Representation and responsiveness in local government

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Scholars of racial politics sometimes pay less attention to the local political arena than they do to other political contexts. That is a mistake. Local democracy presents an especially compelling venue for assessing and understanding core questions of race, representation and responsiveness in American politics. For one thing, local politics offers racial minorities a relatively accessible point of entry into the political realm. One can regularly witness the delivery of a wide range of basic municipal services and one need not travel far to reach city hall or other local agencies. Local democracy also has the potential to alter the well-being of the minority population. In an era of policy devolution, the nation’s municipalities spend over a trillion dollars annually on diverse policies that significantly shape the lives of their residents. In addition, substantial variation across localities offers researchers the ability to gain key insights into questions that are difficult to answer at the national or state level. A large number of cities and greater diversity in terms of institutional structure, demographics, behavior, and outcomes at the local level opens the door to robust empirical assessments of questions of representation and responsiveness. Finally and perhaps most importantly, racial minorities may be more able to affect political outcomes at the local level than at any other level of government. Racial segregation across municipal boundaries means that racial groups that are small minorities and largely insignificant at the national level can be major players within the cities in which they are concentrated. The national population is only 15 percent Latino and 13 percent African American but the average Latino lives in a city that is over 40 percent Hispanic and the average African American in a city that is 35 percent black (Hajnal 2009). Thus, where minorities live, they make up a substantial portion of the population and as such could have a real say in who wins or loses. For all of these reasons, studies of local democracy can inform the rest of the field and provide real insight into the functioning of race in American politics.

While the motivation for studying race at the local level is particularly pronounced, the core questions driving the study of racial politics are the same at any level. To understand race and its role in the local democracy urban scholars have addressed roughly the same five questions that have engaged researchers elsewhere. 1) Is race a relevant category? 2) How well represented are minorities at the individual level? 3) How well represented are minorities at the elite level? 4) How responsive is the political system to minority interests? 5) And finally, how can minority representation and influence be enhanced? In this essay I provide an overview of the racial politics literature in the field of local politics by assessing existing answers to these five core questions. In so doing, I highlight aspects of the literature that are incomplete and identify areas of research that are likely to be particularly fruitful. I conclude by noting some of the important recent trends in urban politics and by linking these recent developments to critical emerging questions that urban race scholars have yet to tackle in a complete or rigorous way.

Is Race a Relevant Category?

Many scholars of racial politics simply assume that race is an important demographic variable that shapes political preferences. Establishing the relevance of race as category in political decision making is, however, a vital prior question in any political arena. Are divisions across racial groups really substantial? Do racial groups actually form cohesive political blocs? Does race ultimately drive political preferences? Fortunately, a number of urban scholars have engaged these questions. Although some of the answers they have offered – especially in regards to the behavior of newer immigrant based pan-ethnic groups – can be viewed as fragmentary, there is little debate that pronounced racial divisions do exist at the local level.

Surveys of preferences on local spending and service delivery all generally find significant racial divisions with whites especially concerned about attracting development and businesses, reducing taxes, and expanding quality of life services (Alozie and McNamara 2008, Welch et al 2001, Bobo et al 2000, Deleon 1991, and Clark and Ferguson 1983, Lovrich 1974). By contrast, minority residents (especially American Africans) tend to be more concerned about redistribution and social services.

In terms of the vote, two patterns are evident. First, a range of studies of local elections has found that racial divisions are typically substantial and generally outweigh other demographic divides (DeLorenzo 1997, Adams 1994, Stein and Kohfeld 1991, McCrary 1990, Pinderhughes 1987, Browning et al 1984, Lieske and Hillard 1984). Second, these and other studies have demonstrated great variability in the size of racial divisions (Kaufmann 2004, Mollenkopf 2008, DeLeon and Naff 2004). Tensions and divisions between racial groups tend to be less pronounced when minority groups are smaller and when minority candidates run deracialized campaigns (Hajnal 2007, Perry 1991, Liu 2003). There are also signs that racial divisions are declining over time as whites gain experience with minority leadership in the local political arena (Hajnal 2007, Stein et al 2005). Racial divisions also vary markedly across groups. At different times, under different contexts, research has found significant divisions and active coalitions between almost any two racial and ethnic groups (Barreto 2007, Rocha 2007, Collet 2005, Meier et al 2004, Kim 2000, Saito 1998, Stowers and Vogel 1994, Jennings 1994, Sonenshein 1993, Hero 1989). Broader studies, however, suggest that in most elections, the black-white divide tends dwarf all other racial divides (Hajnal 2009). Hajnal (2009) using perhaps the most extensive sample of local elections found that the difference between black and white support for winning candidates averaged an alarming 50 percentage points. Blacks and Latinos and blacks and Asian Americans were typically the next most opposed voting blocs (a 43 point and 28 point divide respectively). By contrast, voting patterns in most contexts suggest that a coalition between Latino, Asian American, and white voters might be viable.

