The Chosen One
On the August day when George W. Bush came to town to keynote her congressional fundraiser, Michele Bachmann showed up in a prim, conservative-correct, proud-to-be-a-lady pink suit with matching gloves and pearl accessories. She had her Dorian Gray thing going on, big time: The preternaturally youthful Bachmann, who is 50, could have passed for 35, maybe even 30, from more than a few yards away. She looked as radiant as a schoolgirl prepping for her confirmation—or a princess awaiting coronation.
And why not? Bachmann's joint appearance with the president represented her coming-out party on the national stage, the brightest moment yet in a whirlwind seven-year electoral career that has made her Minnesota's most famous Christian conservative, and perhaps the most polarizing figure in state politics.
"I couldn't be more thrilled," she beamed to reporters outside a hotel ballroom where Bush appeared that afternoon. "If I can take the endorsement of the leader of the Republican Party and the leader of this nation, I will welcome it gladly," she said. (Through campaign aides, Bachmann declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The Bush visit, which followed local appearances by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney on Bachmann's behalf, reportedly raised $500,000 for her Sixth District campaign. It underscored how badly the Iraq-torn, defector-ridden Bush GOP wants to put more lockstep soldiers like Bachmann in Congress. It also said something about the composition of Bachmann's district: In a campaign season when many Republican candidates are discreetly avoiding any association with Bush—or, like onetime White House marionette Mark Kennedy, running full-tilt away from him—most pundits concur that the Sixth is one of those rare blue-state districts where his blessing may still be an asset. Small wonder the Bush administration reportedly counts it among the five most important House races in the country.
So far, however, Bachmann has apparently failed to build a secure lead in her race against DFLer Patty Wetterling and little-known Independent John Binkowski. Political tip sheets are mixed in their assessments: The Rothenberg Political Report lists the district as "toss-up, tilt Republican," while the Cook Political Report has it "leaning Republican." But Congressional Quarterly has the race listed with "no clear favorite," and ElectionProjection.com declares the Sixth a "weak GOP hold." The first publicly released poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for KSTP-TV, showed Bachmann holding a 50-41 lead over Wetterling in mid-September, with Binkowski taking 5 percent. But considering the poll's 3.9 percent margin of error, that could spell a relatively comfortable lead or a perilously thin one.
In either case, the GOP is taking nothing for granted: A week later, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee had injected $500,000 into the race since mid-August, all for electronic and direct-mail ads designed to attack Wetterling. And the candidate is sure to do her part as well. "Michele is a fascinating combination of charm and sheer grit," says longtime Republican pundit Sarah Janecek. "She's one of the toughest campaigners I've seen in a long time, especially if there's a tight race. I know that right now she's hitting the phones harder than ever, and she's hauling herself to events across the district that are 45 minutes apart. What I'm hearing is that Michele is everywhere and that Patty isn't out there as much.
"Even when she was just running for state races, she was notorious for having teams of people at every parade. It was like she was running for Congress even when she was just running for a state office. Her determination is galling to anyone who opposes her."
Technically, Bachmann's political odyssey began in 1999, when she was part of a controversial slate of GOP-endorsed candidates for the traditionally nonpartisan Stillwater School Board. She and her compatriots lost that battle, collectively finishing at the bottom of the heap on Election Day. To date, it's the only election Bachmann has lost. She came back the very next year, mounting a stealthy and deadly-effective campaign to unseat incumbent GOP State Senator Gary Laidig, a Vietnam veteran and old-school Republican moderate who had represented the area in a state House or Senate seat since 1972.
But in a broader sense Bachmann had been honing her political chops and pursuing the role of uber-Christian public activist for years by that time. Back in 1993, she helped to start a Stillwater charter school that ran afoul of many parents and the local school board when it became apparent that the school—which received public money and therefore was bound to observe the legal separation of church and state—was injecting Christain elements into the curriculum. After Bachmann and company were driven out of that venture, she became a prolific speaker and writer on the evils of public education in the years leading up to her failed school board run.
By all accounts, she made herself into a formidable presence. "She's articulate, attractive, and speaks passionately," says Mary Cecconi, who spent eight years on the Stillwater School Board. "Actually, she is ferocious."
