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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Three Maps that Explain the Term Limit Results

Vote distribution term limitsFor politicos, the above map will look rather familiar. Support for the Term Limits amendment is in red and right where you would expect it: up on the hill on the west side, and out one the NE rim. These have been reliably conservative votes for some time, and especially on the more populist measures like term limits. On the SE side, the continuing impact of the Dutch community can be seen. This pattern of balance between the far SE and the west side can also be found on taxation issues such as the Silver Line or way before, on school millages.

The SE side vote serves as a reminder that the populist, libertarian stance so popular today is not the only one available to the conservative. The precincts out Burton can be painfully conservative, but they nonetheless vote for institutions. This lies less in a hidden heart of softness, than in the character of their theology and social class. Like their neighbors to the north in East Grand Rapids or in Ottawa Hills (historically a “Yankee” not a Dutch neighborhood) the population out Burton is one that prizes education; the residents are professionals and white collar, often in management or in education. Underneath this, there is also the element of the Dutch Reformed social philosophy, “Kuyperianism” that seeks to bring belief to transform society. Think of it as social conservatism with brains.

So this is story one: the Term Limits proposal pits the conservative populists concentrated on the west side against the socially moderate SE side. For a long time in Grand Rapids history, this has been THE battle. But the map of course shows another segment for the opposition: the “hipsters” (as commentators on MLive have it) — a band of neighborhoods stretching out Fulton from Downtown out Marywood and the city limits, a region usually defined by its zip code: 49503. In contrast to the Dutch, these are largely Yankee: middle class of varying religious persuasion, largely white. This has been the part of town that has provided some of the strongest leadership in the urban revitalization, and for that matter, the City; it is the backbone of the political culture of the Second Ward (although the Ward is far more diverse than this).

In most seasons, the alliance between Second and Third Wards is enough to stop the occasional populist outbreaks on the West Side. Not this time. What happened?

Map Two: the Blue Collar Revolt

Term limits map 3 blue collar

Earlier, I had posited a blue collar antipathy to the Big City: term limits were part of a struggle for the urban guidance of the city. The data above is pretty clear.  The neighborhoods of the northside by Aberdeen, or on the SE side towards Alger Park (the blue collar part of the SE side Dutch community) — they were pretty adamant about the term limits voting in a range of 54%-60% in favor.

The distinct geographic clumping adds another layer to the story. These are not so much the disaffected as they are the invested. Their neighborhoods have not seen the downtown love, so to speak. These are also the neighborhoods with relatively less spending income: first home buyers, long time residents. What we see is something like a map of (potential) revolt. Oddly, the passage of term limits may actually help reconnect this group, provided they get representation.

A third map, however reveals the mistakes of the opponents. Painfully so.

Map Three: the Disconnected Poor

Term limits map 2 poor

Above are the low-turnout precincts, again with the darker dots indicating strong support for term limits (approx. 54%-65% in favor), the lighter dots represent those low turnout precincts that slightly favored the measure. We can consider low turnout as a proxy for poverty — a position any one familiar with these neighborhoods already understands.

Again, the geography tells everything. These are the Hispanic and African-American districts, the same ones that were skeptical in the Lenear/Tuffelmire battle.These are neighborhoods of the working poor — low turnout is strongly correlated with poverty. In civic discussions, they are also the community that is acted upon, rather than takes part (as an aside, one might read the election of Jose Flores to the school board as part of this same dynamic, a pushing back as it were).

Looking to the numbers, this was the part of the electorate where the measure won. The two thirds of higher-turnout precincts basically broke even. So although this cluster of precincts represents perhaps 20 % of the total vote, the 900 vote margin provides the win.

In short….

When considered through the lens of the usual politics, or even of the Blue Collar Revolt, the battle over term limits looks manageable. It is the failure to make the case with the working poor that really stands out. This may have arisen from unconscious bias (i.e. communicating as if your viewpoint is normative, leaving off the connecting with the audience). It could have been that the argument was too abstract relative to the proponents. It may well be something else.

Here’s one thing that advocates of the City need to take to heart: the big measures will take buy-in from the near neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and often our friends. Advocates ignore them at their own risk.