Studies of the vote can also inform us about the degree to which each racial and ethnic group works together as a united political community. This is an especially important question for Latinos and Asian Americans, two groups that are often seen as divided by national origin, diverse immigrant experiences, and divergent socioeconomic outcomes (Lien et al 2004, de la Garza 1992). Few studies directly address this question at the local level but the research that does exist strongly suggest that America’s four largest racial and ethnic groups can be viewed as cohesive voting blocs (Barreto 2007, Collet 2005 but seeWarren et al 1997).1 Hajnal (2009) finds that although there is considerable variation in cohesiveness across groups - with blacks being the most cohesive and Asian Americans being the least – even the least cohesive group votes together much more than chance would predict. The fact that 73 percent of Latinos and 67 percent of Asian Americans end up voting for their group’s favored candidate in the typical mayoral contest indicates that the issues and candidates that arise in local contests enable voters from both pan-ethnic groups to overcome at least some of their internal divisions.

Although urban scholars have successfully demonstrated that race is regularly and strongly reflected in the candidates we choose, they have been far less engaged and less successful in determining why race matters. Some early studies suggested that white aversion to minority candidates was largely driven by racial prejudice (Sears and Kinder 1971). But other research suggests that racial divisions can reflect ideological or partisan divides (Abrajano and Alvarez 2005, Bullock and Campbell 1984). And still others point to differences over public services and government performance (Stein et al 2005). Almost no research has been able to assess each of these different factors simultaneously and no urban study has been able to analyze the factors behind racial bloc voting in more than a handful of elections. Race clearly matters in the urban arena but it is unclear why it matters.

Access to the Vote

For any group, the first and often the most critical step in gaining incorporation into a democracy is access to the vote. While it is clear that this access was effectively denied to most of the minority population for much of the nation’s history, the recent record is more ambiguous (Klinkner and Smith 1999, Almageur 1994, Kim 1999). Studies of the urban vote closely mirror research on minority participation at other levels in that racial and ethnic minority participation exhibits strong gains over time as well as ongoing disparities. Today, in a typical local contest, white adults are almost twice as likely as Asian American or Latino adults to participate and marginally more likely than African American adults to vote (Hajnal 2009, Verba et al 1995, Leighley 2001).2 Much of the gap in local participation is undoubtedly due to disparities in citizenship and socioeconomic status but few studies have analyzed urban residents to assess why minority participation is so low and whether racial barriers continue to play a role (but see Barreto et al 2006, Wong 2006, Garcia Bedolla 2005, Marschall 2001, Jones-Correa 1998).3

Descriptive Representation

The next step in the process of attaining full incorporation generally is winning office. As enshrined in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, one of the fundamental rights that minorities have in American democracy is an equal chance to elect representatives of their choice. The struggle of minorities to win office at the local level was largely unsuccessful for most of American history. With the exception of brief period during Reconstruction when African Americans attained substantial local representation throughout the South African American, Latino, and Asian American office holding was almost non-existent at the local level. As late as 1960, less than 300 blacks held elected local offices across the entire nation (Jaynes and Williams 1989). Latino and Asian American office holders were even rarer at that point. However, the last half century has seen enormous growth in minority representation in local democracy. Already fourteen of the 25 largest cities have had a black mayor, Latinos have garnered the mayoralty in Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and Denver. And Asian Americans have done so in Honolulu and San Jose. More broadly, blacks now hold over 10,000 local offices, while Latino and Asian American office holders now number over 4000 and 1000 respectively at the local level (APALC 2007, JCPS 2003, NALEO 2009). No small fraction of the urban racial politics literature has been devoted to describing and explaining these successes (Colburn and Adler 2001, Rosales 2000, Perry 1996, Rich 1987, Keiser 1997, Hero 1989). Indeed, some of the most colorful and enthralling scholarship highlights these struggles for power (Kaufman 2004, Sonenshein 1993, Rivlin 1992, Grimshaw 1992).