On the stump in 2006, Bachmann still calls education reform one of her "number one priority" issues, along with tax reform and homeland security. Her critics, in turn—who include a number of non-evangelical Republicans—point a wary finger at her ties to a religious conservative think tank called EdWatch, and contend that none of her five children has attended public school.
The most surprising omission from Bachmann's campaign, meanwhile, is any talk of the proposed gay marriage ban that made her a household name. Though one page on the Bachmann for Congress website does note that she was the "chief author of a constitutional amendment in the Minnesota Senate defining marriage as between one man and one woman," she has mostly stayed mum about religious themes and the pet social issues of evangelicals.
"She's not afraid to wear her social issues on her sleeve, and that's what most people in the district relate to," claims Bill Pulkrabek, a Washington County commissioner who was instrumental in Bachmann's 1999 school board run. He rationalizes her relative silence this way: "The media has branded her as a social conservative, so she doesn't need to go out there and be rah-rah on social causes."
Or maybe she and her strategists think that advertising the extent of her Christian political vision would prove divisive even in the conservative Sixth. "She is absolutely a cold, calculating person," says Gary Laidig, the Republican she unseated en route to the state Senate in 2000. "It's always the same with her on campaigns: Nobody really knows who she is, and she just comes across as this petite, attractive soccer mom. And that's it. But the fact is, she's part of a group that is absolutely determined to take over the Republican Party. It's that wing of the party that's very much in step with people like Norm Coleman and the Taxpayers League. And the fact is that they know how to run races. Good races, too. From getting delegates to hitting phone banks, they cover it, and Michele's part of that.
"At the end of the day, her politics are like this: Everyone will have a gun, nobody will have an abortion, no one will pay taxes, everyone will go to church, and there won't be any more pinko liberal teachers in school."
ONE of Michael LaFave's first memories of Michele Bachmann is the two of them cruising around Anoka in his 1961 Chevy as she showed him teen hangouts and points of interest around town. It was 1973, and LaFave's father had just married Michele Amble's mother. He was a senior in high school then, soon to leave the newly blended household on Washington Street, and she was a year younger. "To say we were close would be overstating it," he says of the Ambles and LaFaves, who now counted nine children among them. "But we were a family unit."
By his own admission, LaFave, 51 years old and a union representative who lives in Forest Lake, did not get to know his new stepsister all that well. "I remember that she was book-smart, and did pretty well in school," he recalls. "And she was in a couple of beauty pageants.... She was not overtly political." She was not particularly religious, either, as far as he could see; LaFave calls her born-again identity "a later event in her life," dating to the years after she had gone away to college.
After graduating from Anoka High School in 1974, Michele Amble enrolled at what is now Winona State University. There she became interested in politics, she told the Star Tribune in a January 1, 2005 story, when she wandered into an American government class.
She also met Marcus Bachmann, who was majoring in social work. According to news and blog accounts, the two connected because they were both born-again Christians. Soon after she graduated with a degree in political science and English, the couple married, in 1978. As she has told the story more than once, the two were staunch Democrats who worked on Jimmy Carter's first presidential campaign. Eventually, she became disillusioned with the Democratic Party. The couple soon moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Bachmann enrolled in the Coburn Law School, a Bible-based institution affiliated with Oral Roberts University. According to one version of her résumé, she earned a Juris Doctorate at Coburn in 1986, and post-doctorate degree from William and Mary Law School in Virginia in 1988.
According to Bachmann's CV, she landed a job with "the federal U.S. Tax Court" in St. Paul in 1988. One church bio lists her title there as a "federal litigation tax attorney"—the only job besides being state senator that Bachmann notes on the campaign trail. Some of her critics have called the designation misleading. Setting the record straight in early 2005, Bachmann admitted to City Pages that she in fact worked for the IRS going after tax cheats, a fact she never mentions when she is rallying anti-tax sentiments on the stump.
In 1992, Bachmann quit her job working for the Internal Revenue Service to become a stay-at-home mom. By that time, Marcus Bachmann had launched a career as a counselor/therapist. The couple eventually had five kids of their own (who now range in age from 11 to 23), and candidate Bachmann proudly notes that the couple has taken in 23 foster children over the years.
