Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. Today I catch up with State Senator and Democratic Whip Jay Chaudhuri to discuss Senate Democrats' work to support Governor Cooper, major wins in the latest state budget, the future of Medicaid Expansion in North Carolina, the 2022 political landscape, and of course . . . gerrymandering. I also discuss some of the organizations here in North Carolina doing great work in the fight for democracy. Use the links below to learn more and support their work.
Don't forget to show Senator Chaudhuri some love by visiting jayfornc.com to donate, volunteer, and learn more about his work for North Carolina.
Other organizations you should check out:
JD Wooten: Hey everyone, JD Wooten here. Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. Today, I’m joined by State Senator Jay Chaudhuri who represents District 15 in the North Carolina Senate. He also serves in leadership as the Senate Democratic Whip, the No. 2 Democrat in the State Senate. He plays two critical roles for the Senate Democratic Caucus, as he explains during the interview. First is the traditional role of whipping the vote and keeping the Senate Democrats together, which has been critical since Democrats broke the Republican super majority in the 2018 midterms. In keeping the Caucus united, they have significantly more leveraged to participate in the legislative process with the Republican majority because they can sustain the governor’s veto if and when necessary.
As a result, it’s in everyone’s interest to have the Democratic Caucus’s buy-in on bills to ensure that those bills become law. However, given that the Democrats only have 22 of the 50 seats, that only gives them one vote to spare on any given measure before Republicans could pass legislation over the governor’s veto. Trying to keep at least 21, and preferably 22, politicians united is no small feat.
Senator Chaudhuri’s second role is how I came to know him. He helps to lead the Caucus’s fundraising and candidate recruitment efforts on the campaign side of the world. He was one of the earliest phone calls I got when I first decided to run to help guide and mentor me through being a State Senate candidate. He was there to support my efforts at every single turn, showed up at numerous fundraisers, and was always quick to return my phone calls in the unlikely event he even missed the call in the first place. One of the topics Senator Chaudhuri and I discussed at some length was gerrymandering, which is a topic that’s been important to me since I first got involved in politics. It was never a major campaign talking point, because let’s face it, gerrymandering is not the sexiest of topics, but hey, now I’m doing a podcast. I feel a little more leeway to dive into it a bit more.
There haven’t been any major updates since last week on the gerrymandering case working its way through the courts, but here are a few quick reminders in case you missed the last episode. In a 2019 case called Rucho v. Common Cause, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that partisan gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles, but it held that partisan gerrymandering is a political question beyond the reach of federal courts under the U.S. Constitution. However, the Court did note that just because partisan gerrymandering wasn’t actionable under the U.S. Constitution, it might still be actionable under state constitutions.
Later that same year, a trial court here in North Carolina actually took up the issue of partisan gerrymandering and found that it violates the North Carolina Constitution. So at least for the 2020 cycle, the state ended up with somewhat better maps. In 2021, it was time for the normal redistricting process following the census, and once again, the GOP control General Assembly managed to create some brazenly partisan gerrymandered maps. Several lawsuits claiming the new maps are unconstitutional were filed almost immediately, and thankfully the North Carolina Supreme Court got involved. The Court delayed the 2022 primary elections and ordered the trial court to deliver a ruling no later than early January.
The trial court held what seemed to be a fairly thorough trial with damning and explosive testimony from experts and GOP legislators who came up with and use a concept map ploy wherein they drew maps in private using whatever data they wanted to, then went out to the public terminals and pretended to draw maps from scratch without any racial or partisan data. They made some claims that they didn’t really rely on those concept maps, but not surprisingly, those concept maps were conveniently destroyed before the trial so no one can compare the different maps. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on who to trust.
At the end of the day, the trial court then found that partisan gerrymandering did not violate the state constitution and upheld the maps. While they did give a cursory acknowledgement to the 2019 court ruling, which had found exactly the opposite, they dismissed that opinion as having no binding effect on them and didn’t discuss it again. Even the two Republican judges on the panel acknowledged that partisan gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles, and they lamented the ridicule that partisan gerrymandering has brought to North Carolina for decades.
Regardless, that court threw up its hands too. That decision was appealed almost immediately, and right now the hearing in front of the North Carolina Supreme Court is set for February 2nd, 2022.
