Maria Cantwell anxiously massaged her fingers, reddened from the icy gusts off Elliott Bay—a vengeful chill sweeping down from Alaska, no doubt. "I'll take questions

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Strongman of the North

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is, by his own account, a 'mean, miserable SOB.' He's also a powerful SOB who has effectively become Washington's third senator. He wants to drill in ANWR and see more tankers cruising Puget Sound, but his overreaching may be a godsend for Maria Cantwell in 2006.

Maria Cantwell anxiously massaged her fingers, reddened from the icy gusts off Elliott Bay—a vengeful chill sweeping down from Alaska, no doubt. "I'll take questions now," said the Democrat, Washington's junior U.S. senator. She was bundled up at a recent Sunday afternoon photo op on the Port of Seattle's executive balcony, winding down her presentation to reporters on oil-spill-prevention legislation she had drawn up. First question, radio reporter: What will Ted Stevens think?

Pause. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska, in the to-hell-and-gone Great White North, closer to Asia than to the lower 48, the pro- Arctic-drilling, bridges-to-nowhere, ice-blue red state where a night lasts from November through January and Republicans outnumber Democrats and other wildlife 3-1? That Ted Stevens? What's he got to do with this?

Longevity, for starters. The cranky conservative and legendary pork barreler—$646 million in goodies for Alaska last year alone—has been a public servant dating back to the Eisenhower administration. He's been the petroleum state's senator for life for 38 of his 82 years, taking out his four opponents in the last election with 78 percent of the vote. As the most senior Republican in the United States Senate, he presides over that body as president pro tempore when Vice President Dick Cheney is absent. That makes him third in the order of presidential succession—two heartbeats away, behind the speaker of the House and Cheney's questionable ticker, should George Bush fail to finish his term.

Says Cantwell: 'We have to show Sen. Stevens that Washington state won't stand by silently and let one of our great treasures fall to the whims of greedy oil companies.'

One of the last true believers to think weapons of mass destruction will still be found in Iraq, Stevens is an Alaska legend mostly of his—and taxpayers'—making. His streaming financial appropriations helped create the Anchorage airport named for him, a new marine science center in Juneau named for him, and a science center in Kenai named for him and his wife, Catherine (his first wife, Ann, died with four others in a 1978 Learjet crash at the airport in which the senator was injured). Though Stevens stepped down as powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee last January, Alaskans in 2005 still raked in $985 per capita in federal money—known to some as "Stevens dollars." It's true that the feds control 70 percent of Alaska's land, but still, that's 30 times the national average of $33, according to the Citizens Against Government Waste, a D.C. taxpayer-watchdog group, which labels Stevens "one of the biggest porkers to ever grace the halls of Congress." In contrast, Washington state, historically a pork-rich state, was ranked 28th, with $215 million, a mere $35 for each of us.

In transportation money alone, Alaska gets back $5 for every dollar it pays in gas taxes. Besides $1.8 million for berry research, Stevens' top pork scores for 2005 included $1.5 million for a new bus stop outside the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. The city's transportation director seemed perplexed about how to spend the money. Maybe, he said, they could put in a sidewalk heating system to melt snow.

Stevens is also legendary for his Senate- floor theatrics—the desk pounding, melodramatic threats, and power neckties depicting the Incredible Hulk or the Tasmanian Devil, depending on his mood. By his own description, he can be "a mean, miserable SOB." He was in high form recently, railing about Iraq and his belief that Bush's WMD suspicions will be borne out. Waving photos of Iraqi military planes found way back in 2003 buried in the sands outside Baghdad, he theorized: "If Saddam Hussein's troops buried one-tenth of their combat aircraft in the desert, who is to say there were no weapons of mass destruction similarly buried?" Well, belatedly, George W. Bush, perhaps? Seattle political consultant Bob Gogerty think Stevens "has become a political caricature of himself," and news clips of Stevens regularly make the Comedy Channel's The Daily Show. (Recently, host Jon Stewart asked: "Who the fuck is Ted Stevens?" then explained he's a senator "who wields power due to his seniority, because unlike in the real world, in the Senate, the older you get, the more people have to listen to your crazy ramblings.")