She didn't always stay at home, though. Increasingly, Bachmann was hitting the church and school circuit as a speaker, railing against what she deemed to be unreasonable federal and state mandates for education. She was a prized pupil in something called the Maple River Education Coalition, which later became EdWatch. (Former Governor Jesse Ventura once said of them, "The Maple River group, they think UFOs are landing next month. They think it's some big government federal conspiracy!") According to the mission statement on its website, EdWatch is concerned about the "undermining" of "constitutional freedoms" due in part to the country's "entire educational system." In the words of one editorial column reposted at the site, "Public education is not among the enumerated powers of the federal government."
Anytime there was a school issue in the east metro, Bachmann was there. "In 1993 or '94, Michele was stumping anti-standards rhetoric," longtime Stillwater School Board member Mary Cecconi recalls. "I went to a church in Lake Elmo, because I wanted to hear her. Everything she said was met with catcalls and 'hallelujah' and 'amen sister.'"
By this time, Bachmann had become one of the founders of the New Heights Charter School, one of the first charter schools in the country. By law, charter schools have to be overseen by a public school district because they are funded, at least in part, by public money as tax-exempt nonprofits. In the fall of 1993, Denise Stephens had one daughter teaching at the school, and one daughter enrolled in the ninth grade. It was the first year that school at New Heights was in session as part of the Stillwater school district.
According to Stephens, it became clear that the charter school's board of directors was populated with right-wing Christians, all of them seeming acolytes of Bachmann. "I started raising questions about whether we were using public money to fund a religious school," Stephens recalls. Among the proposals coming from Bachmann and company was to expand the curriculum to teach creationism. The directors of the charter school, she recalls, were also advocating that "something called '12 Christian principles' be taught, very much like the 10 Commandments." One of the final straws for Stephens, who notes that she's been "a Republican since 1978," was that school officials would not allow the Disney movie Aladdin to be shown because it involved magic and supposedly taught paganism.
Stephens and other parents soon had confrontational meetings with Bachmann and the rest of the charter school group. "One member of Michele's entourage talked about how he had visions, and that God spoke to him directly," Stephens says. "He told us that as Christians we had to lay our lives down for it. I remember getting in the car with my husband afterward and telling him, 'This is a cult.'"
(This closely echoes something former state Senator Laidig says about Bachmann: "She's kind of a spooky person. She's one of those people who feels that God is speaking directly to her, and that justifies her actions.")
Eventually, the Bachmann and Stephens forces met in front of the Stillwater School Board. When confronted, according to Stephens, Bachmann grew angry: Are you going to question my integrity? she demanded. According to Stephens and others, Bachmann and four others resigned on the spot that night, offering what could be described as religious trash-talk on the way out. Bachmann still cites the charter school as a major accomplishment, but makes no mention of her leaving.
BACHMANN was hardly cowed by the setback. She channeled her passions into an increasing number of pamphlets and essays on the ills of public schools. By 1996, Mary Cecconi was sitting on the school board, which made her part of an ongoing sparring match between the board and Bachmann over curriculum. "She wanted to introduce Intelligent Design," Cecconi recalls. "And when you hear her talk about Intelligent Design, it makes sense. I believe in giving children all the information out there, too, so they can make their own decisions. But Intelligent Design wasn't even a school of thought, it wasn't even a viable theory."
Bachmann decided to run for the Stillwater School Board herself in 1999. In a move that still irks many locals, the state's Republican Party lined up a slate of candidates, for what was supposed to be a nonpartisan race. There were five open seats that year, and 19 candidates. The GOP-endorsed candidates became known locally as the "Slate of Five." Cecconi, who was running for re-election, says, "There was this overwhelming sentiment that we didn't want our school system politicized."
Bill Pulkrabek, the Washington County commissioner, had put together the group of GOP-endorsed candidates, and admits now that there was "a little bit of a backlash about the endorsement. It put up some red flags." Collectively, the five endorsed candidates finished dead last in the field.
But it was hardly a losing proposition for Bachmann. The school board run is widely credited with raising her political profile for the first time, giving her campaign experience, and endearing her to party kingmakers. Pulkrabek, who was also the GOP's chair for the Stillwater district at the time, notes that the '99 school board race inspired three times the usual turnout. He also says that was the year he met Bachmann, who told him she wanted to run for Laidig's seat. He, instead, encouraged her to run for school board first: "We talked about knocking off Gary later."