Senator Chaudhuri and I also talked about the importance of local school board elections. We’ve seen a massive increase in interest in and awareness of school board meetings since the start of the pandemic. Between debates over masks and vaccines, to debates over curriculums, school boards have been under attack a lot in recent years. The importance of these elected officials in shaping the education of our youth cannot be overstated, and healthy democracy with vibrant and vigorous debate requires an educated citizenry. You can count on school board candidates being part of this conversation at Carolina Democracy in the future.
One final note before we turn to the interview. Last week, I mentioned two organizations working to register and turn out voters here in North Carolina, the New North Carolina Project and the New Rural Project. Another organization that’s doing important work fighting for democracy here in North Carolina is Carolina Forward. Carolina Forward started as a fundraising effort under the name Longleaf Pine Slate for a group of the most competitive candidates in the North Carolina House and Senate. After the 2020 elections, they really stepped up their game and have grown into Carolina Forward, a grassroots policy organization run by volunteers. I expect great things out of them for the 2022 elections and beyond to help candidates get the resources they need to succeed. I’ll drop links to all those organizations in the show notes, check them out and pitch in. If you’re able. Now let’s turn to my interview with Senator Chaudhuri.
JD Wooten: All right with me today is State Senator Jay Chaudhuri representing District 15 in Wake County. Senator Chaudhuri was first appointed to the State Senate in 2016 after winning the Democratic Primary in his district to fill the vacancy created when Josh Stein resigned early to focus on his successful general election campaign for the North Carolina Attorney General. He currently serves as the Democratic Whip, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. Welcome Senator Chaudhuri.
Jay Chaudhuri: Great to be with you JD.
JD Wooten: Well, thanks so much for joining us today. Before we dive into all the good stuff that you’re working on right now, share with us a little of your background.
Jay Chaudhuri: Yeah. I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina and spent my entire life really here in the state with the exception of a few years in Washington, D.C., and New York City. One of the things that I realized I think in leaving the state and maybe, maybe you’ve had the same experiences sometimes you have to leave a place to really appreciate it. I think from my perspective after leaving North Carolina for just a little bit, you kind of realize what a great state we live in and how great the people are and frankly, what a great progressive tradition we’ve had in doing so many cutting edge things that have made us a real a beacon in the south.
My parents are immigrants; they immigrated this country more than 50 years ago. I have always seen public service as a way to give back to the very people that have allowed my parents and our family to achieve the American Dream. Really public service for me, it started in for a decade and a half was functioning as a non-elected official serving as a senior counsel to two of the most highly respected, I think democratic statewide officials in the state, the former state Treasurer, Janet Cowell, and then Attorney General Roy Cooper. I had the opportunity to work for then Attorney General Cooper when he was a State Senator.
My joke was I had a bigger office as a staff member to Senate Majority Leader Cooper than I do as a Senator in the minority. But after spending 15 years working at the highest levels of all three branches of government, also had the opportunity to clerk at the Court of Appeals, the opportunity came to run for Senate District 15, a district at that point, when in its original form, ran from downtown Raleigh, all the way to the town of Morrisville that has a number of immigrants. And I thought to myself, who better to represent kind of new North Carolinians and sixth, seventh generation North Carolinians given my own background. And so made the decision to run, raised money, knocked on more than 10,000 doors, and I know you more than anybody can appreciate the importance of door knocking and I won my Democratic Primary by 26 points. It was a competitive primary. Then, as you mentioned, then Senator Stein decided that he was going to step down to run for Attorney General full-time, and as a result, I was appointed to the Senate and started my service in 2016.
JD Wooten: That’s an impressive number of doors knocked and quite the margin. So, your role in the State Senate now, in addition to representing District 15, you’re also the Democratic Whip. What exactly does that entail?
Jay Chaudhuri: Yeah. So, the Democratic Whip really has two functions. The function within the caucus and when we’re in the building is the classic definition of whipping the votes and making sure that we hold our members together on key and important votes that frankly, more than ever, allows Democrats to have leverage in negotiating important bills. As we’ve seen this legislative session, making sure that our Democrats hold together to be able to uphold Governor Cooper’s veto, but I’d say more importantly, give Senate Democrats a place at the table. And then secondly, my role as Whip is to also go out and make sure that I raise money for the Caucus to make sure that our candidates are competitive, they have the resources that are necessary. It also includes going out and recruiting candidates as well.