Then there's geography and politics, which have combined to effectively make Stevens a de facto third senator from the Evergreen State. Since Republican Sen. Slade Gorton's unseating by Cantwell in 2000, Stevens has become keeper of the state's conservative agenda in the U.S. Senate when he crosses swords with Cantwell and her fellow Democrat, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. State Republican Party chief Chris Vance doesn't quite buy the notion of Stevens' impressive local influence. "We have never talked to him or his staff," Vance says. But they might think about it. Cantwell's 2006 opponent, Republican Mike McGavick, the former president and chief executive of Safeco, has already met with the Arctic strongman in D.C. to discuss regional issues. Additionally, Stevens is financially backed by some of Washington state's biggest businesses, including the Boeing Co., his largest single benefactor, giving $93,500 to his campaigns since 1989. According to federal election records, when he was re-elected to his seventh term in 2002—he'll be up again in 2008 at age 85—about $436,000 of his relatively modest $3.2 million campaign fund came from Anchorage and $220,000 from the Seattle area. That's about 7 percent of his funding from here. (For contrast, Cantwell raised $643,000 from the Seattle area in 2000, but because she amassed $11.6 million in total contributions—$10 million of it her own money—Seattle's percentage for her was less than for Stevens, 5.5 percent, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political cash.)

Stevens' donors included employees and executives from Boeing, Holland America, Alaska Airlines, Trident Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, VoiceStream, Horizon Air, Stevedoring Services of America, and Wright Runstad & Co. They understand his marine and oil policies have a direct impact on the state's economy. Stevens himself recently noted, "As oil wealth in the state of Alaska increases, so does the demand for Puget Sound goods and services." His office says Puget Sound refineries annually import $2.8 billion worth of crude oil from Alaska's North Slope, helping create 1,990 jobs and $144.5 million in labor earnings here. Another 12,000 jobs would be created here if Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) were open to oil drilling, his office estimates. And, of course, Washington crabbers, fishers, and processors have long relied on Stevens and his amendments for their shares of the Bering Sea catch, underwriting Seattle's commercial fishing industry. Stevens' son, Ben, president of the Alaska state Senate and a seafood- industry lobbyist, is also in business with a Seattle seafood company—one that is being sued, along with Ben, in a dispute that has raised questions about his father's role in doling out the Bering catch.

In November, Cantwell asked that oil company execs return to Congress and testify under oath about record profits.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Legislation that Ted Stevens supports or opposes can affect Washingtonians as much or more than Alaskans. Eight years ago, he and Gorton sparred over factory trawler overcapacity, with Stevens getting his way and Gorton settling for a federal buyout of trawlers, all ported in Seattle. Today the flash point is Stevens' effort to repeal the 1977 Magnuson Amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That's one of the many legislative legacies of the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, whose name is close to biblical for Cantwell even though he was, in his time, a pork barreler to rival Stevens today. Maggie's law limits tanker traffic in Puget Sound by limiting refinery expansion. The law, spill-prevention measures, and the oil industry's self-policing have made Washington "one of the best in the nation if not the best in the nation in terms of our oil-spill preparedness," says spill expert Dale Jensen of the state Department of Ecology.

Oil tankers make about 600 passings annually through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound to refineries in Bellingham, Anacortes, and Tacoma. Stevens proposes to essentially allow petroleum giant BP to turn the Cherry Point refinery northwest of Bellingham into an international oil superport. The senator from Way North thus would decree Puget Sound as the center of West Coast oil production. That comes with great environmental—and economic—risks, says Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. She believes the Sound's ecosystem is already on the verge of collapse, and that "there's nothing that threatens the future of Puget Sound more than the risk of catastrophic oil spills."