And for purposes of vote counting, these districts represent the winning margin for Term Limits

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , , , ,

Big City, Bright Hope?

IMG_0617There are plenty of ways to look at the proposed term limit change to the city charter. For a start there is sore loser frame; or the “anybody but George Heartwell (and throw in Rossalyn Bliss)” frame. And of course, another favorite would be that of the vaguely concealed Tea Party initiative — another right wing, ill considered piece of politics forced on the general population. While there’s some truth to all of these, their easy perspectives hide the actual civic discussion underway.

Grand Rapids continues to think about what it means to be a Big City. Stuff is happening here as the latest Movoto post would suggest. We’re a city making the lists. And while that sounds good if you’re walking down Cherry Street, or hanging out downtown, in the neighborhoods it is more ambiguous.

The battle on term limits is part of the same discussion that came with civic tax initiatives (Silver Line, road repair), as well as in last year’s Third Ward race between Senita Lennear and Michael Tufflemire. Listen closely, and one can also hear it in the  discussion on black business Jamiel Robinson is spearheading. While it is nice to have the rapids back in Grand Rapids, say, how does that translate to the neighborhoods? Is the Big City, in effect, for all of us? How does the Big City become the city that embraces its neighbors?

There’s an economic anxiety lurking, not so far from the surface. One can see it in the signs themselves, or rather where the signs lie. In the Third Ward they’re on well kept homes, young and old, whites and blacks. They may be doing ok, but the edge is there, if one looks. Perhaps nothing reveals it quite so plainly as the Urban Institute’s map of mortgages:

mortgages-grand-rapids

The lack of mortgage activity in the city speaks volumes about the continuing economic struggle in the region where the Big City glitter doesn’t make it out to the post-war neighborhoods of the city — those blocks with the 50s  brick ranches. For those neighborhoods, the larger national narrative of suspicion of elites takes hold, something that proponents of Term Limits certainly are counting on. Thus the campaign uses the language of “entrenched interests” or of vague lobbyists and the like. These are the stand-ins for the economic elites robbing us of our future: whether we call it Obamacare or the Koch brothers it is the same. We are beleaguered; we can only look out for ourselves. This is a corrosive vision, a fragmentation.

Taken at its best, the  Big City offers an alternative to this national rhetoric of suspicion. It’s not the festivals or polished buildings (or the bikeways), but an approach, a process, a working together. It is of course, imperfectly realized as the continuing discussion makes clear, but we nevertheless should be clear how different it is from prevailing attitudes elsewhere.

The question of Term Limits, then, is one of approach to those items still on our civic to-do list, viz. how to bring neighborhoods up; how to improve the schools; how to add high quality jobs. We can opt for the current path of pulling back, of looking out for oneself (that wearisome pattern of our present politics), or that of the Big City and the promise that it can in fact, be for everyone.

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Why He Lost

In  the end, Mike Tuffelmire proved to be a better Catholic than a neighborhood activist. Tuesday, Senita Lenear cruised to an easy 59-35 victory on an 1100 vote margin. Given the very low turnout, the results were probably to be expected.  The race is perhaps better thought of as competing affirmative votes, rather than as divvying up of the electorate (aka zero-sum”). There were always more votes to be had, so the failure in the Tuffelmire vote is best seen as a measure of strength for his ideas, his sales, if you will.

And the bulk of that margin took place in the four square miles that make up the Ward’s NW corner, a region roughly bounded by Wealthy, Sylvan, Burton and Lafayette.

Four Square Miles

Most of the Lenear margin came here. But this wasn’t Tuffelmire’s problem. To understand how he lost we will need to look elsewhere.

Going into the race, one could divide the Ward into three rough clumpings. There were neighborhoods that were African-American and broadly poor, often living in housing stock that was pre-WWII; people lived there because of socio-economic constraints; these are the Constrained. Then there were the “first ring” suburban precincts, built up in the 40s and early 50s — these were then and now, the First Homes for families, typically bungalows and some old colonials. Then there are the Suburbs, initially built out as ranch houses (note the difference between east and west side of Plymouth), the move-up neighborhoods, the middle class, for the most part post-1960 construction. In this mix there are some outlier neighborhoods: Heritage Hill, Ottawa Hills, the subsidized apartments out at Eastbrook or in back of Town and Country (44th SE).

