Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Asking, Telling, and Taking

Asking, Telling, and Taking

Several years ago (we need not define the term “several”) I received a 40th birthday card signed “your friend, State Senator Roy Goodman.”

All in all I found this pretty impressive, since I don’t think I had even met the estimable Roy Goodman, except perhaps at some forgotten handshake thing outside a subway stop prior to some landslide victory.  He seemed quite old, tall, rather lean, and quite the patrician Republican (he chaired the state Party for a while.)  The Senator spent a great deal of time in Albany, a location that many of us who lived in New York City understood to be a vaguely hostile place in the great North, not quite Canada, but probably very cold.  Albany was also a place of obscure rules, spittoons, and an almost infinite number of areas that existed behind the closed doors where deals were made.  Yet, my friend, State Senator Roy Goodman, had taken the time to wish me a happy birthday.  Did it make a difference to me the next election?  I can’t honestly say, but I remembered it when I went into the polling booth, as I remember it today.

Senator Goodman wasn’t alone in this personal appeal.  Tip O’Neill often told the story of his first (losing) campaign.  After the results had been tallied, he ran into one of his “almost” constituents, a woman who had known him since he was a boy. She voted for his opponent.  He was shocked.  Why?  Because, she said, he hadn’t asked for her vote.  “People like to be asked.”  After that, O’Neill said, he always asked. Asking is personal.

Yet, asking seems more and more a lost art these days, especially among politicians.  It’s a subtle skill, sometimes even more difficult than compromising.  To ask someone for their support is to make a pact with them that, even, if they might disagree with you on certain issues, you will act with their best interests in mind.  It is a core value of democracy to ask your constituency, all of it, for their support, and to mean it.  An Ask is a promise not to betray. 

That is very hard for contemporary politicians, particularly Republican ones.  They fear asking, and the nuanced commitment it makes, because the base demands more than an Ask.  They want a “Tell” and a “Take.”

The Tell used to be a simple pointing out to the voters what was wrong with the other guy. It could be policy (“vote for me, not the Socialist”) or it could be personal (“vote for me, not the Socialist bum”) but the Tell was specific to the candidate, not extended to his potential supporters.  Reagan was a genius at this—he could be partisan and yet inclusive at the same time. 

Unfortunately, that type of Tell is no longer in vogue. The base demands more—they expect their candidate to Tell everyone who isn’t 100 percent pure that they, too, are Socialist bums. Mitt Romney, perhaps unintentionally,  managed to condemn half the country with his 47% remark.  It isn't because he might not have been factual that 47% of the country receives some sort check from the government.  Rather, it was his implication that every one of those people would vote Democratic.  And conservatives everywhere agreed.  That man in a hard hat and sweat-stained clothes on the subway at 6:00 AM this morning?  He must be on his way to pick up his free Obamaphone.

The problem with this, of course, is that it separates the winners from any connection to the losers.  When you have discarded the Ask, and campaigned with the loudest Tell, should you win, it is a very short distance to govern with just the Take.  After all, you have made no promises except to like-minded people, so marginalizing the disfavored and treating them as if they have no rights that need respecting becomes a logical extension.

So, if you are a Republican officer holder tempered by the steel of the Tea Party, whom do you take a smack at? What rights can you take away from people you don’t care for?

Labor, of course, is a ready target.  Two big wins came in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker crushed the public service unions, and Tennessee, where the State Legislature successfully intimidated workers at a VW plant in Chattanooga into rejecting an organizing move, even though VW was open to it. Given the weakened state of labor in general, new victims are always available if needed.   

Then there is the evergreen issue of reproductive rights.  As Virginia State Senator Steve Martin said last week, a pregnant woman is a “host” for the fetus.  The man certainly has an ear for the finely turned phrase.   And just earlier today, Alabama took up a package of four bills that would ban abortion for pretty much all reasons after six weeks, as well as various punitive measures to shame the woman, irrespective of their Constitutionality.  

These sustained acts of political vandalism at least make some sense in the rubric of general conservative thinking.  The GOP and the business interests that support them have always sought to enfeeble labor in order to make for a cheap and docile workforce.  And, the pro-life wing has long been in control of the Party, just not as aggressive in ignoring Supreme Court precedents and employing ultrasounds.