But Stevens has other interests at heart: According to federal election reports, the oil and gas industry ranks first on his 1989–2006 aggregate donors list, giving $370,000 (lawyers are second). Besides, you can't juice the Northwest economy on fish oil alone, he says. Stevens calculates that we're losing 300,000 potential gallons of fuel per day that couldn't be refined and shipped at Cherry Point due to Maggie's law. In a recent floor speech, he cited reports from the Seattle and Tacoma chambers of commerce backing Cherry Point expansion and said the fuel is "desperately needed by consumers in both Washington and Oregon." (The act allows refinery expansion if local consumers appear to demand it.) Additionally, if Stevens should ever prevail in his 25-year crusade to chase away the caribou and begin drilling on the "ugly"—his word—coastal plains of ANWR, Cherry Point could begin refining the refuge's disputed black gold.

In November, Stevens got the Senate's narrow approval to do just that, but the House nixed it. In December, he quietly tacked the drilling measure, eagerly sought by the Bush administration, onto a must- pass defense-appropriation bill that also included Hurricane Katrina relief funds. "It's going to be awfully hard to vote against Katrina," Stevens said righteously. (During a floor debate on the bill, he pumped up the rhetoric with enlarged photos of tragic New Orleans flooding and heroic rescue workers.) But it was the defense money—which included Iraq war funding and raises for troops—that got everyone reluctantly voting for the oil rider. Politically diverse pols such as Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, who both oppose ANWR drilling, said they had no choice but to support the ride-along drilling measure when the defense bill came up for a vote Dec. 19. The issue then moved to the Senate for a Dec. 21 showdown vote that set up a conflict for Stevens: his patriotism vs. his petroleumism. When an initial vote favored blocking the bill, Stevens grudgingly waved the white and American flags and stripped out the drilling provision; the rest of the measure passed.

Once again, Ted Oil had struck a dry well. "I hope the good Lord will help me hold my temper," he said that day. Cantwell, the grinch who threatened a holiday filibuster, was lauded along with her fellow Democratic senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman for spoiling Stevens' Christmas. She also got the thumbs-up of environmentalists who ran full-page newspaper ads of gratitude. The issue, which at times last year received both House and Senate approval—but not simultaneously—is bound to resurface, just as it did after Bill Clinton vetoed an approved bill in 1995. "I will go to every state and tell them what you've done," Stevens said to Democrats after the last vote. He then dropped Cantwell's name and pointedly added: "I will go to Washington state many, many times."

Stevens says ANWR is "ugly."

Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images

Stevens doesn't exactly admit his legislation, particularly the Leave-No-Tanker-Behind proposal for Washington, is in part steered toward Cantwell, one of his Democratic rivals on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology, which he chairs. Cantwell suspects she's being targeted, though she won't say so for the record. She does say, "We have to show Sen. Stevens that Washington state won't stand by silently and let one of our great treasures fall to the whims of greedy oil companies." How greedy? In just the third quarter of 2005, BP America, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell Oil Co. earned a collective record $26 billion in profits. Yet Ross Pillari, chief executive of the U.S. division of BP (Stevens' second-biggest donor since 1989, at $61,000), is threatening to cut Cherry Point production by 10 percent if Stevens' superport bill fails, sending pump prices skyward again. Sounds like coercion if not collusion to Cantwell. "Why do we have five refineries in Washington state and have among the highest gasoline prices in the nation?" she asks.

Besides her opposition to the oil port legislation, she picked a fight in November with an amendment opposing Stevens' ANWR drilling—a goal he has sought so long and fruitlessly that, at one point, the disappointment left him clinically depressed, he said. He accused Cantwell of supporting foreign oil imports and exporting U.S. jobs. He also invoked the name of the state's other legendary Democratic senator against her, the late conservative Henry "Scoop" Jackson, an early backer of ANWR drilling. "I must express my amazement that our colleague from Washington has introduced an amendment to strip this provision from this budget reconciliation," he said, then read from a 1980 letter from "my great friend, Henry 'Scoop' Jackson." Preventing ANWR exploration "is an ostrichlike approach that ill serves our nation in this time of energy crisis," Jackson wrote. Does it ill serve it now, however? It's likely the Arctic tundra holds anywhere from 5 billion to 10 billion barrels of oil. But environmentalists argue the equivalent could be made up by imposing stricter fuel regulations in the U.S., which gobbles 20 million barrels of oil daily. Cantwell agrees. With just 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, "There's no way we're going to drill our way to energy independence in the United States," she says.