Constrained, First Homes, Suburbs: this is the physical and political geography of the Third Ward. In his literature and approach, Tuffelmire aimed at the First Homes neighborhoods, places like Alger Heights (Pct 72-74), Mulick Park (59),and Boston Square (75). He spoke of better representation, concerns for public safety (property crimes) and of fiscal prudence — all themes that should resonate. These neighborhoods would give him an edge over the Constrained neighborhoods — principally African American and rather solidly for Lenear. The Commission would be won in the Suburbs.

That at least was the apparent strategy. Only it just didn’t work out that way.

Let’s Do the Numbers

The First Home neighborhoods didn’t respond.

  • Mulick Park (59): one in eight vote; Tuffelmire lags by 68 votes
  • Boston Square (75): one in fifteen vote; good news, Tuffelmire runs 25 votes behind.
  • Alger (72-74): one in twelve vote; Tufflemire gives up 63 votes.
  • Ken-O-Sha (65): one in twelve; Tuffelmire keeps it close, lagging by 21 votes.

Note, the problem is not the lost votes but the missed connection. These were to be the natural connections, but the message missed.

Where Tuffelmire did show strength were in the Suburb precincts going out Burton:

  • Indian Village (55): 11 percent vote, Tuffelmire actually tops Lenear by 3.
  • Ridgemoor (54,69): 14 percent vote, Tuffelmire lags by only 3
  • IHM (77): 13 percent vote and Tuffelmire lags by 20.

These neighborhoods are shaped by the presence of two Catholic churches (IHM and St Paul the Apostle) — Tuffelmire grew up in IHM, and retained the support of members there. Away from these Catholic neighborhoods, Tuffelmire struggled.

  • Pct 53 (Raybrook, Calvin College): more Christian Reformed, positive on City issues; Tuffelmire surrenders 68 votes
  • Pct 56 (east side of Kalamazoo, Brookside CRC) with 58 (mostly condos, Breton/44th): 13 percent vote, Tuffelmire drops 69
  • Pt 57 (Sherwood Park): this is the last standing suburban school in GRPS; one in eight vote and Tuffelmire comes short 32.
  • Pct 68 – 71(Ottawa Hills): one in eight vote, but Tuffelmire comes short by 128 votes, in many ways the most disappointing showing of the race.

What Did He Miss?

Three things likely combined to doom the campaign.

First, the neighborhood message did not motivate. To win, Tuffelmire needed to make a case that things were really broken at City Hall. There was potential in the message, but he did not have it tuned to sufficient intensity to motivate the dissatisfied. Ironically, the issues that could have been pursued (Roads, economic development, transportation and continuing integration of services), broad City-oriented issues, were the ones that a local campaign passed by. The Big Picture would have helped.

Second, there were the public schools. The Four Square Miles, noted at the beginning, are the core of the GRPS sending community on the SE side. The likely reason for voting for Lenear is because of her identity with GRPS. This also explains the the win in out at Sherwood Park.

Third, let’s call it diversity. It certainly trumped the progressive politics. Within the broad CRC/Calvin mix is an affirmative response to diversity, best expressed by Rev. Al Hamstra on MLive

Two words influenced the Rev. Albert Hamstra’s vote for Lenear: “Black female.” The Christian Reformed Church pastor said “it matters to me to have diverse people in leadership.”

This is also the likely reason for the Raybrook vote, and probably much of the Ottawa Hills vote, too. What the Tuffelmire campaign missed was a connection to this CRC community. Without it, then the community votes for its perception of the common good, the broad and good vote. Issues of perceived racial (and sexual) justice become important when there there is a missing personal connection. This alliance of justice, as it were, explains why the Ward has consistently voted for conservative African Americans.

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The unspoken contest

The best thing that happened to Senita Lenear in the Third Ward campaign was the silence of the Republican Party. In the last serious contesting for the Third Ward, the GOP jumped in on the side of Patrick Miles Sr. in his race against Scott Bowen, former chair of the Democratic Party. That battle was fierce and expensive, and it polarized the Democratic community: with the GOP on the other side how could they not support Bowen?