Despite these gains, racial minorities remain grossly underrepresented at the local level. Although the national population is now roughly 13 percent African American, only 4.3 percent of city council positions are held by blacks. Latinos are even worse off, occupying 2.1 percent of city council positions while representing almost 15 percent of the nation’s population. Asian Americans hold a negligible fraction of all council positions (0.3 percent) despite making up 5 percent of the national population.4 Mayors are also primarily white. Of all the nation’s mayors, only about 2 percent are black, less than 1 percent are Latino, and a tiny fraction are Asian American (APALC 2007, JCPS 2003, NALEO 2008). At least in terms of who wins office, white America continues to dominate the local political arena.
Barriers to Descriptive Representation

An even larger fraction of the urban racial politics literature has focused on identifying the barriers that are preventing more widespread minority success and outlining reforms that might help to reduce the ongoing underrepresentation of minorities in local democracy. In many cases, the primary barrier to minority electoral victory is clear. Accounts of early black efforts to obtain local electoral offices almost invariably focused on the reluctance of white voters to support black candidates. Extensive analysis of hundreds of different contests showed that in a typical bi-racial contest, black candidates could expect between 70 and 90 percent of all white voters to oppose them (Stein and Kohfeld 1991, Loewen 1990, McCrary 1990, Murray and Vedlitz 1978). These early black candidates could also expect massive white counter mobilization. In most contests in which black challengers won the mayoralty in a city for the first time, white turnout reached record proportions (Hajnal 2009). As already noted, it is not always clear why white voters resist minority empowerment, but in these early contests racial fears and campaigns that played on those fears appeared to play a major role. Campaign slogans like those in Atlanta (“Atlanta is too young to die”), Chicago (“Save Your City”) and Los Angeles ("Will your city be safe with this man?") were perhaps the starkest signs that white racial fears were rampant but studies by Rosales (2000), Sonenshein (1993), Rivlin (1992), and others have highlighted a wide array of evidence of white fear and racial anger.

Fortunately, research on more recent elections suggest that racial fears and racially motivated opposition to black empowerment may be declining. Local campaigns now rarely play on racial fears, turnout in these contests has plummeted over time, and white support for black challengers has risen dramatically – although still typically falls well below majority support (Hajnal 2009). Importantly, patterns of white resistance have typically been more muted in response to recent efforts by Latinos and Asian Americans to win local office (Abrajano and Alvarez 2005, Sonenshein and Pinkus 2002, Munoz and Henry 1997, Hero 1992, Saito 1998 but see Horton 1995). Asian American elected officials tend, in fact, to come primarily from districts where Asian Americans are not the majority (Uhlaner et al 1989, Lai 2000).

The second main barrier highlighted by the literature is institutional structure. Research has been able to link a range of local electoral institutions to diminished minority representation.

Among the institutions cited as detrimental to minority or lower-class interests, at-large elections get the most attention. There is obviously a compelling logic behind viewing at-large elections as a barrier. In an at-large system, if the white population can coordinate and vote for the same set of candidates, they can control every council seat in every locality where they comprise a majority of the active electorate. With few exceptions, extensive research demonstrates the harmful impact of at-large elections (Trounstine and Valdini 2008, Hajnal and Trounstine 2005, Grofman and Davidson 1994, Welch 1990, Engstrom and McDonald 1982 but see Bullock and MacManus 1990). Although the effects are not as consistent across context or across minority groups, urban research has also linked local minority representation to nonpartisan elections (Bridges 1997, Karnig and Welch 1980), term limits (Thompson and Moncrief 1993), council size (Alozie and Manganaro 1993, Alozie 1992, Bullock and MacManus 1987), and election timing (Hajnal 2009, Bullock and MacManus 1987). In general, these studies tend to find the most pronounced effects for black representation but it is clear that Hispanic representation is also limited by the current institutional structure of many American cities. Future research will, however, have to do more to see how these and other potentially damaging institutional barriers affect Asian American representation – a group that has largely been overlooked to date. Another important next step will be to see how institutional structure interacts with levels of segregation and the degree of locally polarized voting to impact minority representation.

