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'What's going on in Toronto?' A U.S. think-tank explores the Rob Ford phenomenon

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WASHINGTON - An American think-tank held a symposium Friday to explore a phenomenon that has fascinated people beyond national borders: How in blazes did Canada's largest city ever elect Rob Ford?

In an attempt to understand the factors that led to his election as mayor, and his enduring core of support, Washington's Wilson Center held a discussion titled "The Rob Ford Phenomenon: What's going on in Toronto?"

About two dozen people crowded into a boardroom near the White House to participate in the event, held on the one-year anniversary of the first published reports about a video of Ford smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine.

Ford has become a celebrity in the U.S., and the butt of countless jokes. But an event organizer said his story raises truly serious public-policy questions — such as the effect of municipal amalgamations, and demographic shifts in urban and suburban areas.

"I wanted to take Rob Ford out of the late-night comedy shows and to look at, really, what's happening in Toronto?" said David Biette, head of the Wilson Center's Canada institute, which hosted the event.

"Toronto's a great, progressive city. How did Toronto get here? What does it say about municipal governance ... that this kind of phenomenon could happen? And I know there's a lot more to it than just what we see as sort of a buffoon on TV.

"Obviously, people elected him. And obviously the guy has support — still has support — in the mega-city of Toronto. Where does that support come from?"

Friday's symposium was led by Canadian academic Anne Golden, the former head of the Conference Board of Canada. She didn't quite sing Ford's praises, but did offer her take on how he got elected, and how he remains politically afloat despite a tsunami of scandals.

Friday's history lesson went all the way back to 1867. Golden explained that under the original Constitution, provincial governments were given total power over municipalities, and joked that cities were slotted into Section 92 of the British North America Act right between saloons and asylums.

She described how the province created the Toronto mega-city; how its first mayor Mel Lastman was popular; and how the garbage strike and tax hikes stoked anger against its second mayor, David Miller, whom she described as a blond-haired, Harvard-educated political golden boy.

So, in 2010, people elected an anti-Miller. She said Ford's promise to, "Stop the gravy train," appealed to people. As did his refusal to file expense claims, even for things such as printer cartridges.

She put up a blue-and-red map showing how Ford swept the suburbs, with very little support downtown.

And she referred to a study by the University of Toronto's Zack Taylor on the differences between the so-called "Ford Nation" and the downtown folks that voted for his rival George Smitherman, in "Smitherman Village."

"A Ford voter was more likely... to be blue collar; live in a detached house with a yard; be a car driver, not a transit user or a cyclist; read the Toronto Sun, a tabloid newspaper known for its daily Sunshine Girl and its populist conservative views...; order a medium double-double, and I'm told you don't know what that means but in our country it's double-cream, double-sugar, and the city people order grande, non-fat lattes," Golden said.

"And they have less household income — about 25 per cent less than a Smitherman voter. In terms of education, they have less...

"So there's a lifestyle divide."

One academic in attendance drew parallels between Ford and ex-D.C. mayor Marion Barry — and suggested those similarities weren't limited to having both sampled crack cocaine.

He suggested both drew political support from segments of society that felt alienated by the urban elite.

Golden agreed that behavioural incidents tended to embolden Ford, not hurt him. Even before he was elected, she said, there were signs of trouble such as a police call to his house in 2008 and his ejection from a hockey game in 2006.

But people hold politicians in such low regard these days, Golden said, that they expect almost nothing from them. All they're expected to do is not steal public money, she said.

She said Ford's political luck might be running out, given the latest onslaught of negative news stories. Speculation has been rampant about his whereabouts since he took a leave of absence for a stint in rehab, following new reports about drug use and offensive rants.

Still, Golden said, his political base has proven resilient so far.

"They know that he offends and upsets the elites — the so-called chattering classes," she said.

"Like the people here."

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