Cantwell hasn't publicly backed down against her powerful foe but privately is wary of Stevens' wrath, says a staffer. With good reason. Stevens takes names and kicks butts. In October, fearless, party-forsaking freshman Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, tried to divert $125 million of the $453 million from two Alaskan bridge projects—the pork-laden "bridges to nowhere" around Anchorage and Ketchikan. Coburn thought the money would be better spent restoring the Lake Ponchartrain bridge in hurricane- ravaged New Orleans. "So you can get perspective on this," Coburn said, speaking of the proposed Gravina Island bridge near Ketchikan: "$230 million for 50 people, where there's a ferry service already running every 15 to 30 minutes that takes seven minutes to cross, is enough money to buy each one of them a Learjet." An irate Stevens vowed to fight the measure so hard, like "a wounded bull," that "I will be taken out of here on a stretcher." His tirade paid off, and Coburn's amendment failed 82-15.

The Senate later did remove the bridge earmarks, leaving the state to decide how the money would be spent. To no one's real surprise, Alaska's Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, the state's former U.S. senator, now proposes using $91 million of the funds to build one of the bridges to Gravina—where one of the landowners, according to the Anchorage Daily News, is the governor's wife. (The Murkowskis' daughter is Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski— initially appointed to the Senate by her dad—who has fought alongside Stevens for the bridge funding.) Unclear is the fate of the other bridge—to be called Don Young's Way in honor of the state's GOP congressman—which would connect, in part, to 60 acres of view property owned by a partnership that includes (1) a former legislative director of Stevens and (2) Young's son-in-law. Ah, Alaska, the last frontier.

I can tell you that people laugh around here when anyone asks if Sen. Stevens is retaliating. Sen. Stevens does not retaliate. He does what is best for this nation.

Sen. Stevens' plan for, as Cantwell seems to imply, blackening Puget Sound with an inevitable oil spill to rival the 11.9-million gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Stevens' home state is DOA, she feels. "I don't think Sen. Stevens' supertanker legislation is going anywhere," Cantwell says. Yet Stevens, his bill, and her opposition to big oil are clearly boosting her campaign. Up for re-election this year, the first-termer got a lot of anti-oil exposure in November and December. The Senate narrowly rejected her proposal to fine oil companies $3 million a day for price gouging and to send their executives to prison. She fared better, in terms of publicity, at a Commerce hearing. The day after Stevens introduced his Cherry Point bill, she asked Chairman Stevens to swear in oil executives under oath before they answered questions about the distinct possibility that they had conspired to rob America at the gas pumps. Her suggestion wasn't taken. It later appeared the execs—including BP America's Pillari—indeed might have lied by denying their staffs had met with Vice President Cheney's secret White House's energy task force. "I think Sen. Stevens probably now knows that my interest was getting at the truth," Cantwell tells me. "I really wanted an investigation of the oil industry. The photo op was not the thing that was interesting to me." But Cantwell may be able to ride this potential oil slick all the way into next November. "She has a long track record on energy issues," says political consultant Christian Sinderman, a friend who also helped manage Cantwell's 2000 campaign, "starting with her exposure of Enron's deceits and continuing through her work on oil windfall profits. It's an area of real contrast with her opponent." Adds veteran consultant Gogerty: "This is one of the most environmentally sensitive voting populations in the country. If she becomes a lightning rod in people's minds, it will pay off for her."

Her legislative counterattack to Stevens' Cherry Point bill includes a provision to dock oil companies $1 million a year to finance the state's Oil Spill Advisory Council, and compel big oil to fork over $2.5 million for research and development of spill-detection equipment. Cantwell was quick to post on her Web site (www.cantwell.com/magnuson.php) a petition to be sent to Stevens urging him to withdraw his bill. "Your plan," the petition says as an open letter to Stevens, "puts our health and environment at risk for little economic or energy benefit. . . . " Signatories at the Web site can also click on buttons to contribute money or volunteer time toward Cantwell's re-election. Says Mike Cooper, chair of the Oil Advisory Council, "When my granddaughter is an adult, she will say—in the same breath—that Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Magnuson were the people who took the steps necessary to protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill." And both of them in the line of Stevens' fire. "I don't know that anybody has faced him down like this in his entire career," says Gogerty, who was chief strategist on Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles' 1994 campaign. "For a female senator to do this, stand up to this old pol, is really impressive."