Gary Laidig was running for re-election to be District 56's state senator in 2000. Laidig, then a 28-year incumbent of state House and Senate seats representing the area, recalls being surprised to encounter Bachmann (who by this point had added the title "Dr." to her name) and a number of people from her church at a Woodbury School Board meeting in the late 1990s. She stood up and started denouncing the school's academic standards, and took exception to the national and local school-to-work programs.
Still, Laidig didn't think much of it: "It dawned on me that this [education activism] was her new gig, but I never thought she was going to run for my seat."
But that's exactly what happened. Laidig believes, in retrospect, that he was one of a number of moderate Republicans targeted by elements of their own party as vulnerable candidates in the run-up to the 2000 races. "And it became a different kind of party," he says. "Suddenly all of these religious litmus tests were going on, and they were getting support in the churches. My father was a very conservative minister, and very politically active. But never once did he bring the pulpit to politics, and he never brought politics to the pulpit."
On April 1, 2000, the GOP held its endorsing convention for the District 56 Senate seat. Laidig was immediately put off when he saw a number of new delegates—churchgoers. He also realized that they were against him, calling him "a Republican in name only," despite his 30 years of service to the party. To his surprise, he had an opponent—Michele Bachmann—and was caught off-guard. Bachmann won the endorsement on the first ballot. (The two went on to face off in the primary, which Bachmann won.)
"It hit me like a tsunami," Laidig says. "I heard the rumble out there, but I never thought the wave would come."
"Republican Senator Loses Endorsement Over Profile," read a post-mortem headline on the Maple River website. "Senator Laidig is known as the senator who for years has been opposing the party platform, and local activists wanted to support a candidate who would support them at the legislature," the story said in reference to the religious-right voting bloc that ousted Laidig.
The story went on to contend that "Dr. Bachmann herself, who had no intention of running, was shocked by her victory," and that a "spontaneous and genuine draft effort" had convinced Bachmann to run. "I came in wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and moccasins, and I had no makeup on at all," the story quotes Bachmann as saying. "I had not one piece of literature, I had made not one phone call, and spent not five cents and I did not solicit a vote."
"Absolute bullshit," Laidig says now. "She planned this all along."
WHILE Michele Bachmann was rising through the political ranks, her husband Marcus—a lumbering, soft-featured man—was working toward a psychology doctorate and a practice in Lake Elmo. There is an overt Christian theme attached to the practice. "Bachmann and Associates believes in providing all clients with quality counseling in a Christian environment," reads the mission statement on the business's website. Some of the listed specialties of the clinic and its counselors include "abuse issues," "co-dependency," "men's and women's issues," "shame," and "spiritual issues."
But some observers claim that the mission of the practice includes counseling homosexuals in an effort to "ungay" them. "It is absolutely sincere," adds former school board member Cecconi. "They specialize in 'reparation' regarding sexual orientation."
Marcus Bachmann, who is also 50, denies that is part of his clinic's practice. "That's a false statement," he says, refusing to answer any questions that don't have to do with Bachmann and Associates. "Am I aware that the perception is out there? I can't comment on that." Still, Bachmann offers, "If someone is interested in talking to us about their homosexuality, we are open to talking about that. But if someone comes in a homosexual and they want to stay homosexual, I don't have a problem with that."
Questions about his work aside, Marcus Bachmann has never played much of a public role in his wife's campaigns, and neither her allies nor her detractors seem to know much about him. But many believe he has played a huge part in the evolution of Michele Bachmann's religious convictions and, in turn, her political career. At the GOP endorsing convention in May, he worked the floor of delegates for his wife. Before that, he had gone on the political offensive. "She's pro-life, pro-family, and knows the values of the [Sixth] district," he told the Stillwater Courier in March 2006. "Whatever's left, she'll eat for dessert." He added that his wife would "eat up" Patty Wetterling in the general election.
Stepbrother Michael LaFave remembers that the Bachmanns' born-again identity started to cause divisions in the family sometime in the mid-1980s. "She kind of went all the way back to the Old Testament, and wouldn't eat pork and things like that," LaFave says. "Things got much more rigid around them. She got into it very deeply. I don't want to say she went off the deep end, but you might say something like that." With respect to Marcus Bachmann, LaFave says he has always "purposely stayed at arm's length. We just chit-chat about the family when we see each other."
