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Rob Ford a topic of discussion at U.S. think tank

Anne Golden, former head of the Conference Board of Canada, leads a discussion on Rob Ford on May 16, 2014 at the Woodrow Wilson centre in Washington.

Alexander Panetta/The Canadian Press

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford may be unwelcome in the United States – even as his behaviour delights comedians – but now he has managed a new first: He is a serious discussion topic at a Washington think tank.

"The Rob Ford Phenomenon: What's going on in Toronto?" was Friday's topic at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the foremost think tank in the U.S. capital that looks at Canadian-U.S. issues. The session was led by Anne Golden, a former president of the Conference Board of Canada who is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the centre's Canada Institute.

Mr. Ford probably has greater name recognition among Americans than Canada's Prime Minister, said David Biette, director of the institute. Both he and Ms. Golden said some Canadian officials voiced dismay that the institute was hosting a formal session on such an embarrassing issue.

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The session was billed as an explainer: "How did Ford become mayor of a sophisticated and progressive city like Toronto in the first place? And why does he continue to keep the support of a significant portion of the voting public?"

It has been a "long exhausting but mesmerizing saga," Ms. Golden said, adding that the revelations of recent weeks, including a new video allegedly showing the mayor with a crack cocaine pipe in his sister's basement, his vow to undergo rehabilitation and an aborted attempt to fly to Chicago, have all served to undermine Mr. Ford's credibility and the narrative that he is a victim of the elitist media.

But Ms. Golden conceded that "Mayor Ford still enjoys significant popular support."

She said much of Mr. Ford's backing comes from suburban voters who tend to be less-educated, blue-collar workers, car drivers rather than transit users, readers of the Toronto Sun and people more likely to order a "medium, double-double," which, as she explained for Americans unfamiliar with Tim Hortons, stands in contrast to "city people who order grande, non-fat lattes."

As, well, Ford voters are about 25-per-cent poorer than downtown-core voters, who preferred his opponent, she said.

"The real embarrassment for Toronto is, of course, not Rob Ford, but the ongoing support he receives from a significant percentage of the population," Ms. Golden said.

However, she rejected suggestions that she was implying that only suburban, lower-middle-class, unsophisticated people would overlook misbehaviour in politicians.

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"There are those who like Ford's coarse and unrefined style," she said. Part of "Ford Nation is loyal to Ford because they know he offends and upsets the elites," she said, looking around the boardroom on the sixth floor of the lavish Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue where the Woodrow Wilson centre is located. "Like the people here," she added.

As for the mayor's political future, Ms. Golden ventured that she thought the "redemption story will no longer work."

But it may be too soon to write off Mr. Ford.

Americans are no strangers to misdeeds in high office. Conversations about Mr. Ford often turn quickly to former Washington mayor Marion Barry, the first prominent civil-rights leader elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Mr. Barry was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in an Federal Bureau of Investigation sting in 1990. He was arrested, indicted, convicted and served six months in a federal penitentiary. Re-elected to city council by fiercely loyal constituents soon after his release, Mr. Barry won citywide election and was mayor again for a fourth term from 1995 to 1999. He remains an influential council member representing Washington's poorest and most blighted ward.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ford has a competitor as the Canadian whose behaviour gets the most attention south of the border, lagging way behind Justin Bieber as the Canadian most Americans want out of their country.

More than 270,000 people have signed petitions demanding that the 20-year-old singer – whose latest run-in with the law came this week when he is alleged to have attempted to steal a woman's cellphone – be removed from the United States.

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