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This is what democracy looks like!
This is what democracy looks like!
In 2011, I was a college student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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Thursday night, tens of thousands of protesters packed three floors of the Capitol building.
And during that time —
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The protesters first descended on the Capitol Monday, raging at the new Republican governor, Scott Walker.
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We’re broke, like nearly every other state across the country. We’ve got a massive deficit, $3.6 billion deficit.
— a bitter political fight broke out in the state over what came to be known as Act 10.
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Walker and his Republican allies in the legislature started the fight when they passed a law stripping collective bargaining rights.
On one side were state Republicans led by Governor Scott Walker. He was proposing a plan that would limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights.
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We fight back!
And on the other side —
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— were thousands of protesters who were enraged by the new governor’s proposed reforms.
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Whose house? Our house! Whose house? Our house! Whose house? Our house!
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An estimated 25,000 people stormed Wisconsin’s Capitol building Thursday, the third day of mass protests.
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Friday marked the fourth straight day of demonstrations and the largest to date. An estimated —
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Protesters are staying put at the Capitol building, even though they’ve been occupying it for nearly two full weeks.
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Today, they were nearly 40,000 strong, state workers and their supporters upset by what they see as a frontal assault on their benefits and their —
But the anger wasn’t just coming from protesters. The plan severely limited the power of unions, a key backer of Democrats in a state that’s evenly politically divided. It was a plan designed to weaken the opposing party. And to show their frustration —
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Adding to the chaos, most Democratic senators vanished.
— Democrats in the state legislature literally fled the state.
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At least one needs to be present for the majority Republicans to hold a vote.
They hid out in the next state over, Illinois, hoping to shame the governor into backing down.
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In the meantime, state troopers have been dispatched to find those AWOL senators.
But it didn’t work.
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After over three hours of a charged-up debate, the proposal to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state’s public workers was passed.
In fact, Walker and state Republicans were only emboldened.
Today, how a 12-year project in Wisconsin could culminate in this year’s midterms and give us a glimpse of where the rest of the country is headed. From The New York Times, I’m Astead Herndon. This is “The Run-Up.”
How are you?
I’m doing all right. How are you?
I’m fine. I’m glad we’re doing this.
It’s about time. I thought that every episode of this show was going to be about Wisconsin.
So I came to Wisconsin as a college student, but my colleague, Reid Epstein, spent years there as a political reporter. And we both watched this story play out in real-time.
I want to go back with you to the Scott Walker days to give people a sense of what Wisconsin was politically like before we get to this moment.
So when I got my first job in newspapers in Milwaukee, it was in the Waukesha County Bureau of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And Scott Walker had just been elected Milwaukee county executive. He was a fixture on the local conservative talk radio shows and was really somebody who had learned sort of the new way of politics in Wisconsin that was less about collaboration and more about trying to find ways to create a zero-sum politics that was good for you and bad for your enemies.
And by 2010, the first midterm election after President Obama was elected, the Wisconsin Democrats took a real shellacking. And in that election, Scott Walker rode the Tea Party wave to become governor of Wisconsin. And it wasn’t just Walker that year. Republicans took over control of both houses of the state legislature and had unified control of the state government heading into a redistricting year. And the first thing that Scott Walker did as governor was basically decide the era of working with Democrats was over.
Right, this is when Walker passes Act 10. And that’s him right away showing that he’s going to be a politician who uses that hyperpolarized us versus them approach to the office. And it’s at a moment where because Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature, Democrats can protest all they want. They can even flee the state. But there’s nothing they can do about it.
That’s right. I mean, he determined pretty quickly that there was more political advantage for him to be seen as a fighter for Republican and conservative values than there was to be — so to someone who was responsible to the entire state, I mean, this was a political philosophy that hadn’t really been in place in Wisconsin before this. But Walker ushered it in, and Republicans ever since have followed his lead.
How does the party take up that mantle? What does it mean for Republicans in the state to embrace Walker’s no holds barred, power at all costs, type of approach?
Well, Republicans decided that the next step was to lock in power for as long as they could. In order to maintain and lock in this power, they needed a map that would allow them to do so. And they didn’t do it in public. They didn’t hold hearings to discuss what they were doing. A map was designed essentially in secret. And it’s presented for a vote.
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Quorum being present, committees can continue. Purpose today is consideration of three bills — SB 148, SB 149, and SB 150, all three related to redistricting.
