Dominic Pileggi: The Grown-Up

Pileggi outside his home in Chester. Photography by Colin Lenton

Pileggi outside his home in Chester. Photography by Colin Lenton

At the Court Diner in Media, the rest of the table orders chipped beef, pancakes and omelets. Then the waitress asks Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi what he’d like to eat.

“Wheat toast. Dry.”

Dominic Pileggi, 56 years old, is the straight man of Pennsylvania politics, a figure who at first blush is as dull as his breakfast in a statehouse overpopulated by the corrupt, the comical, and a large and growing cohort of ultra-conservatives.

By design, Pileggi rarely makes headlines. By nature, his thinking is nuanced and his politics are precise. He smiles and talks far less than most politicians. Actually, he smiles and talks less than most morticians.

No matter. When Pileggi, whose district includes parts of Delaware and Chester counties, does speak, the entire capital listens — very closely. “He is the most powerful person in Harrisburg,” says Ed Rendell, within seconds of being asked about Pileggi. “He may have been the most influential person in Harrisburg when I was governor.”

It would be hard to argue with Rendell. At the Pennsylvania Society, that annual December bacchanal of the state’s political class held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Pileggi stood at the front of a receiving line hundreds deep at his invite-only affair, the queue chockablock with lawmakers and lobbyists and executives keen to pay homage. That speaks to Pileggi’s political talents, of course, but it’s also a referendum on the sorry state of governance in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth has rarely been known for better-than- average public-sector effectiveness. But the current rot goes well beyond the state’s middling norm.

Tom Corbett is among America’s least popular governors. Our Supreme Court is riven by a vicious feud and tainted by corruption. Tea Party conservatives have hijacked the House, and in the past five years, the General Assembly as a whole has lost five of its most ruthless — and effective — operators to scandal, including Philadelphia’s own Vince Fumo and John Perzel.

Indeed, Philly’s standing in Harrisburg has arguably never been weaker. Worse, every few weeks brings fresh news that the city’s delegation is not just impotent, but venal: In January, State Rep J.P. Miranda and his sister were charged by District Attorney Seth Williams with conflict of interest, perjury and criminal conspiracy. In March, State Senator LeAnna Washington was hit with felony corruption charges by Attorney General Kathleen Kane for allegedly dragooning her taxpayer-funded staff into campaign work. A week later, the Inquirer broke the story that Kane had dropped a problematic probe into four more city lawmakers alleged to have been caught on tape taking cash from a lobbyist-turned-informant.

And Pileggi? In this field of scrub pines, he stands out like a redwood.

Ask around, and you’ll find precious few serious Pileggi critics. He has fans in the press, who appreciate the remarkably strong open-records law he pushed through a reluctant Harrisburg in 2008. His caucus, though more conservative than he, knows he won’t charge ahead without them. Democrats are almost pathetically appreciative of Pileggi’s willingness to include them, to seriously think over their arguments. And Philadelphia’s leaders consider him nothing short of the best friend the city has in the state’s Republican power structure.

“He’s the competent grown-up,” a Democratic Senate staffer says, sighing reluctantly. “You have a dysfunctional House, you have a governor and administration that after four years don’t know what they’re doing. And you have Pileggi.”

Atlantic City’s New Don

Atlantic City New Jersey's Gay Republican Mayor Colin Lenton

No day at the beach: With A.C.’s troubles, Guardian has his work cut out for him
Photo by Colin Lenton

Long after most of the other dignitaries—particularly the white ones—have quietly exited, Mayor Don Guardian remains in a front pew at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on Arctic Avenue in Atlantic City.

The ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is two hours in, and shows no signs of stopping soon. The tenor and message of the ceremony would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in an African-American church in a city with as many problems as Atlantic City. There is talk of the progress made toward equality, and the challenges that remain, but also frequent mentions of street violence, unemployment, poverty and hard times.