JD Wooten: Having been one of those candidates that you’re doing the recruitment for and fundraising on behalf, I say, thank you, and you do a great job.
Jay Chaudhuri: Well, I appreciate that. And thank you for your efforts and running. I know that was a very competitive and close race.
JD Wooten: Turning back to, you mentioned whipping the votes. I suppose sort of a milestone last year was that for the first time since Governor Cooper took office, we actually got all the way through having a budget. And, at least from where I’m sitting, it sounds like neither side’s perfectly happy with it, but maybe that represents some compromise.
Jay Chaudhuri: Yeah. So, I think you’re spot on that it was a compromise budget that I think at the end of the day did not meet to complete satisfaction to Senate Democrats, to Governor Cooper, and did not meet to complete satisfaction with the Republicans too. I think from our perspective, the budget added a billion dollars extra in investment that was not possible if it really weren’t for Senate Democrats pushing hard and as I also liked to tell folks, part of this budget also included a little over $7 billion that came from President Biden and a Democratic Congress’s American Rescue Plan. So, really when you’re flush with cash, which is kind of rare, it allows us to make the investments that we’ve done in this budget.
Did we make the kind of investments that we needed to make? No, absolutely not. But we did increase pay for non-certified school personnel, the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, to $15 an hour, which is something that we hear a lot about. We did have pay raises for most of the teachers, not all the teachers. It did eliminate taxes on military pension income, which I think continues to make us one of the most military friendly states in the country. And it also invested almost $6 billion in infrastructure spending, a billion dollars in broadband expansion. So, a lot of historic investments, but look the downside is you have corporate tax cuts that kick in. Fortunately, they don’t kick in with this budget, they kick in and a few years in the out years. You have some restrictions that have been placed on the Attorney General and Governor Cooper. But what I would say is it’s a compromised budget, and I think we know where we stand on priorities.
One of the things that we did not get in this budget was Medicaid Expansion, and there was an announcement by Senator Berger and Speaker Moore about the 18-member committee that’s going to look at this issue. I think if you look, certainly on the Senate side with both Republicans and Democrats, it’s a pretty favorable group. I think that’s going to take a good look at ways to expand Medicaid. I think it’ll have kind of a North Carolina way of doing so, but I’m actually somewhat optimistic that we might be able to add that to the list of things that we’ve accomplished to this biennial.
JD Wooten: That’s great news. I think that’s tremendous progress too. Medicaid Expansion was one of the things that certainly drove me to run in 2018, so I’m glad we’re making progress there. So, turning to other big pressing issues, we’ve got gerrymandering at the forefront and it’s been at the forefront for a while. By way of background, in 2017 democracy advocates won gerrymandering victory in federal courts when the extremely gerrymandered state legislative maps that were passed in 2011 were finally struck down. That was under the idea they were racially gerrymandered. Then in 2019, those maps were struck down by a state court that said, this partisan gerrymandering actually does violate the state constitution. So, we got yet another set of new maps. And all that progress, unfortunately, now we’re at the decennial redistricting. So, before we even talk about the current cases, I am curious, what can you tell us about the map drawing process and passage in the state Senate last year?
Jay Chaudhuri: So, look, I think there’s a couple of things to keep in mind with the map making process, and I would readily acknowledge that the map making process is certainly improved. I think it’s improved based on litigation that we’ve had in our state for a number of decades, both against the Republican controlled General Assembly and Democratic controlled General Assembly. So, what does that process look like? One is, I think there’s a set of criteria that we’ve established that I think allow the maps to look not to the extent of the extreme gerrymandering that we’ve seen in the past. We also know through this process that generally speaking appears to be open and transparent. Anybody could get on YouTube and watch the map drawing process. In an instance that took place back in 2019, we actually saw a member try to draw a district that was gerrymandered, and he was kind of held accountable through social media, which I thought was interesting.