What is new is the sustained, multistate GOP obsession with gays.  Gays drive them crazy.  Top of the list, of course, is gay marriage.  But at the end of the day, it’s just gays, period, and they feel compelled to eradicate the world (or at least their piece of it) of any overt gayness.

Why they feel this way is unknown.  Gays, as everyone knows, only populate the arts, the two coasts and sundry effete and elite college campuses.  No manly Red State could possibly have any.

Yet, in state after state, the GOP keeps rolling out one piece of discriminatory legislation after another, cloaking it in “religious exemption” language. Tennessee, Arkansas, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah, Kansas, Mississippi and others all have considered variants that would allow business and professions the right to refuse service on religious grounds.  The proponents of this type of legislation claim they want to protect to protect the devout florist or photographer or bridal shop that didn’t want to cater to gay customers. Apparently there was a flood of dissolute pastel hoping to blend with sturdy crimson.  But, once the drafters got started, they couldn’t control themselves, creating language so broad that that pretty much any type of discrimination by anyone was acceptable.  South Dakota’s bill virtually enshrined it.  It gave anti-gay speech and acts (other than violent acts) protected status, barred lawsuits based on it, and required the gay person to pay penalties and attorney’s fees to the person acting in a discriminatory way because of perceived sexual orientation (presumably proof of actual straightness was irrelevant.)

Then there’s Arizona (why is it always Arizona?)  Arizona’s SB-1062 mirrors the creation of state sanctioned prejudice that you see in sister Republican-led states, but ran into unexpected headwinds.  Arizona is the site of the 2015 Super Bowl, and the Arizona business community is looking forward to all those beefy stacks of money charging towards them.  This has created a remarkable struggle over the fate of this bill, lining up the social conservatives and traumatized florists on one side, and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and both Senators (McCain and Flake) on the other.  Governor Jan Brewer has until the weekend to decide whether she wants to veto. 

It’s times like this when I wonder what my friend, State Senator Roy Goodman, would do.  He was a classic old-fashioned Northeastern Republican who was moderate on social issues, and conservative on fiscal ones. And he was old-fashioned in temperament, like many politicians of his generation. He was an Asker.  It just wasn’t in him to Tell and Take.

It turns out that he will be 94 next Wednesday.  I feel the urge to send him a card.

Note from the Moderator:  On February 26, Jan Brewer vetoed the SB-1062.  She was denounced by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ted Cruz's Scary Cornfield

Ted Cruz's Scary Cornfield

There is a classic Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life” which centers around the small farm town of Peeksville, Ohio, and Anthony, a malevolent small child possessed of nearly infinite power to read minds and alter matter.  When angered, Anthony can mutilate, transform, and destroy.   

Anthony’s terrified parents, and the few townspeople left, have no choice but to humor him.  Whatever he wants, no matter how unpleasant, elicits “It’s good Anthony, it’s real good.” After a particularly gruesome act, his parents beg him to take it away, to  “wish it into the cornfield.”

Rod Serling’s brilliance often lay in telling an improbable story that somehow resonated emotionally, causing us to recognize something in ourselves or the world around us that challenged or frightened. 

Anthony scares us.  He has no rules, no master, no boundaries, no experience, no need to rely on or please others.  He lives only to satisfy himself, and seems insensate to the pain he causes. 

Ted Cruz had another Anthony moment last week, causing a fair amount of discomfort to some of his Republican brethren.  On Tuesday, House Speaker Boehner, exhausted from trying to find any sweetener that would induce his caucus to vote out a suspension of the Treasury’s debt limit, finally took 27 other Republicans and joined with the Democrats to pass a clean bill. On Wednesday, Mitch McConnell prepared to let the Democrats, on a straight-line party vote, send it to the President for signature.  That is when Cruz decided to use his dark powers. 