Democrats were blindsided.
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This was introduced last Friday. Here we are on Wednesday in session next Tuesday to pass it.
And they tried to fight it.
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This is something that’s going to have, obviously, huge impacts on people all over the state.
And over the next few days, they call it out as a political ploy.
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Mr. President, it is nothing more than a system of gerrymandering that even a third grader could see through.
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These districts, these congressional districts, the assembly districts, the Senate districts are unrecognizable.
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I don’t want to send this bill back to committee. I want to send it to a recycling vote. It’s trash. It is garbage.
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This is the most vicious abuse of partisan power that I have ever seen in the Wisconsin legislature.
They raised a lot of objections, but at the end of the day —
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There are 19 ayes, 14 no’s. Senate Bill 148 is passed. The clerk will read the next bill.
— they don’t have the votes to block it, and the maps go into effect.
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And those maps, more than anything else, more even than Act 10, have shaped Democratic politics in Wisconsin for the last decade.
Hmm, in what way?
By making it impossible for Democrats not just to win a majority, but to come even close to competing for majorities in the state legislature and, essentially, reducing the level of democracy in Wisconsin by minimizing the input that voters have.
How specifically, though, did they do that? Gerrymandering is happening all over the country. How were they so successful in Wisconsin, especially given the fact that it’s a swing state?
They did that by concentrating Democratic voters in a minimal amount of districts in the state cities. And Wisconsin’s geography made this possible because even though Wisconsin is a 50/50 state in statewide elections, the preponderance of its Democratic and liberal voters live in their cities in Milwaukee, in Madison, in Green Bay, in Racine and Kenosha, and in the college towns throughout the state.
And so you could draw a map easily that drew state assembly and state Senate districts that packed Democratic voters into those cities in a minimal amount of seats, while drawing a far larger number of seats that covered the state’s vast rural, suburban, and exurban areas, where Republicans are more likely to live.
Mm-hmm. They packed Democratic votes in to limit the amount of seats that urban areas could have overall, but how did they actually explain this aggressive redistricting? What was the rationale that those state legislators gave about what they were up to?
I mean, what I’ve heard Republicans say is that Democrats in Wisconsin aren’t competitive in rural areas because their policies don’t appeal to people in rural areas, and therefore, that’s the reason why they suffer in the minority in the state legislature, and that if they change their policies to be essentially Republican policies, then they might do better.
It switches the point of blame. It’s not the maps that are problem for prioritizing rural voters, it’s the Democrats who are the problem for not speaking to those rural voters.
Right. Basically, if Democrats want to win more seats in the state legislature, they should act more like Republicans.
So what do Republicans get from all this with these surgically drawn maps? With Walker in place as governor, what becomes of it?
Well, in 2012, when Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 7 points, Republicans won 60 out of 99 seats in the state assembly, cementing an advantage that they first won in 2010, but now was drawn in ink for a decade in the state’s elections. And it didn’t matter how well Democrats did in the statewide elections or how many votes they got out. The Republicans had an insurmountable edge in the state legislative chambers.
Hmm, I’m going to slow that down. That seems like an important point. In 2012, when Democrats had a big success on the statewide level, when Barack Obama was able to win Wisconsin in the electoral college that helps him get re-elected, Republicans had a great year on the down ballot level because of that gerrymandering.
Right, and even though Democrats won more votes statewide and won more votes in the state legislative races, because their districts were overwhelmingly Democratic, their votes were not spread out across enough districts to compete for majorities.
The maps worked.
Yeah, and they didn’t really mount a defense to this until about 2017. After Barack Obama was out of office, he and Eric Holder, who had been his attorney general, started something called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that sought to pour money into some of these state legislative races, into state Supreme Court races, to try to claw back control of some of these map drawing powers.
And they have had some successes. They helped elect state Supreme Court justices in important states. And in Wisconsin, they helped elect Tony Evers, a Democrat who ousted Scott Walker in 2018, with the idea and thinking at the time that it would give Democrats an equal seat at the table for the redistricting cycle that would follow the 2020 census.
But at the time Evers comes into office, he’s still contending with those older maps and the Republican-controlled state legislature that those maps produced.
Right, and by this time, one person has emerged as the leader of the Republican majority in Wisconsin. And that’s Robin Vos, the Assembly Speaker.