Now, as we know from the trial court hearing that just happened a couple of weeks ago, there has been evidence now about the fact that some of these concept maps were drawn in secret and not in the room, but really aside from that, what I would say is, at the end of the day, as you pointed out, we had a trial court decision that I thought was a very interesting trial court decision. And I think frankly is just a difference in judicial philosophy as to how they see the roles of the judicial branch with regard to the legislative branch. Not surprisingly, that three judge panel believes that gerrymandering and drawing the maps lies completely with the province of the legislature. But, perhaps more importantly, if you look at the finding of facts, the phrase "pro-Republican partisan gerrymandered," I think intentional partisan gerrymander, appeared in that 200 plus opinion, 59 times. I didn’t count the congressional and house districts, but on the Senate districts, the opinion actually identified 16 State Senate districts that have been partisan gerrymandered.
I think the lower court, as a judicial philosophy, doesn’t believe that it’s their role to rule on partisan gerrymandering. I hope that the Supreme Court comes down with a different decision. I also think that’s a decision that’s consistent from the Rucho United States Supreme Court decision, which the highest court in our land has decided that they’re not going to rule on partisan gerrymandering, but certainly did indicate in its opinion that those are decisions that can be made by State Supreme Courts across the country. I think it’s important for the court to work its way through this case. The hearings are scheduled on February 2nd, and we’ll see when an opinion comes out. As you may know Republicans would like to push the primary date to June 7th from a date that was established by the State Supreme Court. But the Senate Democrats and House Democrats voted against that proposal because I think there’s an overall belief that the case now really lies within the province of the courts, and we should respect that until they have a ruling and provide us additional guidance.
JD Wooten: Certainly. I had seen word of that and I wasn’t sure what all was going into that. I figure more will be revealed as that unfolds, but I would agree too that this is pretty clearly in the hands of the North Carolina Supreme Court at this point, let’s let it work its way through. I reviewed the fact finding from the court and I did find it almost surprising, pleasantly surprising, just how candid they were with recognizing, hey, this is partisan gerrymandering. We’re not denying it, we’re just saying it’s not actionable by us. And I do agree, it was very consistent with what I would call it different judicial philosophy than the prior three judge panel. I also think it’s interesting and I haven’t decided what to make of it, if anything, but both panels were a mix of judges from different parties and both panels rendered unanimous decisions.
Jay Chaudhuri: I think that’s a really interesting comparison between the two three-judge panels. It may also speak to the power of having a new Chief Justice that holds that power in appointing three-judge panels. But I think it’s a really interesting takeaway how you can have two bipartisan panels come out with different decisions. That said, to your point, the one consistent part of both those decisions are the finding of facts and the fact that there was partisan gerrymandering. I think, and the opinion reflects this, if you look at the plaintiff’s experts, which are mostly mathematicians, I really think that the expert testimony is very, very hard to rebut, and I think we saw that with this opinion.
JD Wooten: Speaking as an attorney, I think more so than just about any other case I’ve ever seen, this is truly the providence of the appellate courts because the facts are not in dispute. It’s just, how do we apply the law?
Jay Chaudhuri: That’s right.
JD Wooten: So turning to the 2022 political landscape, of course, as a result of these cases, like we’ve already talked about, there’ll be some delays in the filing period and the primary elections, but like it or not, the 2022 elections will be here before we know it. So as of today, what are your general impressions of the 2022 landscape here in North Carolina, especially for Democrats as we head into election season?
Jay Chaudhuri: I don’t share this general opinion by Democrats that the sky is falling. I still think that we are, still what, we’re 10 months out before the election, but I’ll say a couple of things. I think one is, the Supreme Court does end up directing the legislature to redraw maps and, whether that’s directing them and they retaining a special master, I do think that the maps have the opportunity to become better for Democrats. But look, I don’t think that the improvements are going to be significant in that sense. I still think you’re going to look at a number of districts where you have to run competitive races and we’re going to need the resources that we had in 2020 to run those competitive races. And so, I think as with so many races now, it’s also tied to what happens with the national party and how this becomes a referendum on President Biden. I think it’s going to be important for Democrats to localize their issues and to out communicate our opponents, to talk about the things that we’ve been able to do in this General Assembly. I think that’s going to be critical for us to, to communicate that message with voters in order to make sure that we have enough Democrats that are still in the Senate that can uphold Governor Cooper’s veto. That allows us to still have the checks and balances that we need in the legislature.