A number of other less well documented barriers also play a role in limiting minority representation. Chief among these other factors is minority resources. Minorities fail to achieve electoral victory in the local political arena often simply because they do not have sufficient numbers in the population to sway outcomes, the financial wherewithal to run competitive campaigns, or adequate numbers of qualified and experienced candidates. The two factors that most explain black representation, according to Karnig and Welch (1980), are the size and the educational level of the black population. A similarly strong relationship between population size and black and Latino representation is also evident in other studies (O’Hare 1990, Browning et al 1984, Hajnal 2007). Whether a comparable relationship exists for Asian American representation is not clear. Finally, several recent studies have also highlighted the role that local party organizations can play in impeding minority success (Trounstine 2008, Wong 2006, Rogers 2004, Jones-Correa 1998, Grimshaw 1992).

Is there anything we can do to alleviate the gross underrepresentation of racial minorities in local office? Several scholars have noted the critical impact minority turnout can have on minority representation and in some cases have suggested reforms that could lead to greater minority mobilization (Ramirez and Wong 2006, Hajnal 2009, Browning et al 1984). Others have highlighted the key role that individual leaders can play in fostering cross-over votes and expanding minority representation (Sonenshein 1993). There is also ample evidence that minority candidates can often enhance their chances for electoral victory by running deracialized campaigns (Liu 2003, Underwood 1997, Perry 1991). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is institutional reform. In addition to commonly advocated reforms like district elections and term limits, scholars have pointed to the enormous benefits that cumulative voting has fostered in the small number of localities where it has been installed (Bowler et al 2003).
Substantive Representation

The ultimate measure of how responsiveness a political system is to minority interests is substantive representation. We care about who votes and who is elected but in the end it is what government does that determines how well democracy serves minority interests. Urban scholars – like other political scientists – have devoted considerable attention trying to evaluate the substantive representation of racial and ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, either because they do not have good measures of minority views on specific local policy areas or because it is hard aggregate responsiveness across different policy arenas, those efforts have not resulted in a definitive overall assessment of how well local democracy serves minority interests. Nevertheless, researchers have produced a range of important insights into different aspects of minority representation at the local level.

Despite the lack of an overall accounting of minority substantive representation, few urban scholars would argue that racial and ethnic minorities are fully incorporated into the local political arena. Several strands of research imply that minority influence is limited. The largest is the urban power literature. The urban power literature generally does not focus on questions of race and ethnicity. Nevertheless, in addressing what is perhaps the core question of the urban politics field this exhaustive literature does seek to determine which players are dominant in local government decision-making. The most common answer – albeit one that is more than occasionally disputed – is that monied interests hold a disproportionate amount of influence (Peterson 1981). Most in-depth studies of cities find that they are largely ruled by growth machines that enact policies to try to ensure greater development (Bridges 1997, Elkin 1987, Logan and Molotch 1987). The underlying logic is that because cities have to compete with each other for mobile capital, they must seriously consider reducing taxes and providing a mix of services that is most likely to attract and/or retain more privileged economic interests. (Peterson 1981, Tiebout 1956). If true, racial and ethnic minorities are often going to be on the outside looking in.

At the same time, a range of pluralist studies beginning with Dahl (1967) has found that at least certain local decision are open to influence from a greater range of actors and that the larger public, if mobilized, can sway outcomes. To this pluralist view point can be added two other theories of urban policy making, an institutionalist approach which stresses the importance of federal structure and certain local institutions in shaping local outcomes and a bureaucratic account which suggests that local policy is often the result of technical decisions that way actual needs (Pelissero and Krebs 1997, Mladenka 1981, 1980). Most recent empirical studies suggest that local decision making is complex and that all of these different factors are likely to play a role (Hajnal 2009, Feiock and West 1993, Sharp and Maynard-Moody 1991).

Also relevant is analysis of local government budgeting which indicates that local spending tends not to mirror minority preferences. Although surveys show that minority residents tend to prioritize redistributive policies like welfare, housing, and education, studies indicate that redistributive spending accounts for only 8 percent of local expenditures (Hajnal 2009). Developmental spending for policies designed to spur growth and business – an arena that is typically favored by privileged, white interests - accounts for twice as much spending.