Cruz’s maneuver was a simple one, but it had destructive consequences.  Under normal circumstances, when a particular bill, even a controversial one, clearly has enough support, and the result is not anathema to the losing party, there’s a certain amount of kabuki that comes into play.  A quick headcount determines how many votes are there for passage.  If there’s more than enough, then the Whips can let individual members vote their own local interests, even when they seemed to be bucking their party.  Alternatively, when the losing side wants to go on record as opposing, but not actually block the legislation, they can just let the vote happen.  Then the majority “owns the bill” and the losers can talk about how principled they were.  That, at least, was McConnell’s plan; Reid would bring the bill up, the Democrats would pass it, the nation would not default, and then everyone would go home.

Cruz, of course, would have none of it, and so he threatened a filibuster.  That forced a sixty-vote threshold for cloture, thereby making the bill impossible to pass without Republican support.  He was tearing away their fig leaf: unanimously voting against it while (mostly) silently supporting it. 

This caused chaos in the Republican caucus, because they were left with two unpalatable choices.  Either they could find five of their own to break the filibuster, allowing the final vote and passage.  Or, they could yield to Cruz, send the nation into default, and “own it.” The problem was that they didn’t have the five votes, or more accurately, they didn’t have five Senators willing to go on record.  This put McConnell in a real bind, because centrist Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (who had lost her own primary in 2010) were being asked to walk the plank for their more conservative brethren, and even counting those, there may not have been enough.  No Republican wanted to be the 60th vote and put a bulls-eye on their back.

What made things worse was that the GOP was out of time.  The House had already adjourned, so it was this bill, or no bill.  The GOP leadership huddled while the Democrats did something almost unprecedented—they stopped the public reading of the tally so as not to shake up the financial markets.  Cruz was apparently thrilled with himself, strutting around with a smirk on his face. McConnell and his leadership were furious, and, in the end, not five, but twelve Republicans, including McConnell and John Cornyn (minority whip) voted to cut off debate.  With the filibuster broken, all twelve then voted against suspending the debt ceiling.

But, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial “The Minority Maker” the damage had been done.  Republicans could still blame the Democrats for the bill, but in truth, the Democrats didn’t “own it” anymore.  And, to compound things, activist groups aligned with Cruz then announced they would use this vote against McConnell and Cornyn in their 2014 primaries.  Ted Cruz, team player.

Why did Cruz do it? He says his motive was to force concessions from Mr. Obama and the Democrats.  But the real reason?  Because he wanted to, he could, and he enjoyed it.  And it furthers his ambitions. He wants to be President, sooner rather than later, and has decided that this is his moment.

Ted Cruz may be destructive, but he’s not stupid.  He’s looking to build a power base outside not only the Senate, but also the Republican establishment. And he knows he gets two bites at the apple, because Tea Party supporters essentially get to vote twice.  Tea-aligned “Cast-iron Conservatives” have shown substantial success in dominating GOP party functions like caucuses and nominating conventions.  They just show up and swamp the party regulars.  In pure primary states, their passion drives them to the polls and gives them an influence greater than their actual numbers.  Cruz can win a lot of states.  And, if the Tea Party itself decides to have a Presidential nominating convention, Cruz is well placed to take that nomination as well.  

What Cruz has discovered is that he doesn’t have to play nice, and that suits him. If he wants a sympathetic ear, there are conservative media outlets providing airtime at a moment’s notice. He has his own fundraising organization, and he doesn’t need anything that the Senate leadership can offer.  John Cornyn is already bringing in the bucks, so Texas isn’t going to get more (or less) because of Cruz.  As for committee memberships, Cruz isn’t really interested in the hard work of legislating.  In fact, the opposite is true—the more he gums things up, the more committed his supporters are. 

Can he be stopped?  Maybe.  The real fear of the Wall Street Journal and GOP insiders is that Cruz will continue to be a disrupter, and the blame for the disruption will fall on them.  The message they want to put out in 2014 and 2016 is that Mr. Obama has been a poor President and everyone hates Obamacare. That line has real potential to resonate, but only if the GOP demonstrates it is the adult ready to govern.  Shutdowns and defaulting tell a different story.  Cruz’s closed fist might sell to an angry mob, but it’s a hard strategy to take nationally.