Vos has been in state politics at this point for some time. He was first elected in 2004. He was at Scott Walker’s side during the Act 10 protests.
He was the guy who had to get the votes for what Walker wanted to do as governor. And in a lot of ways, he cares even less about public opinion across the state than Walker does. But he really embodies the philosophy of political power at all costs. And by the time Evers becomes governor, Vos is by far the most powerful Republican in state government.
Hmm, the Mitch McConnell of the Wisconsin state assembly.
Except with even more power. And even before Evers takes office after that November 2018 election, Vos begins a series of maneuvers to concentrate power for himself and his Republican allies in the legislature.
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Political drama unfolding in Wisconsin. Republicans, after the loss of Governor Scott Walker, accused of a legislative coup —
So in that period between the 2018 election and Tony Evers becoming governor the next January —
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Republican legislators have worked throughout the night to pass a sweeping package of lame duck bills to give power to the Republican —
Robin Vos proceeds to shepherd through legislation to reduce the power of the governor, stripping away some appointment powers and spending powers, transferring them to the state legislature.
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The bill’s architects said the state’s executive office has had too much power and downplayed the move.
Basically leaving the Democratic governor with a Republican majority powers only to veto legislation and not do a whole lot else.
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On Monday, during the only hearing for the bills, protesters hovered as the joint Finance Committee split time between members asking questions and public commentary.
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It is abundantly clear that what is happening here is not the will of the good citizens of this state. We do not consent to kneecapping our governor before he even takes office. We do not consent to you silencing our votes. And we do not consent to you restricting our votes.
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We, the people, will no longer tolerate —
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We set the ground rules earlier. It’s 2 minutes. There’s people following you.
I mean, that feels like a political power play in its purest, most unadulterated form. This is a legislature that is seemingly going beyond what the people of Wisconsin had just said in the election to bring in the Democrat, to then strip that newly elected Democratic governor of power before he’s even in office.
It was a legislature — was and is a legislature that is responsive to its political base, and not the entire state. And that was how they viewed that period in time. It’s how they still view themselves.
Mm-hmm. I mean, where have the courts been in all of this?
Well, this is another place where Republicans have been ahead of Democrats in Wisconsin. Wisconsin state supreme court justices are elected to 10-year terms. And Republicans have put a bigger focus on those elections than Democrats have over the years. In 2019, they lost a race by just 6,000 votes.
In 2017, at sort of the peak of the Women’s March post-Trump election era, Wisconsin Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate against an incumbent Republican supreme court justice, two opportunities that they had, either of which would have given them majority control of the state supreme court in order to block some of what they see as the most aggressive and extralegal moves by the Republican legislature. And they failed in those efforts.
And that’s part of the reason why we’re here today, because of the combination of Republican control of the legislature, conservative control of the Supreme Court. It has left Democrats without a hand on any of the levers of power in the state.
We’ll be right back.
So let’s get into what all of these political changes actually mean on the ground. What’s the significance of what happens when Republicans have such a lock on this state?
Well, it means that the Republicans don’t have to listen to the concerns of Democratic parts of the state, in particular, the big cities. And so a city like Milwaukee, the chief economic engine of the state, doesn’t receive as much money from the state to run its sort of basic functions as it would like. Milwaukee has to go basically hat in hand to the Republican state legislators for things like the permission to raise their own sales tax or for funding to pay for city services, like the police department.
And so the city then has to make tough choices about what to fund and what not to. And so it’s not that Republicans in the legislature are directly defunding Milwaukee’s Police Department, but they are limiting funds to the city in a way that forces a difficult set of decisions on it. And so when crime is up in the city and Milwaukee can’t pay for more police officers, the Republicans in the state legislature demonize Milwaukee for being high crime and use that to attack Democratic lawmakers across the state.
They’re getting blamed for the problems, while at the same time, the Republicans who are doing that blaming control the purse strings for the solutions.
They not only control the purse strings for the solution, they’re using the evidence of the problem to help their compatriots get elected governor and to the Senate. Republicans are hammering the Democrats. Both Governor Tony Evers and his Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who is running for the Senate, are just getting killed on TV for crime in Milwaukee that the Republicans in the state legislature have refused to help solve. It’s a self propagating circle.
OK, so they’re able to use these structural realities for their political gain, but let’s talk about how this plays out when it comes to another important midterms issue — abortion. I mean, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe, it was done so with the explained premise that it was sending power back to the states. How has the Republican control of Wisconsin intersected with that Supreme Court decision?