Finally, there are a range of studies of the substantive representation of minorities in specific policy arenas. Here again, research tends to find that minority interests are not particularly well served in the local political arena. Several analyses show significant racial disparities in local education policy and outcomes (Henig et 2001, Fraga et al 1997, Meier et al 1991, Polinard et al 1994) and in police practices (Davis 1992 but see Lewis and Ramkrishnan 2007).

These overarching conclusions do, however, belie considerable variation across cities and contexts. Research suggests that the biggest factor determining whether minorities are well represented in local policy decisions is whether or not they are a part of the governing coalition (Keiser 1997, Portes and Stepick 1993, Stone 1989, Browning et al 1984). In cities, where minorities are part of the dominant regime, outcomes can be closely aligned with minority preferences.

Studies also indicate that descriptive representation can enhance the substantive representation of minority interests. The effects are generally small in magnitude but there is evidence that black leadership can have a significant impact on minority public employment (Kerr and Mladenka 1994, Mladenka 1989), police practices (Marschall and Shah 2007, Salzstein 1989), education policies (Meier and England 1984 but see Henig et al 2001), and social welfare spending (Karnig and Welch 1980). These effects are generally not large enough to noticeably improve the economic well-being of the African American community (Thompson 1996, Sonenshein 1993, Colburn and Adler 1991, Perry 1990). While considerably less effort has been devoted to understanding the substantive impact of Latino leadership at the local level, the early research finds few signs of major shifts in policy (Rosales 2000, Munoz 1994, Hero and Beatty 1989 but see Hero 1990, Polinard et al 1994). If descriptive representation does have a major impact, it may be more symbolic in nature. Minority representation has been linked to increased interracial cooperation (Hajnal 2007, Stein et al 2005), greater minority efficacy (Bobo and Gilliam 1990) and expanded minority participation (Barreto 2007).

Surprisingly little research has sought to identify reforms that could lead to expanded substantive representation for racial and ethnic minorities. Obviously, more frequent entry into local governing coalitions and increases in the number of minorities in office would help but it is not immediately clear how to achieve either goal. Much of the best work on this subject has attempted to understand how institutional structures mediate the ability of racial minorities to obtain greater substantive representation. Leal et al (2004) and Polinard et al (1994) have both shown how a move to district elections could aid Latino educational outcomes. More broadly, Bridges (1997) has illustrated how a move away from reform institutions might promote lower-class, minority interests. In related research, Hajnal and Trounstine (2005) and Browning et al (1984) have demonstrated the potentially beneficial effects of expanded minority participation and Hajnal (2009) has highlighted a move to on-cycle local elections as a way to garner those extra votes. Indications are that reform to the rules governing municipal annexation and other features of municipal boundary making could further minority substantive representation (Burns 1994). There are also signs that minority substantive representation may through various avenues be linked to increased use of private contractors for government services (Stein 1990), or decreased residential segregation (Pastor 2001, Massey and Denton 1993, Cohen and Dawson 1993). More work will, however, have to be done before the factors governing the substantive representation of minorities are fully understood.


These results are, in many ways, not that different from the racial story told at the national level. It is clear at both the local and at the national level that race matters. In both democratic arenas substantial racial divides exist and minority groups tend to vote cohesively. In both contexts, outcomes for minorities are generally improving but minorities still tend to lag well behind whites in participation, elite representation, and in substantive impact.

This review does, however, reveal at least one critical arena where the two literatures diverge. The study of race at the national level has perhaps more than anything else dealt with the question of why race matters (Hutchings 2004, Kinder and Sander 1994, Carmines and Stimson 1989, Sniderman and Carmines 1997, Abramowitz and Saunders 1998). Do racial attitudes and racial policies drive racial differences or can these differences be explained by other factors? These kinds of questions have only intermittently been the focus of the urban politics literature. We know that there are substantial racial differences in terms of local political participation, local policy views, and local candidate choice, but we are much less certain about the sources of these racial differences. Fortunately, although the urban literature aimed at understanding why race matters is relatively underdeveloped, the ability to answer these kinds of questions is probably greater at the local level than it is at the national level. The large number of cities and enormous variation that occurs across cities make empirical investigations of racial differences that much easier to undertake. As urban scholars we may have failed to answer one of the most critical questions related to race and politics but we do have the tools and the data to rectify that omission and perhaps even to inform the larger racial politics literature.
Emerging Questions