Cantwell only mildly disagrees with the notion that she, the state's second senator, is currently running against the state's third senator for re-election. Cantwell's announced opponent, McGavick, who left his Safeco CEO job last week, is still in warm-up mode. For that matter, he sides with her on the Cherry Point issue and recently told Stevens so. "If we have a third senator," says Cantwell, "I'd say it's Norm Dicks. And after that, I'd say it's Danny Inouye," referring to the state's Democratic congressman, a longtime friend of Stevens, and to the Democratic senator from Hawaii, who backs ANWR drilling. "But there and again, Ted Stevens—there are obviously regional interests between our two states," Cantwell says. She worked with Stevens on reauthorizing a trust fund bill and was a co-sponsor of a Stevens-Inouye bill to renew the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which regulates commercial fisheries in exclusive U.S. economic zones. "He helped us get provisions in the transportation security bill the other day, affecting the ferry system," Cantwell says. "He supported it, noting that some of those ferries do go to Alaska."

Stevens' bill would allow the expansion of the Cherry Point refinery and more tanker traffic on Puget Sound.

Vantage Point Photography

We wanted to ask Stevens, a World War II Army Air Corps vet, Harvard Law grad (1950), and father of six, about his unofficial election as Sen. De Facto and his feelings about Cantwell. But he was busy boxing somebody's ears or something. His spokesperson, Courtney Boone, said she'd "stand in for him." Boone agrees that Stevens is effectively a third Washington member of the Senate. "His legislation is often regional," she says, "and he likes Washington a great deal. We consider you guys to be economic partners with Alaska. Washington uses a great deal of Alaska oil and gas, and, of course, the North Pacific fishing fleet is based in Seattle." Stevens' proposal to expand the oil-shipping business on Puget Sound comes in part at the request of Northwesterners, Boone says. "He has heard a great deal from people in Oregon, Idaho, Washington—the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and others—that energy prices in the Western states are incredibly high. Cherry Point can expand only if the need demands it. And they're saying it seems to demand it. Home heating supplies are very expensive, for example. He wants to do what he can to ensure that the region gets fair-priced energy supplies." And like Cantwell, he, too, appreciates the state's legacy of legislation bestowed by Warren Magnuson, an old friend, Boone says. But would Maggie have agreed with Stevens' proposal to what amounts to a sex change in the oil-port law? "Sen. Stevens hasn't really elaborated on that," Boone says. "The times are different now than when Sen. Magnuson was here. But I don't want to speak for [Stevens] in regards to that."

Boone says that, despite what Cantwell and environmentalists may call it, the Puget Sound oil bill is not supertanker legislation. "Tanker traffic will expand, yes, but not the size of the tankers." Asked if Stevens introduced the law in part to retaliate against Cantwell's recent politicking, Boone says: "I can tell you that people laugh around here when anyone asks if Sen. Stevens is retaliating. Sen. Stevens does not retaliate. He does what is best for this nation. He does not retaliate."

He was probably just joking, then, the time one of his bills was shot down and he snarled: "People who vote against this today are voting against me. And I'll never forget it." During the bridges-to-nowhere debate, even though many Alaskans felt it was unfair to accept the pork when New Orleans needed it more, he dramatically railed, "I will put the Senate on notice—and I don't kid people. If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I'll resign from this body." And after Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., implied Stevens helped oil execs skirt the truth by not swearing them in as Cantwell asked, Stevens said such a claim was false, inexcusable, and rude to boot. "I expect an apology from the senator from Illinois." He waited a few months, then said even if Durban apologized, he wouldn't accept it anyway.