As it is, this year’s contest has seen the Democratic vote split between Lenear and Mike Tuffelmire, with African-Americans and a few other Dems supporting Lenear, and more progressive Dems lining up behind Tuffelmire. Given the make-up of the district, this split is likely to doom Tuffelmire — at the very least it has given him a head-wind in terms of reaching out to the high-voting precincts south of 28th and east of Plymouth.

Under the surface other tensions seem to be lurking. It’s flavor can be seen in this comment on MLive

If an individual moves to or re-locates into a community for the perceived purpose of running for an elective office, then that person is considered to be “carpetbagging”. This, it seems, describes Tufflemire if he has just recently, this calendar year even, moved into the Third Ward to run for this seat. This is the “white elephant in the room” and speaks to a lack of integrity in the process if Tufflemire and his supporters are attempting to commandeer this election by basically lying about how long Tufflemire has been a resident in the Third Ward.

While the question of residency in the Third Ward is a relatively minor one (Tuffelmire has long experience in the City generally), the sense that a status quo is being threatened or over-turned is palpable.

Part of the tension is certainly racial (see “white” in “white elephant” above): Lenear represents a new generation of leadership in the African American community, she has received a blessing of sorts from the existing commissioners, and she would be the first African American woman to serve on the City Commission. How could one oppose this?  So we see a fair amount of identity politics at work. The question as to whether Lenear is the best representative or messenger for African-American politics in the City is a more difficult one, not least because some of her supporters are quite to her left.

Another part of the tension surely lies in the issue of gentrification. Tuffelmire’s chief supporters are those who are part of the redevelopment along Wealthy Street and East Hills; young urbanists; entrepreneurs; activists. This tension between the reviving neighborhoods, and the older (and poorer) African American neighborhoods to the south has been simmering in the City. The tragic story of the D&G Party Store captures these tensions. Tucked into the issue of gentrification is that of political power. The rise of the new neighborhoods has brought new voices to the table: owners, developers and the like. The older neighborhoods that were once minority are being shifted, if not pushed out; the success of the redevelopment understandably grates at residents. Does money flow only when white people take part?

And finally, there is the question of political agendas. Tuffelmire and his supporters represent a new politics, or perhaps better, a more robust politics that is moving out of Heritage Hill. When one looks at the issues, it is clear that the primary battleground in the Third Ward this year has been in the part of the district that belongs to the 75th State House seat of Brandon Dillon. Since redistricting, this seat is safe. The tension between Tuffelmire and Lenear is the beginning of the tussle for who will succeed Dillon: will it be someone out of the minority community? or someone out of the progressive neighborhood networks? Or could it fall to bridging figure such as 19th District county Commissioner, Candace Chivis?

Further complicating the political reality is the nature of two other seats: the slightly marginal D of the 76th State House now held by Winnie Brinks, and the 29th State Senate seat, Dave Hildenbrand being the incumbent. Republicans look at the center right stance of Lenear and see a potential candidate (this according to conversations with local party members). Would she go partisan? Her list of significant Republicans endorsements at least give a crack of possibility here, although the presumed commitments she has made to her supporters likely militate against it. For now.

So, if you listen carefully to the race, you can hear the scrape of political chairs being shuffled around. The Tuffelmire-Lenear contest represents a beginning of the reshaping of our City and state politics.

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Lessons from the Third Ward race

On Tuesday, Grand Rapids voters will decided on a new city commissioner. And there’s a choice:  one an activist, one a civic leader, and  one out of her element. A month or more ago, it looked to be a fairly heated, even interesting race. As we turn towards the election, the race now looks somewhat bland, at least as the usual horse race goes. And for one, perhaps an opportunity lost.

But first, to review.

By all lights, Senita Lenear is the choice of the civic establishment. She has garnered support from a wide range of civic leaders, including both Democrats and Republicans. This fits her previous experience on the School Board where she earned a fair amount of credibility moving from the perception as a protege of Bernard Taylor to real independence in the post-Taylor period. As she explained to Wood-Tv, she was asked by the Mayor to consider running for the commission seat.

From her work with the school board she has earned the respect of the African American community. Being the wife of Dallas Lenear, one of the pastors at New Hope Baptist, certainly doesn’t hurt in this matter,either.