On the campaign trail, Michele Bachmann has said her husband grew up on a family dairy farm in western Wisconsin. According to a brief biography that ran in the Forest Lake Times when Bachmann and Associates opened an office there in March 2005, he earned a master's degree in counseling from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a school then affiliated with Christian Broadcasting Network pitchman Pat Robertson. Bachmann later was awarded a doctorate in clinical psychology from an institution listed as Union Graduate School on his clinic's website, an apparent reference to Union Institute in Cincinnati, though nothing on either of the Bachmanns' public résumés suggests they ever lived in Ohio.
Last November, the Bachmanns attended a "Minnesota Pastors' Summit" at Grace Church in Eden Prairie. Some 300 religious leaders participated in the event, which was organized by the conservative, antigay Minnesota Family Council. Michele Bachmann was there to lead a session on the gay marriage amendment, while Marcus offered a presentation titled "The Truth About the Homosexual Agenda."
Curt Prins, a 35-year-old marketing executive from Minneapolis, attended. Prins, who is gay, says he went because he was "curious" and wanted to "understand the language" of the antigay movement. "There was so much bile, I nearly had to leave," Prins recalls. For Marcus Bachmann's session, Prins says there were more than 100 people crammed in a room at Grace, and most of the presentation involved stereotypes of gays. "He was saying how homosexuality was a choice, that it was not genetics," Prins says. "He was claiming there was a high predominance of sexual abuse in the GLBT community. There was no research to back any of this up." (Marcus Bachmann refused to answer questions about the seminar.)
The climax of the presentation was when, according to Prins, Bachmann brought up "three ex-gays, like part of a PowerPoint presentation." The trio, two white men and a black woman, all testified that they had renounced their homosexuality. "One of them said, 'If I was born gay, then I'll have to be born again,'" Prins recalls. "The crowd went crazy."
"Listening to him," Prins surmises, "it becomes clear that he's had a huge impact on her. He might be the spearhead of this whole religious/gay issue." Shortly after Bachmann announced her candidacy for U.S. Congress, there was an announcement on a website called the Minnesota Christian Chronicle. "Michele is a compassionate, intelligent woman of integrity who has a calling in her life. I am confident in Michele's ability to serve the constituents superbly well in the Sixth District," Marcus Bachmann was quoted as saying. "As her husband, I fully endorse Michele running for U.S. Congress. I am so thankful for her Christian testimony. She is a servant who honors Christ."
But Michele Bachmann's Christian testimony has not endeared her to everyone in her family. When Bachmann held a hearing on the gay marriage ban at the Capitol last April, she got a rude surprise: Sitting just a few feet away was her stepsister, Helen LaFave, who chose the occasion to come out publicly for the first time, with her partner of 20 years in attendance. "This issue has been very hurtful to me personally, and divisive for our family," LaFave told the Star Tribune at the time. Bachmann said at the time that she had taken a family vote on the gay marriage ban, and that family members favored it by a 6-3 margin. But both Michael and Helen LaFave insist she never spoke to them about it. Helen LaFave added that Bachmann ignored letters LaFave had sent her about the matter.
(Helen LaFave, 46, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, "My dad is in his 80s now, and it's too much to have all of this out there for him.")
"I've got to be clear that I've always been kind of proud of Michele," Michael LaFave says cautiously. That all went sour, though, as Bachmann increasingly became the face of the efforts to ban gay marriage at the Capitol. LaFave had no choice but to take things personally: "I wrote her an e-mail, and asked very nicely why she had to carry the water on this, knowing that my father has a gay daughter. How could she discriminate against Helen?
"She's out there courting a family values agenda, but she's saying things about her own family that's not true," he claims. "She could have been talking to the voters the whole time about having a gay sister," he says. "That at least would have been honest. Dick Cheney had the good sense to do that with his daughter. He had the good sense to know not to engage the base, to not get involved in the debate, because he knew how much it would hurt his daughter. If anyone spent the most time together between the LaFaves and the Ambles," LaFave concludes, "it was Michele and Helen.