That being said, I think that Cruz is playing his hand shrewdly.  In an atomized primary season, there is a path to the nomination for someone who can consolidate his strength, no matter how he does it.  If he succeeds, the party establishment will get in line.  And if he wins the Presidency, he surely will have a Republican House and Senate, where many agree with much of his philosophy, if not his tactics. In short, he doesn’t need them to say “It’s good, Ted, it’s real good.” 

So, is it possible we will see a Cruz Administration in 2017?  Still a long shot, but possible.   

Scary thought.  Wish it into the cornfield, please.  Wish it into the cornfield.

Michael Liss  (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Playing Immigration Zugzwang

Playing Immigration Zugzwang

There is a wonderful term in chess,  Zugzwang, which refers to a position in which it is a player’s turn to move, but anything he does weakens his position.

Zugzwang is also the perfect metaphor to describe the GOP’s dilemma about immigration—seemingly every move they make worsens their position.

Late last week, the esteemed Speaker of the House, John Boehner, pronounced immigration reform dead.  His reason: the GOP “couldn’t trust” President Obama to fairly enforce any laws that might be passed.  This came as something of a surprise to many observers, because barely ten days before that, Boehner himself had rolled out a set of principles for immigration reform that actually had some substance to them. 

This sudden, completely unanticipated wave of mistrust of Mr. Obama, emerging, as it were, as a windstorm across the Great Plains, overtook Mr. Boehner’s good intentions and reset the debate to its traditional zero. When Senator Schumer offered to delay implementation of any bill until after Mr. Obama left office, the sound emanating from the Speaker’s office resembled a cross between crickets and a wart hog.

There will be no immigration reform bill passed. The Speaker, as feckless as he appears to be, is reacting to pressures inside his caucus.  His team is simply not ready for him to make a move.  And, maybe that’s a good thing, because the truth is that none of us have really figured out how to talk about immigration.

We aren’t alone.  This past Sunday, the Swiss passed a referendum sharply curtailing immigration.  The Swiss!!  Alps, chocolate, banks, quaint towns, sheepherders, funny hats and those cool alphorns?  Neutral, calm, tolerant Switzerland, home of the International Red Cross--they are anti-immigrant?  Those Swiss? 

Those Swiss. And the issues raised in that referendum aren’t that far apart from ours.  The economics of a more open immigration policy is complex, but, boiled down to it essence, consists of the (not completely farfetched) fear is that we will have more dependents on an already strained social safety net and the (not completely farfetched) fear that flooding the market with cheap labor takes away jobs that “real” Americans (or Swiss) could take.  There are academic studies that indicate that a pro-immigration policy could actually generate substantial economic growth, and there are plenty of indications that “real” Americans don’t like crop and feather picking, but those are net gains in a dynamic equilibrium.  Each job lost to an immigrant, whether it is in tech or pushing a broom, is a net loss to someone.  And, you don’t need to be an economist to understand that the more competition there is for jobs, the more wage pressure there is.  It is not coincidental that, in both the United States and Switzerland, businesses are among the biggest supporters of immigration reform, particularly at the high and low ends of the market. They see money.  The average American may not be quite as fortunate.

Nor is it coincidental that the rightist Swiss People’s Party, which placed the referendum on the ballot, mirrors the concerns of many Tea Party members and conservative Republicans generally when they speak of Switzerland “retaining its identity.”  The Swiss are primarily concerned with immigration from Eastern European countries while we seem to be particularly obsessed with Latinos, but the core fear is the same: when you introduce large numbers of people with a different language and culture, things can change, and the old truths (and virtues) appear to come under attack.

Those of us who are generally pro-immigration shouldn’t just dismiss those social and economic fears or call them ignorant and xenophobic.  If we want solutions, we need to acknowledge that immigration is not a constitutional right—it derives from affirmative legislation we put in place.  What we do on immigration has to be done by consensus—not unanimity, of course, because no democracy can possibly function by giving a veto power to everyone, but by a broad enough agreement so that we can move forward without the relentless and destructive charade we see on the ACA.  In short, we need both sides to see the wisdom of doing something.   