Speaker after speaker looks Guardian’s way. Welcome, Mayor, they say to the tall, white, impeccably dressed Republican with a brown homburg in his lap. Their voices are warm, the overtures are clearly genuine—and yet there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of bewilderment, as though they’re not entirely sure how Guardian came to be sitting there.
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Philadelphia’s School Crisis: A City On The Brink

Photography by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

My family and I moved out of Philadelphia last year. We did so reluctantly, and with a crippling heaping of guilt.

It wasn’t the crime, or the taxes, or the grit. No, we left for the same reason that untold thousands have decamped for the suburbs before us: the crummy state of the city’s public schools, a chronic and seemingly immutable fact of life in Philadelphia.

The failings go way beyond the typical struggles of a big urban district. In December, the latest national assessment found that just 14 percent of Philadelphia fourth-graders were proficient or better at reading, compared to 26 percent in other big cities and 34 percent nationally. Of the 25 largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia ranks 22nd in college degree attainment. Graduates of the School District of Philadelphia are particularly bad off; only about 10 percent of district alums go on to get degrees.

Still, it wasn’t the statistics that drove us away. It was the deflating sense that there was no clear and affordable path for our two young kids to get the education they need—particularly our son, who has some special needs. Despite our love for the city, our belief that Philadelphia is genuinely on the rise, and endless conversations in which we tried to rationalize staying, my wife and I decided we had to leave. The day the moving van arrived, I didn’t feel angry so much as I felt ashamed. That embarrassment is, I think, not entirely uncommon. And it’s a sign that the failings of the city’s schools are damaging Philadelphia even more than in the past.

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Helen Gym: The Agitator


Helen Gym Parents United P.A.

Photograph by Colin Lenton

Helen Gym advances, and Mayor Nutter inches warily back. She waves a thick stack of papers at him, each sheath a complaint lodged by parents lamenting the calamitous conditions in Philadelphia’s reeling public schools. There’s the kid with dangerous asthma at the school without a nurse on hand. The dyslexic, orphaned high-school senior applying for colleges with no counselor to lean on. The bullying victim who fled Overbrook High only to find it impossible to enroll at another school.

“This is what we’re fighting against,” Gym tells Nutter. The Mayor is just a few yards from his office door, but he’s the one shifting his feet, looking to get away.

Minutes earlier, Gym had wrapped up a news conference in the ornate Mayor’s Reception Room, where, with the assistance of City Council, she’d usurped a podium usually used by Nutter and his invited guests. Gym and her allies were there to tout their latest pressure tactic: written complaints designed to compel the state to meet basic education standards and shake loose some badly needed dollars for the district.

“It would be nice to have your support, Mayor,” Gym tells him. Nutter issues a few noncommittal mumbles, cleans his glasses, and back-steps for the stairway. Gym shrugs. Powerful figures often look for the exits when she approaches.

That’s what happens when you develop a rep as perhaps Philadelphia’s preeminent public agitator. Relentless, whip-smart, meticulously prepared and utterly fearless, Gym—a private citizen who works without the heft of any meaningful institutional support—has managed to build herself one of the city’s largest bully pulpits.

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How Paul Levy Created Center City

Photo-illustration by Nicolas Del Pesco.

Photo-illustration by Nicolas Del Pesco.

The smell. what could he do about the smell?

It was 1989, and Ron Rubin, the developer and quintessential Philadelphia power player, was lobbying Tiffany & Co. to open a shop in his newly renovated Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. A lot was riding on the Bellevue’s success—not just for Rubin, but for the whole of Center City. Rubin had snapped up the storied hotel on the cheap in 1978, just two years after the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak killed 34 guests. And he’d spent the past decade pouring cash into the old grande dame of Broad Street, with little to show for it. His company had missed loan payments. Too many rooms were vacant. Doubters said the building could never again make it as a hotel.

But Rubin was all in, to the tune of $100 million. He had converted 55,000 square feet into new retail space. And he wanted Tiffany & Co. as his anchor tenant, as proof that Center City could still attract an elite retailer.

But what to do about the stench?
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Ed Rendell Addresses Rumors He’s Running: Only If Things Got Really, Abysmally Bad

AP-rendell-940Just how desperate is Philadelphia?

