and brokering a $2-billion agreement with First Nations over gaming revenues.
Last year, he went to Caledonia to plead for patience and understanding in a series of YouTube videos aimed at defusing simmering tensions over a two-year aboriginal occupation of a disputed piece of land.
As minister of economic development, he was the province’s point man in negotiations to save Ontario’s ailing auto industry with a multibillion-dollar bailout.
Does Bryant still have a shot at returning to politics?
“Never say never,” said Evans.