That can only be accomplished through the political process, and right now, the political process isn’t doing.  Immigration just isn’t like other orthodoxies.  In 2014, if you are a Republican, it is virtually impossible to recognize climate change, much less be an environmentalist.  But you can see the virtues of immigration reform, as a matter of self-interest.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sees it, because it’s good for business. A number of GOP party professionals see it, because they feel an urgent need to defuse this as an issue in coming elections.  Seeing it, however, is not the same as being able to act on it. The base doesn’t want it, and Boehner’s 180-degree turn is an explicit acknowledgment of that.  Boehner is not going to risk his Speakership before his caucus is ready.  Boehner perceives Zugzwang.  So he takes a deep breath, refuses to move,  and blames Obama.

Boehner is stuck (as we all are) because immigration has a powerful emotional pull without an easy resolution.  You can’t promise every American that they will all benefit economically, because that is untrue, and everyone knows it.  Nor can you promise them that if the population of Latinos (or South Asians, or Africans) in their communities goes from one percent to ten percent, that no one will dare speak anything but English.  Let more immigrants in, and it’s going to happen.

While we are at it, let’s add more reality.  “Build the dang fence” isn’t going to stop every illegal, and it certainly isn’t going to remove all that are already here. Self-deporting isn’t going to happen.  Sheriff Joe isn’t going to be appointed by some future President to hunt down every illegal in this country.  Hemming people in will cause them to concentrate, not assimilate—they won’t learn the very things that would make us more comfortable with them.  Immigrants aren’t going to stop having children,  and those higher birthrates will inevitably lead to more children of immigrants who eventually become voters.  They will remember who stigmatized their parents. Injustice is a scar that doesn’t heal overnight.

How do you deal with those truths: that having immigrants does mean some culture shock and purging them all is impossible—in short, they are here to stay and others will follow?  You can start with plain speaking-by admitting to everyone the obvious.  There is no perfect solution, and any politician who tells you otherwise is flat out lying. That there will be risks, and there will be losers, and there will be discomfort, but the way to manage the future is to get out in front of it. 

John Boehner thinks he’s doing himself and his party a service by stopping the clock.  What he is forgetting is that in chess, the clock is always running.  That’s what gives Zugzwang its sting.  Sooner or later, you either move, or time runs out. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Chris Christie and Pete Seeger: The Hammer, the River, and the Bridge

Chris Christie and Pete Seeger: The Hammer, the River and the Bridge

Pete Seeger passed away this last week.  He was 94 and had spent the entirety of his adult life singing, picking his guitar and his five-string banjo, and working for causes.   

My kids were raised on the Weavers, the group Pete co-founded.  By popular demand, we played our VCR of “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time” so often we wore it out.  When my daughter was barely talking, she would wait for the refrain in “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and squeak out “WINE!”  Much later, on a college trip, when the car radio had no reception, my son took out his IPod, put it on speaker, and we drove home to Pete, Tom Lehrer, and Allan Sherman.

Pete drew on a tremendous traditional songbook filled with the music of common people: folk and gospel, children’s songs, ones about miners and moonshiners.  With Lee Hays, he wrote The Hammer Song, later translated into dozens of languages, and transformed by Peter, Paul and Mary into a gigantic hit.  And he performed them all until the end, wearing a pair of hearing aids, his distinctive reedy “alto-tenor” worn and cracked, with his audience happily making up the difference.

You could love Pete’s music without embracing all his causes, and those causes didn’t always sit well with everyone. As a young man, he was a member of the Communist Party, and he, and the Weavers, were essentially blacklisted for over a decade. He was called in by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and when he refused to testify, was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress.  He worked for labor when that was scary and the anti-war movement and civil rights movements when they were even scarier.  He was an environmentalist before (and after) it was cool.  In the late 1960’s he raised money for the sloop that would become the Clearwater.  It became the physical symbol of the effort to clean up the Hudson, the magnificent river that inspired a school of painting in the 1850s, and then became a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.  Take a train from Grand Central up the river past Pete’s home in Beacon, and you can see the fruits of his labors and those he supported.  