The dramatically shifting racial demographics of the nation’s urban centers not only reinforces the need to learn more about traditional race politics questions, it also raises new lines of inquiry that urban scholars are only beginning to address. Foremost among these new lines of inquiry are a range of questions about how and where Latinos and Asian Americans fit into urban democracy. Early research has raised real doubts as to how well local democracy is incorporating these two largely immigrant based populations but much more work needs to be done (Wong 2006, Rogers 2006, Jones-Correa 1998). In light of the lack of citizenship or even legal status of much of this population, there is a real need to assess more informal or grass-roots political activity (Barretto et al 2009, Ramakrishnan and Bloemraad 2008.) More broadly, scholars need to analyze not just the level of local incorporation but also work to uncover the factors that govern that incorporation. Given the range of factors like national origin, immigrant status, and socioeconomic status that could divide these diverse pan-ethnic groups, more research aimed at understanding divisions with these two political communities is also essential. Even more important are studies that lead to a better understanding of inter-group relations. With whom are Latino and Asian American residents in coalition with and why? Similarly, which groups tend to oppose Latino and Asian American initiatives at the local level? A number of scholars have offered interesting theories concerning racial conflict and coalition-building in a multi-racial world (Jones-Correa 2001, Jennings 1994, Carmichael and Hamilton 1967). But systematic, empirical tests of these group relations theories are still rare.5 We know, for example, that blacks and Latinos sometimes work together in the urban arena (McClain and Karnig 1990) and sometimes end up in sharp conflict (Vaca 2004) but we have no empirical study that can rigorously explain that variation. These are major omissions. In an increasingly complex, multi-racial urban environment answers to these questions are likely to tell us a lot about who will win and who will lose in urban democracy.

The ongoing suburbanization of America also makes it imperative that we learn more about racial politics in the suburbs. There are already a number of important studies of suburban politics (Oliver and Ha 2007, Oliver 2001, Gamm 1994). But the literature is, as a whole, still very underdeveloped – especially when it comes to questions of race. As suburbs grow in their share of the population and as these previously white enclaves become more racially diverse, it is increasingly vital that we understand how and why suburban politics is different. Finally, it might behoove urban race scholars to consider the impact of new fiscal strains on the representation and well-being of racial minorities in the urban arena. Is the current economic crisis and the tendency of state governments to usurp funds from their localities impinging upon the ability of racial minorities to shift resources so that they more closely mirror minority preferences? Likewise, is greater global competition creating even more incentive for cities to pursue a developmental agenda that might limit minority gains? It is possible that these two trends may change but in the immediate future it is important to consider how urban leaders are coping with trying to do more with less.
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1Other scholars have tried to identify and explain demographic divides within each racial and ethnic group. Although most studies find few substantial demographic divides within the black electorate, there are times when significant class divisions do emerge (Drake and Clayton 1945, Adams 1994). We know less about class divisions in the Latino or Asian American vote in local elections. The biggest divides within these two pan-ethnic groups in local contests are likely to be related to nation of origin but here as well only limited systematic data has been compiled (Collet 2005, Saito 1998, Warren et al 1997).

2 Racial disparities in the urban vote appear to be even more pronounced than imbalances in national contests (Hajnal 2009)

3 Studies of local civic engagement reveal similarly large racial gaps in participation ( Wong 2001, Ramakrishnan and Baldassare 2004 )

4 Figures are from the 2001 ICMA survey.

5 There are, however, several interesting studies of group relations in a particular city or policy arena (Kim 2000, Saito 1998). Of the studies that offer more systematic empirical evaluations of group dynamics in the political arena almost all have used public opinion surveys rather than actual political behavior as their data points (Bobo et al 2000, Cummings and Lambert 1997, Jackson et al 1994, Kaufmann 2000). These surveys of individuals taken either in one city or nationwide are helpful for generating hypotheses about the determinants of inter-group conflict and cooperation but it is clear that expressed attitudes and actual behavior can and often do differ.

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