Her positions are what one might expect: use connections to lobby for the City, act with integrity (this poses a small question: who is it that is not acting with integrity on the Commission? — a vague sort of stance, actually), work with the budget, and in the Wood-Tv interview, address violence — particularly recent gang violence) that has been troubling the urban neighborhoods of the Ward. These are safe positions, consonant with the view of the City Commission as a civic board, and implicitly appealing to the alliance between the African-American community and the residual Dutch of the far suburbs. She’s safe.

In this context, Mike Tuffelmire is for all intents, the challenger. He is younger, a combat veteran and resident now in South Hills (originally from the Mulick Park / IHM neighborhood). His core base has been the new urbanist, local-business advocates that have revitalized East Hills, the Wealthy corridor and downtown. Key support also comes from Democrats, progressives, and the anti-Taylor cluster on the the school board. The support network is younger, more urban if not “Downtown” than Lenear’s. It can easily be misconstrued, as MLive did the other day, labeling Tuffelmire a “marijuana activist” for his work on the Grand Rapids Decriminalize campaign.

The  campaign has focused on community engagement, on getting the neighborhoods heard. The campaign platform is more direct, concrete: stronger neighborhood representation, attention to violence (Tuffelmire separates violence into two categories: the direct violence of the core city neighborhoods, and the property crimes farther out), smarter budgeting, and attention to infrastructure along the business corridors. As with Lenear, these are positions that reflect his community.

Both are clearly competent and knowledgeable about the City. Both are likely to bring new perspectives to the City Commission. Yet this has been a surprisingly bland contest — how is that?

First, the neighborhood focus of both campaigns simply ignores the make up of the far ends of the Ward, out where the  votes are. While in older neighborhoods (say pre-1950) there are strong identities and even associations, as one heads south of 28th, or east from Plymouth the character changes. These are largely suburban in layout and civic orientation. This is especially bad news for Tuffelmire, since the same suburban/civic orientation has these neighborhoods thinking in terms of Downtown, and general managerial competence — this is the strong suit for Lenear. These are also more reliably conservative in vote, another potential disadvantage for a more progressive candidate.

This is not to say it can’t be done, but only that if signs are any — or at least the first — indication, neither campaign has been especially successful in connecting.

Second, there is an absence of big picture vision in either campaign. How do we build a City that supports our neighborhoods? How will we engage in economic promotion? What will we do about our streets? Other infrastructure issues. Tuffelmire begins to get close to this; Lenear settles for pictures of the Calder (a nice subliminal touch) to indicate her Downtown sympathy.

Third, status quo issues. Here, the Tuffelmire campaign likely missed how much they were going to run as an insurgent. To be the alternative, one must make a critique of the present situation. Lenear’s presumptive role as successor is the barrier.  Again, the diversity of the Ward enters in here: change for the better in the suburban neighborhoods (e.g. Ridgemoor, Shawnee, Sherwood Park, Ken-o-Sha to use the school names) will have a different feel than those who live in the core neighborhoods along Eastern, Kalamazoo or Wealthy.

Fourth, campaign experience. The Lenear campaign has experience, and a fluency in front of the camera. The number of supporters also means that networks can be leveraged. Tuffelmire has shown a greater facility with digital communications, but has not properly thought through the issues sufficient to make the case. A challenger campaign cannot afford to coast, it has to push. What is perhaps most distressing is the let-down after the Fourth. Whether it came from self-doubt, money, time the result was that mid-July there was a pause.

And Fifth, the missing. One of the most interesting aspects of the entire campaign has been the silence of certain communities. Neither campaign has shown any ability (or perhaps interest) in reaching into the old Dutch community. Although no longer as strong as it was a generation ago, the names are still important. Likewise, both campaigns have only a sprinkling of Hispanic names — again, this speaks to the limits of their own networks. And finally, there notable actors who are obviously interested in the outcome, but studiously neutral: the commissioners of the Second Ward (Rosalynn Bliss, Ruth Kelley), and the district’s other state representative, Winnie Brinks.

At this point, with the final weekend upon us, it would seem to be Lenear’s to lose.

 

 

 

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , ,

Pulling on a Political Scab

Something is under James White’s skin. Perhaps it is only the robo-call by school board president Wendy Falb, but the irritation may run a little deeper.