JD Wooten: I’m very excited to hear some optimism, even if it is some guarded optimism, that the sky’s not falling. It’s very easy, I think these days, to turn on the news or pull up the headlines, and whether it be politics or public health or schools, and not have the most positive or optimistic look, so I appreciate you sharing that from the insider’s perspective. I think that’s good for people to remember.
Jay Chaudhuri: Let’s talk about that just briefly. We need to talk about the fact that when we started the pandemic where we didn’t really have the resources from the previous administration, we were at a 13.5 unemployment. Today that unemployment rate is down to 3.5%. I think just from a jobs perspective, whether you’re in the Triad, in Charlotte, or rural North Carolina, or the Triangle, it seems like Governor Cooper’s making announcements about new jobs coming to the state every year. In fact, there were 26,000 job announcements last year with over $10 billion in investments that included not only Apple, but Fuji Films, the Toyota battery manufacturing plant. So, I think the economic record there is strong. I think if you look at our ability to defeat COVID I think there’s a great track record there, as well. And even on school reopening, which was an issue that we dealt with in the General Assembly last year, today 99% of schools are open. I think a hundred percent of schools are open in North Carolina. But I think that those issues that were the challenges that we faced in the beginning of the pandemic, I think we’ve been able to move the country. Are there challenges? Yes, but I think we also have a track record that we can hang our hat on.
JD Wooten: I think it sounds like we’ve got a possible 2022 campaign themes and message shaping up. I like it. There’s a lot to be optimistic and positive about. You mentioned we’ll need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to have enough seats to protect Governor Cooper’s veto. What are some of the regions in North Carolina where you think we’ve got a lot of fight to give in terms of most opportunities?
Jay Chaudhuri: When I think about opportunities, and I think this is kind of where voters, and Progressive Democrats, Independents even, when they’re thinking about those opportunities, we got to look at them not only just in a one-off election cycle, but we’ve got to look at them at multi-year election cycles. I mean, you know, you can speak more than anybody else, turnout was an issue for us, even though we had a really high turnout. Clearly Republicans with Donald Trump visiting the state seven times in the last two weeks, that doesn’t even include his family members, I think they were able to really juice the turnout out on their end. But I’m very optimistic over a long period of time as to what that looks like. I think that we continue to look at Wake County as an area that we can hold onto and build even the Vance Franklin Nash Senate District that is actually trending in our direction. Long term, New Hanover County and Wilmington. When you look at the Alamance Forsyth area too, I think that Guilford, all of those places are trending as well, but you start looking at places even like Cabarrus County and Union County. These are kind of the suburban counties outside of the large urban counties. And I think that still remains a battleground for us today. But it may not be a battleground 4, 6, 8 years from now. But I think the key is that you have to build and invest the infrastructure to make sure that we can convert those suburban counties into Democratic counties long term.
JD Wooten: So then what do we need to be doing today for that fight?
Jay Chaudhuri: I think there’s been some debate and takeaways from what we’ve witnessed in Georgia, right? The Stacey Abrams model of registering voters and turning out the base is something that I think we’re seeing in North Carolina, we’re seeing it through a number of organizations that have popped up. The New North Carolina Project that Aimy Steele is leading. We see it through the New Rural Project that’s being led by Helen Probst Mills who also ran for the State Senate as you did. And we see it with the January Six Project here in Wake County. I think all of these organizations are very focused on registering voters and turning out voters. I am of the opinion that it’s not a debate between kind of the base and centrists, think it’s got to be both. And I think it’s got to be making sure we turn out our voters, but also making sure that we’ve got a message that’s going to resonate. I think if you look at what happened in Virginia, we know that suburban voters are up for grabs. I think if there’s one takeaway, it’s that.
And the other takeaway, I think, is the issue of education which is an issue that Democrats, I think have been able to, it’s been an issue that we’ve outperformed Republicans, but it’s also a wakeup call to Democrats that we can’t take that issue for granted. I think given a lot of the frustration that we’ve seen with parents with the pandemic we could continue to see that as being an issue. I think what’s important for Democrats to remember is that we can’t get sidetracked by a lot of these issues that Republicans talk about. Instead, we need to focus on the issues that you talked about in your campaign and that we’ve always talked about is making sure we still focus on raising teacher pay and we make sure that we focus on the fact that we’re focusing on school construction and school renovations and school supplies. We’ve got to stick to the basic bread and butter issues of education which is why voters have generally trusted Democrats more than Republicans.