Come 2015, the answer to that question might determine whether or not Ed Rendell seeks a third term as mayor.

In recent days, Rendell has downplayed his interest in returning to City Hall. He did so again in a brief phone interview this morning, telling me: “It’s not something that anybody should be thinking about.”

But Rendell does seem to be giving the idea some real thought.
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Kathleen Kane’s Gay Marriage Mutiny


At the bottom of a steep block on the west side of Scranton, next to a clapboard home with peeling white paint, there’s a pizza shop called Maroni’s. Inside, takeout boxes are piled in towers that nearly reach the ceiling, and Carmen Pellegrino, who’s owned the place for 31 years, is pounding dough and spreading cheese for a steady trickle of customers hungry for nourishment after praying at the Solemn Novena for Saint Ann at the basilica up the hill.

It seems an odd spot to meet the dynamic and glamorous Attorney General Kathleen Granahan Kane, a woman who, in the past 18 months, has emerged from nowhere to become Pennsylvania’s fastest-rising political star, Governor Tom Corbett’s nemesis, and, reputedly, a potential candidate for every higher office in the land, from governor to U.S. senator to—no kidding—a spot on a presidential ticket.

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Dick Morris In Exile

What is former Fox pundit Dick Morris doing on the radio in Philadelphia?

Dick Morris punched his ticket for Philadelphia in the week leading up to the presidential election. Most pundits expected a close finish. A good number predicted a thin victory for the President. Some, like the New York Times’s Nate Silver, foresaw an easy Obama win.

But not Dick. He’d been at the head of the GOP’s blithely delusional brigade all year long. The eve of the election was no time to quit. While others equivocated, Morris doubled down.

“We’re going to win by a landslide,” he said to Fox News’s Greta van Susteren, with a grin that seemed to stretch a foot wide. “It would be the biggest surprise in recent political history.” Up flashed an electoral map covered in Romney red. Morris proceeded to jump through a series of contorted logical hoops, citing the skewing of one poll and the unjust tweaking of another survey, and finished by predicting his candidate would not just take the battlegrounds of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, but would best Obama in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Hampshire and, yes, even Pennsylvania.

And then, the vote. Overnight, Morris became a national laughingstock. He was “a joke to every smart conservative in Washington and most every smart conservative under the age of 40,” Ross Douthat told Politico. He was the “king of wrong mountain,” said Jon Stewart.

Morris had, of course, long been reviled by many Democrats for selling out his old boss, Bill Clinton, but now he was suddenly persona non grata among respectable Republicans, too. GOP opinion-makers turned on him like he was a quack selling miracle tonic.

“I got to tell you something, people are furious with you right now,” Sean Hannity told Morris on Fox after the election.

That was among his last appearances on the network. After logging almost 15 years and some 3,000 interviews as a paid Fox contributor, Morris had been blacklisted. Fox made it formal in February, when it declined to renew his contract. It was a rare instance of actual accountability in the typically consequence-free world of political punditry. Dick Morris was so full of bullshit that even Fox was embarrassed to have him.

But not, apparently, Philadelphia.

Each weekday afternoon, from 2 to 6 p.m., Morris can now be heard on WPHT 1210’s afternoon call-in show, replacing Michael Smerconish, who jumped to satellite radio in mid-April.

As tempting as it is to dismiss Morris as a sideshow, that would be a mistake. Despite his spectacular flop last fall, Morris has an instinctual understanding of politics that shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly in a city with relatively few veterans of the Washington game. And Morris—unlike so many of the leading national blowhards—was once a political consultant of genuine consequence. Indeed, he arguably had as much to do with the nature of our national political culture—such as it is—as any consultant alive.

What’s more, there’s no indication Morris is just using WPHT as a pit stop. His eventual ambition is to build a syndicated empire, headquartered here in Philadelphia. And he is spending a surprisingly large chunk of airtime on thoroughly local affairs, from municipal tax policy to allegations of anti-Semitism on the Evesham school board.