The Hudson begins at Henderson Lake in upstate New York, runs 315 miles, and empties into New York Harbor.  Just a few miles north is the George Washington Bridge, where an environmental disaster of another type seems be unfolding. Chris Christie is dealing with a rising tide of sludge that seems poised to jump the banks of the Hudson and make its way to Trenton.  That, apparently, would be a reverse of the flow of pollution that had emanated from his office last September.

Some of the basic facts are well known.  Governor Christie was gathering cross-party endorsements for his reelection campaign against State Senator Mary Buono.  The Christie team, with their eyes on 2016, wanted to cement the Governor’s reputation as a tough but bipartisan doer with cross-party appeal.  And they wanted to run up the score on Buono, showing they could win big in a Blue state that went for Obama twice. 

So, when Mark Sokolich, the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, balked at endorsing, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, decided to mete out some punishment.  On August 13, 2013, she sent an email to David Wildstein, one of Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority:  “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”  To which Wildstein responded (within a minute) “Got it.”

Clearly, Wildstein got it, as did Fort Lee.  As the school year opened in September, suddenly four access lanes between Fort Lee were funneled into one tollbooth, ostensibly to conduct a “traffic study.” Christie aides exulted in the chaos.  When the besieged Mayor asked for help because the kids were stranded on busses, one Christie aide had a momentary pang of guilt.  That was quickly quashed by a second, with the explanation, “They are the children of Buono voters.”  

The entire mess went on for four days, and the backups were epic—kids, first responders, people trying to get to their places of employment—everyone got caught up.  And when New York appointees to the Port Authority re-opened the lanes to try to alleviate the suffering, David Sampson, Port Authority Chairman and Christie appointee, expressed his displeasure.

The immediate reaction of the public was fascinating.  Democrats, needless to say, were suitably outraged (and perhaps a little gleeful.)  But Republicans were split.  Many defended Christie and claimed partisan witch-hunt, but the more conservative and Tea Party types piled on, seeing this as their best opportunity to derail a man they called a RINO and blamed for Obama’s reelection. 

Christie then held a one-hour plus press conference where he professed shock and dismay (at other people’s actions) with a promise to clean house and see justice done.  His supporters in the press then went into a swoon; what a man’s man Christie was and how very small his critics were! This is the way it’s done—unlike the effete present occupant of the White House! 

But the story had a little leg to it, and new and damaging information continued to dribble out, so the very same columnists pivoted to talking about what a positive good this might be for Christie and his ambitions. The new narrative: the bad old mainstream media, eager to take down a conservative stalwart, was unjustly hyping the story all out of proportion, and this would unite the various factions of the GOP.  The little people of Fort Lee were just collateral damage--Chris Christie was the true martyr of Bridgegate. 

And that’s kind of a pity, because this whole episode is so rotgut petty and mean that it reflects horribly on government in general.  Politics may not be beanbag, but the “violence” is supposed to be pol on pol, not pol on people.  That a nasty functionary could express her undying loyalty to her boss (and get her jollies) by inflicting pain on innocents, and that other political appointees could support her in this “quest” reinforces the conviction that it’s always all about power. 

In the end, however, I think this story is going to flicker out.  I doubt there is going to be hard evidence that Christie, enraged by a Mayor who was more nebbish than threat, would have raised his leonine head and bellowed, “Release the Kraken.”  Might we have suspicions that Christie is often an egotistic bully and that the culture of his office was take no prisoners?  Should we take that into account in considering his suitability for higher office? Yes, to both, of course.

That’s the thing about public figures like Pete Seeger and Chris Christie. Why do we choose to feel the way we do about them? We really don’t have any certainty about their inner lives—what kind of people they really are.  All we have to go by is what they do.

I suppose what we know is that Pete Seeger had a hammer, a bell, and a lot of songs, and he used them all.  His book is written, and it says that in his 94 energetic years he made plenty of mistakes but did plenty more good.

Chris Christie has chapters to go, but he’s a hammer in search of a nail. At 51, his ambition to be President is probably the most powerful thing in his life.  The bigger question for him (and us) is whether it’s the only thing in his life.  If that’s so, he might never realize that there are more important tools than just the sledge.  

Figure it out, Governor.

Rest easy, Pete. 

Michael Liss (MM)

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