Well, in Wisconsin, there’s a law written in 1849, the year after Wisconsin became a state, that outlawed abortion. Now, lots of polling shows that the majority of the people in Wisconsin don’t agree with that as the state law. And after that Dobbs decision, Governor Evers convened a special session of the legislature to allow for a referendum in which the people of Wisconsin could vote on what they wanted the abortion law in the state to be. And Republicans essentially mocked it.
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In a nearly empty Senate chamber, Republican Senate President Chris Kapenga gaveled in Governor Tony Evers’ special session to address Wisconsin’s ban on abortions, and 15 seconds later, gaveled out.
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No surprise in Madison as Republican state lawmakers today rejected the idea of a special session.
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They gaveled in and out in about 20 seconds in each chamber.
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Every time Governor Evers has ordered a special session to take on a big issue in Wisconsin, the GOP majority basically ignores it.
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Tony Evers, who has put abortion rights in the spotlight of his re-election campaign, spoke following an abortion rights rally outside the Capitol.
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They’re telling the women of the state of Wisconsin, go jump in the lake, and that is the wrong position.
The Democrats didn’t have any recourse but to gather on the steps of the Capitol and make the case to their voters that they should be re-elected.
This feels like all of the pieces coming together. The state’s Democratic governor, who has already had his power drastically reduced, asked the legislature to open up a special session that will put the question of abortion rights directly to the people, who polling suggests do not support that type of 1849 abortion ban. And that legislature essentially says, forget it. We’re not even going to pretend to entertain that idea.
And it was completely in line with what they have done throughout his term in office. No one expected them to do anything differently. And they have ignored Governor Evers as much as they could and in as many places as they can. And frankly, most of their voters agree with what they’re doing. There is not any real grassroots push among Republicans to change the law.
It seems like on the two examples you just gave me, crime and abortion, that those two examples also happen to be huge issues, two of the biggest issues of these midterms. And in both of these cases, what Democrats are able to do to respond to that is severely limited because of those maps from 2011.
I mean, to call it severely limited, I think is an understatement. I mean, they’re able to do nothing. And they’re able to hold rallies. They’re able to use it as a — try to use it as a galvanizing force for people to vote in November, but there is nothing that they can do legislatively on either of these issues.
Which I think brings me back to something I’ve talked to other folks about and what feels like a huge challenge facing the Democratic Party right now, which is voter apathy, right? If their pitch to their voters is show up and vote for us to change these things, even if you take them up on that challenge and you back the party in November, they’re not able to then translate those votes inherently into policy action.
I mean, their pitch for a lot of people is, it could be worse. Vote for us or it could be worse. And for low propensity voters who aren’t watching the news, who aren’t consumers of politics on a rigorous basis, that’s a hard pitch to get people motivated to go and vote with the idea that things are bad, but if you vote for the other guys, they’ll get worse. We’re not going to be able to make them a whole lot better.
So let’s talk about how the next chapter of this is going to play out in the midterms. What should we be looking for, specifically to the question around political structures and power in the state?
Well, Tony Evers, the Democratic governor who beat Scott Walker in 2018, is running for re-election. He’s in a very narrow re-election fight with a Republican construction executive named Tim Michels. And if Michels wins, there will be no friction for Republicans in running the state government as they see fit.
And just like Democrats, who struggled in 2011 to understand what Republicans would do with total power in the state, I don’t know that we have sufficient imagination to grapple with what Republicans would do in 2023 with total power, especially given the fight over how elections are conducted in the state because Tim Michels and the Republicans in the legislature have said that they’ll eliminate the bipartisan state Elections Commission that helps run and oversee the state elections.
And replace it with an agency responsive to the state legislature, or put it under the auspice of a partisan attorney general or a partisan Secretary of State, essentially giving Republicans more control of the elections apparatus in the state, which is really one of the few areas that they don’t have an iron grip on at the moment.
What about if Evers does win? What does that look like? And what’s the path forward for Democrats to be able to get more than just a veto power in Wisconsin?
If Governor Evers wins, the status quo probably remains. There’s an outside chance that Republicans could win a veto proof majority in one or both chambers, but that’s unlikely if the governor holds on and wins reelection. But the next real sort of inflection point for Wisconsin is going to come in April of next year, when an election is held for Supreme Court seat being vacated by a conservative justice. And already, we’re seeing significant fundraising for that seat. And the expectation is that that is going to be the most expensive state supreme court race in the history of the state.