"What I'd say to Michele is that you've got a situation here that you didn't have to create. You didn't have to go about it this way," he says, and pauses before announcing he'll likely vote for Patty Wetterling. "I'd say, 'Michele, for all of this, you've lost your family. You've lost my vote.'"
WHEN Bachmann won the GOP endorsement for the Sixth CD, she used a familiar strategy: Overturn the old-school delegates with new ones from the church. With that, she defeated two longtime and well-known Republicans—State Rep. Jim Knoblauch and State Sen. Phil Krinkie—to run as the Republican candidate for the U.S. House. But this time no one was particularly surprised. The political landscape has shifted in Bachmann's favor.
The Sixth, which runs northwest from Stillwater past St. Cloud, is odd political terrain. Little more than a decade ago, much of it was rural, but now it's full of bedroom communities, new highway interchanges, and McMansions. The Sixth is the whitest district in the state (95 percent) and the median household income is $60,893, some $16,000 above the national average, according to 2004 census numbers. In the last presidential election, George W. Bush received 57 percent of the Sixth District vote, even though he lost the state of Minnesota. All of this would seem to favor Bachmann.
But the Sixth District is also home to some folks with strong libertarian leanings. Many working-class and first-time voters turned out there in 1998 to help propel Jesse Ventura to the governor's mansion. And Paul Wellstone twice captured significant votes in some enclaves of the district. It's unlikely that Bachmann's past on social issues and school reform would attract these people. (Just last week, polls released by Emily's List regarding "five competitive House districts" showed a narrow gap in the Sixth, with Bachmann at 44 percent to Wetterling's 41 percent.)
And it's clear, on the stump, that she knows this. One weekday evening in early August, there was a debate at the VFW in Forest Lake between Bachmann and the Independence Party's John Binkowski. (Wetterling did not participate.) Bachmann talked of a permanent repeal of the "death tax," and mentioned that she was a tax attorney no fewer than five times. "I am a federal tax attorney," she said at one point, calling for an overhaul of the U.S. tax code. "That's my background and my profession."
She then called for more "local control" in the public schools. But if you get Bachmann off those two issues, she's on less certain footing. Take this answer to a question about raising the minimum wage: "In Minnesota, we have only 3.6 percent unemployment. We are the workingest state in the nation. We have more two-income families than any state in the nation. We have more women in the work force than any state in the nation. We have more people working two or three jobs than anywhere else." She concluded that "minimum wage in this state is not a big issue." The book on Bachmann, and it's at times very apparent, is that when she's off-message, she's doomed.
A few days earlier, Bachmann was on a congressional candidate panel at Farm Fest 2006, in Redwood Falls, far out of her district. There were displays of farm equipment everywhere, and about 300 people had gathered under a white tent to hear the candidates field questions. Bachmann immediately made a point of saying she "married a dairy farmer" and spoke of the days when she and Marcus would milk the cows on his father's farm.
"That's something that certainly doesn't fit with my image of Michele," chuckles Michael LaFave when told of this. Bachmann is petite to the point of looking frail. She often is surrounded by people—supporters, staffers, fellow politicians, Marcus—who seem intent on sheltering her from any outside forces. From a distance, she looks youthful and composed. Up close, she appears at once older and less self-assured. In short, she's made for television. At Farm Fest, she looked completely out of her element.
There were complicated questions about farm policy—What's your stance on crop insurance? Should the current farm bill be extended?—that, in fairness, made sense to only four or five of the nine candidates on the panel. But while some candidates simply admitted as much, Bachmann repeatedly referred to "marrying into a farm family" in weaving answers that never quite got around to the questions.
In response to a complex question about setting up a permanent disaster fund for farmers and ranchers who raise beef cattle, Wetterling balked and admitted she didn't really understand the question or have an answer. Bachmann, by contrast, dove right in. "I appreciate the question, because on our dairy farm, we raise beef cattle as well," she began. "One thing we can never, ever, ever get away from is that we are not two separate entities: Commodities. Livestock. If there's anything that can interact, it's commodities and livestock. Without commodities, you don't have livestock. It's just that simple."
She concluded by noting that, as a mother of the sum of 28 children, she has learned that when families don't get fed, "they get cranky."
This drew a small chuckle from the crowd, but it was an uncomfortable one. One farmer turned to the one sitting next to him, shaking his head. "What the fuck is she talking about?" he wanted to know.
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