The schools and the City need to work hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that as the Third Ward race heats up, school board members take sides:  Maureen Slade, Rev. Nathaniel Moody and recent member Jane Geitzen for Senita Lenear; Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, and Jon O’Connor  for  Michael Tuffelmire. I the support for Tuffelmire fears a potential polarization, or more accurately an alienation. In response to Falb’s robo-call, City Commissioner Whites took to the press.

(Falb)  “runs the risk of polarizing her own board, the parents and the community” by actively campaigning for the opponent of her former board colleague, Senita Lenear, in the city race.

At first glance this a peculiar accusation, since White himself is also on board with the Lenear  campaign. As White further explains in the article, the endorsement threatens the necessary working together of city and schools.

“The school district must work closely with and gain support from city, county, state, and federal sources.
“It is unwise to do harm to those relationships by embroiling the school district in the political arena where it has never been before.”

Never before? Even reporter Monica Scott finds herself wondering

Mr. White thinks that the GRPS board has gotten more political and said he didn’t like the direction it is going in. Do you think the board is more political now or the same as in previous years?

Given the sort of controversies that have roiled the school board over the years, the present board is far from the divisive mode of even a few years ago. What is characteristic about the board is its general public unanimity, in part because of the strength of Superintendent Neal. If anything, the addition of John Matias promises to keep the board functioning in a productive fashion.

However there is little danger of a rift breaking out between the schools and the city. Here, White’s complaint sounds stretched, but underneath there are a couple of very real issues at work.

First, is the question of class.

Read the rest of this entry »

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What are they thinking?

The Grand Rapids Education Association is in danger of letting itself being defined by what it is against.  If  the recent ad is any indication, they’re doing a good job of self-destructive behavior.

We may think of their problem in perhaps three or four acts, a drama that ultimately leaves GREA weaker, not stronger

With five people running and the GREA  highlighting  two to vote against, this creates an odd dynamic, that the GRPS is best served by the other three, that the weakest of the three is better than the stronger of the two.  This may be a mistaking of the short term political for the long term strategic interests of the community — this is often the result of negative campaigns.  The danger for the GREA is that it loses trust with those who look for stronger civic leadership for the schools.  GREA is not served by appearing to seek less than the best for the schools.

The second difficulty that emerges is simply that most likely one of the  two attacked candidates will have a seat on the School Board.  The aggressive campaign has then created an enemy on the board, some one less inclined to listen.  Strategically, the union would be far better positioned were it to think of what happens after elections.

However, where the union goes fundamentally off track is its tone deaf approach to the subject of race.  Both Smithalexander and Lenear are African American; the schools of the  Southeast side  are strongly minority; and yet we have the union objecting with a most peculiar image: the angry white guy.  This attack is made all the more acute by the inability of the GREA to find a minority candidate to support.  Between the all-white slate and the insensitivity of the ad, we have a perceptual gap that betrays the work of teachers in the system.  In dealing with the administration, such an approach simply gives another reason for the Superintendent to marginalize the concerns of the teachers: their concerns will be discounted as the product of racial bias.

But race does not exhaust the difficulties.

The great difficulty with the GREA’s campaign has been their trafficking in the short term tactic of alienation.  This politics of populist resentment has dogged Grand Rapids schools for a generation.   In the present economic crisis, this turn to alienation has deeper consequences.  The prosperity of the region will depend on its ability to support strong schools.  The luxury of saying no (and expecting no consequences) has disappeared.

Finally, there is a second alienation that is also present in this election and generally with the relations between the GREA and GRPS.  Urban school districts have been fighting over reformers — generally those seeking more accountability — and those seeking to upgrade teaching as the path to excellence.  Both paths are necessary, but as was seen at last year’s Democratic Convention, it can lead to confrontation.  Some part of the battle in Grand Rapids can be seen as the alliance of minority community and the school administration against more traditional teacher-centric interests.  Again, success for our schools will depend on aligning the interests of parents, the administration, the teachers, and the community stakeholders.

The days are past when the school concerns can be easily separated from the broader issues of community economic health.

Filed under: Education Policy, Elections, , , ,

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