Stevens would like to see an apology or two from the news media in his home state, too. When reporting on the senator, spokesperson Boone says, "They usually get it wrong." But they're having a swell time doing it, apparently. Reporters currently are poking into Stevens' son's legal and ethical troubles in the political and seafood industries, a storm that swirls around father Stevens as well. Ben Stevens is an Alaska state senator and business consultant who mixes his roles and sometimes crosses streams of money set loose by his father. Court documents that have surfaced recently in the press revealed that in 2003 Ben Stevens held a secret option to buy into an Alaska seafood company, Adak Fisheries, owned in part by Icicle Seafoods Inc. of Seattle. (Adak has had a succession of other Seattle investors, and current ownership is now tied up in a court fight.) At the same time that Ben had a buy-in option, his father was pushing federal legislation to establish a special Aleutian Islands fishing area that could supply Adak Fisheries with more than $5 million worth of prized pollock the first two years. The Anchorage Daily News said a quarter of the revenue from the processed pollock—most of it caught by the Seattle-based fishing fleet—would go directly to Ben, according to court records. Ben's option surprised officials at the Aleut Corp., one of the regional corporations of Native Alaskans, which has economic control over the pollock fishery.

Conflicts seem to abound in the story: Ben was a board member of one of Aleut Corp.'s subsidiaries, where he voted to hand the fishing rights created by his dad to Adak, the company he was secretly buying into—and for which he was also a business consultant. His dad's pollock legislation passed in 2004, but it wasn't until later that Ben's option surfaced in the news. He ultimately exercised it by putting up $50,000, but the option is being legally challenged today. Ben was slapped with a middling $150 fine by the state's public disclosure commission following a hearing in which an ex–state legislator called Ben's actions corrupt. The commission rejected a call to investigate $1 million in consulting fees Ben received the past five years from seafood businesses in Alaska and Seattle. Just how bad this looks for the Stevens family was outlined in a court deposition given by Roger DuBrock, the Aleut Corp.'s corporate counsel. "My concern," he said in explaining how he felt when hearing of Ben's buy-in, "is that if it ever became public knowledge that Sen. Ted Stevens got legislation passed for a pollock allocation that ended up getting assigned to Adak Fisheries, and that Ben Stevens, his son, had an ownership interest in that company, there would be all kinds of unfavorable newspaper reports written that might damage Sen. Stevens and might damage Ben Stevens and might damage the Aleut Corporation."

Indeed. At a press conference, Ted Stevens angrily denied he tried to unethically aid his son's business and offered to show a reporter memos that backed his claim. He said those would be his last words on the topic. When a reporter asked to see the memos the next day, Stevens said his offer had a time limit and it had expired. Ben, in a brief statement to his state's disclosure commission, said that accusations of "influence peddling are baseless and unsubstantiated." Says Boone, Ted Stevens' spokesperson: "Ben has his own business, he's an experienced commercial crabber with a long history in the seafood industry, but Sen. Stevens is not involved in his business dealings."

Some of Ben Stevens' Adak Fisheries connections first arose in 2003, and back then, his father said he'd been unaware of his son's business dealings and, besides, "Neither one of us is getting rich. That's for damn sure." What a difference a year or two makes. According to his 31-page most recent (2004) Senate financial disclosure report, filed in 2005, Ted Stevens is a multimillionaire with a widely diversified investment portfolio that includes residential and office developments in Alaska. Some of the deals have raised ethical questions and caused him to sell assets. In one private contract with a big local developer, Stevens invested $50,000 in 1997 that the developer and his partner bought back for $872,000 in 2002. At the same time, Stevens helped steer a $450 million federal housing contract to the developer, according to the Anchorage paper and the Los Angeles Times. Stevens was bloodied but unbowed, and Boone, his spokesperson, says any insinuations Stevens' business deals or legislation involved wrongdoing are absurd.

All of which apparently makes for successful politics in Anchorage and opportune campaigning in Seattle. Until McGavick gets his election machine in second gear, Cantwell has the oily specter of Stevens to gas up her campaign. "I wouldn't say we have a close relationship," she told me almost with a wink. But a rewarding one, anyway.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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