So for Wisconsin Democrats, it feels like this midterms, at least on the state level, it’s not really a chance to grow political power. It’s a chance to maintain the status quo or really stop Republicans from expanding their political power. It feels like if there’s any place where Democrats are actually going to claw back meaningful inroads at this point, that’s going to be at this state supreme court race in April.
I mean, that’s really the next place that Wisconsin Democrats have an opportunity to play offense is in that supreme court race because if they win, the balance of the court would flip from a majority conservative court to a majority liberal court.
And Democrats that I’ve talked to are already planning that if they are to win that supreme court race, that they can bring cases to try to overturn the map in Wisconsin, or legalize abortion in Wisconsin, or allow cities to create their own gun control laws in Wisconsin, or something as sort of [INAUDIBLE] is raising their own sales tax in Wisconsin. And so those are the sorts of things that are at stake in the supreme court race that aren’t on the ballot in the governor’s race.
But the thing to remember about the governor’s race is the new governor will be seated in January. And the supreme court election isn’t until April. And so a Republican governor could certainly sign legislation to change the way that voting takes place in Wisconsin before the April election. I was at a rally in Madison a couple of weeks ago where Governor Evers said November 8 will determine what kind of state we’re going to be forever. We have to win. We cannot afford to have Wisconsin become the worst state of the Union.
This election is forever.
Forever in Wisconsin.
Reid, I want to go back to where we started all of this, how after Governor Scott Walker instituted Act 10, his party embraced this power at all costs type of mentality that you described. I’m mindful that a lot of the reporting we’ve been doing on this show has focused on Trumpism, on the grassroots elements of Republicans, and how that’s been driving the party.
But here, we’re talking about Scott Walker and Robin Vos, two members of the Republican Party establishment. They’re the ones who built this system that the Trumpist elements, the grassroots, have now taken over. I wonder how you’re thinking about all of that.
Well, both Scott Walker and Robin Vos are not really on the inside track of the Trump takeover. In fact, when Donald Trump ran in 2016, all but one of the Republicans in the state legislature endorsed somebody else in that primary. And most of them, Robin Vos included, actively campaigned against Trump in the primary.
First, they were for Scott Walker. And then Wisconsin was the last primary that Trump lost in 2016. They were all on board with Ted Cruz to try to stop Trump. Robin Vos has spent the last year and a half being heckled by Donald Trump in press releases and on social media. And Robin Vos almost lost a primary election to a no-name challenger who was endorsed by Donald Trump.
And so this is not a product of Trumpism. This is something that glommed onto Trumpism after the fact. But it already existed as a sort of Republican power play in the state. And so these guys are, in some respect, hanging on to relevancy within the Republican Party on the same type of cliff that Democrats in Wisconsin are for their political life.
I have this image in my head of Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans building this super-fast racecar, all these levers of Republican power that can totally outpace these Democratic cities and that can totally outmaneuver Democratic politicians. But then, at some point during the race, they’ve just been kicked out of the driver’s seat.
They’ve made it so that Republicans have control over the political process and the political levers of power in Wisconsin. It’s just not certain that they have control over the Republicans in Wisconsin.
So Wisconsin sticks out for its severe gerrymandering, built methodically over a decade. But there are several important swing states where state Republicans have executed a similar strategy. Their power is written into the maps. And that protects them against the will of the majority.
This system that Walker and other states put in place more than 10 years ago is now colliding with the hardened Republican base that is increasingly pushing the party toward extremes. They’ve overrun the Republicans who created the system, and also the Democrats, who can’t stop them. This is what democracy looks like.
Next time on “The Run-Up,” we hear from voters.
“The Run-Up” is reported by me, Astead Herndon, and produced by Elisa Gutierrez and Caitlin O’Keefe. It’s edited by Frannie Carr Toth, Larissa Anderson and Lisa Tobin, with original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano and Elisheba Ittoop. It was mixed by Corey Schreppel and fact-checked by Caitlin Love. Special thanks to Paula Szuchman, Sam Dolnick, David Halbfinger, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Shannon Busta, Nell Gallogly, Jeffrey Miranda and Maddy Masiello. Thanks so much for listening, y’all.
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