JD Wooten: I love it. So, in 2018 Democrats set out to try and have a candidate in every single state legislative district. And that was where I first ran. Any chance you think we’ll be able to see that again in 2022?
Jay Chaudhuri: I know that’s the goal, and we’ll see if we’ll be able to reach that goal. It involves a lot of resources and a lot of effort to do so. Let’s see what happens with the maps and I think there’ll be a decision as to whether we can get candidates to file. I think we were able to do that in ‘18, and we did it in ‘20 on the Senate side, and I hope we can do it again in 2022.
JD Wooten: So, what else would you like voters, supporters, North Carolinians to know?
Jay Chaudhuri: The other issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I’ve been talking to folks about this, and then there was an article JD, you may have read it that came out in Brookings a couple of weeks ago, but I actually think that one of the most important and overlooked political races that are taking place around the country and here are school board races. I think we’ve seen a lot of the tension that had played out with parents, parental frustrations, with their perception of how schools are run, but I think it’s also fair to say that the Republicans are very focused on school board races. And I think it’s a real, it should be a real wakeup call because it may not take a lot of money to invest in school board races before you can take control of the school board races and deal with a lot of important policies, right? So, a lot of where we see debate taking place today around masks and vaccinations and curriculum issues, but to me, if we subscribe to this idea that we have to have a bottom up approach, to me, it’s got to be school board races with their state legislative races. And look, at the end of the day that allows us to still focus on education because I still firmly believe that when you put our message on education against the Republican’s we can win. But it’s also a reminder that we can’t take for granted the school board races that we’ve won in the past.
JD Wooten: Yeah. I think that’s an excellent point. I think, consistent with the theme of this podcast, promoting democracy, every single elected position on the ballot matters. It’s obvious that some get a lot more attention than others, we all know that, but you and I both know what it feels like to be on the back of the ballot and trying to get the attention is difficult. So I think that’s a great point that we need to keep some focus on some local races, especially those school board races that are critical to both the democratic strategy of having educated voter base, but also just guiding our students for the next generation and preparing them.
Jay Chaudhuri: You’re spot on about the last point, because as you and I know an educated citizenry, right, in raising that next generation that believes in democracy, that believes in dissent, and allows for disagreement, if we don’t have the right schools and teachers in place, we lose that. Education is directly tied to democracy, and I think that’s part of the reason that I think it should really be part of a long-term strategy for us.
JD Wooten: So last question. I want to be respectful of your time. Where can people go to help out today?
Jay Chaudhuri: Yeah. In my role as Whip, I’ve raised money that I in turn, give to the caucus. In many instances, I’ll also do fundraising where I’ll do a match with donors at jayfornc.com, but then the other place to obviously go is to the North Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus, to go to their link as well. The Caucus plays an important and critical role in making sure that we provide the resources to our Senate Democratic Candidates that are running for election.
JD Wooten: Oh, without question. For anybody that’s in doubt about that, our race ended up costing about $2.3 million in 2020. And of that, around two thirds was from the caucus, and we couldn’t have done anything that we did, let alone as much as we did, without that support. So, for everyone listening, go help out. I’ll drop those links in the show notes. Well, Senator Chaudhuri thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Jay Chaudhuri: Yeah, same to you JD, great reconnecting with you and hope we keep this conversation going. Thanks for starting this podcast.
JD Wooten: Thanks again to Senator Chaudhuri for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I enjoyed catching up with him again. A few notes. Don’t forget to show Senator Chaudhuri some love. Follow him on social media and help him with his fundraising efforts to protect Governor Cooper’s veto. Also, don’t forget to check out the New North Carolina Project, the New rural Project and Carolina Forward. Hopefully we’ll have folks from all those organizations on soon to share more about their work. In the meantime, I’ll leave links in the show notes for Senator Chaudhuri and for those groups. If you or someone else you know should be on the show, send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll drop that link in the show notes too.
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