Make no mistake: Dick Morris—a man ejected from the ranks of the national punditocracy as a charlatan and opportunistic say-anything hack—is attempting to inject himself into the already sordid world of Philadelphia politics. This could go one of two ways. Morris has the potential to emerge as a sharp, uncensored observer in a city with a circumspect civic dialogue—the leading local voice of the angry right, tipping over sacred political cows in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Or Morris could continue prancing down the path of glib, credibility-shattering commentary.

Either way, Morris’s fate as a public figure now looks to be in the hands of Philadelphia and its suburbs. Which, yes, sounds absurd, but no more absurd than anything else in Dick Morris’s life.

Desperately Seeking Leadership: Philadelphia’s Next Mayor

Photo by Clint Blowers. Philadelphia is looking for a mayor already, even though the next election isn't for two years.

Billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is in the final year of his three-term reign in New York. Onetime White House bully Rahm Emanuel runs Chicago. Former journalist Boris Johnson remains wildly popular in London. A leading candidate in Detroit’s 2013 election is Mike Duggan, a white businessman who recently moved back to the city from the suburbs.

Two years ago, voters in Kansas City chose a lawyer and first-time candidate named Sly James as mayor. He’s brought bow ties back into fashion, and lured Google to his city to build the nation’s fastest Internet service. Julián Castro was 34 years old when he was elected mayor of San Antonio after just four years on city council. Last year he electrified the Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech. So did Newark mayor Cory Booker, who also won office after a single term on council. And before Narberth native John Hickenlooper became one of the most popular governors in the country, he was mayor of Denver, a job he won having never run for public office before.

[>> So who should run for Philadelphia Mayor in 2015? Click here for our picks.]

[>> Or if you think you've got what it takes, apply to our Craigslist ad.]

And in Philadelphia? In Philadelphia, we get parochial hacks. Over and over and over again.

The early lineup for the 2015 mayoral election is an insipid collection of Council members, has-beens and legacy admits. Some are fundamentally unfit for the job. Most are ardent defenders of the status quo. And every last one of them would likely lose to Mayor Nutter—himself a pale shadow of what his supporters had hoped for—could he run for a third term.

The sons of as many as three former mayors may make bids, and the most di­sruptive of these—Councilman Bill Green—appears to have both lost his pep and alienated many potential supporters with his sometimes-abrasive personality. The current front-runner, Anthony Hardy Wi­lliams, is the lethargic heir to a West Philadelphia political machine who has spent nearly a quarter-century in the state House and Senate, with shockingly few accomplishments to show for it. Councilman-at-large Jim Kenney has logged more than two decades in City Hall, much of it in the service of the now-defunct Fumo organization. He seems to be in the mayoral mix mostly because he’s bored out of his mind on Council. The most-mentioned female candidate is septuagenarian former district attorney Lynne Abraham. The non-politicos openly flirting with bids are perennial electoral losers: Sam Katz, who has run for mayor three times and governor once (going 0-for-4), and millionaire Tom Knox, who floats his name for so many offices that he is fast becoming a punch line.

All of this would be distressing enough if Philadelphia were a perfectly average city with a well-run bureaucracy and a readily manageable set of problems. But it’s not. Instead, Philadelphia has the highest rate of deep poverty of any big city in the country, and is getting poorer every year. In the eyes of at least some Wall Street analysts, the city is a prime candidate for bankruptcy. Outside the expanding bubble of Center City, crime and blight are endemic. The school district is atrocious and only stands to get worse with catastrophic spending cuts looming.

And yet, even so, this is a moment of incredible opportunity for Philadelphia. The city is growing again. New arrivals from Bensalem and Brooklyn and Bangladesh are flocking here, in spite of City Hall’s fumbling. The millennials—God bless them—are giving the city a fighting chance.

It’s now entirely plausible to imagine Philadelphia evolving into a far more prosperous, better-educated and less violent place: a metropolis with character and grit and grace that finally reclaims its rightful crown as one of the world’s great cities.

But it’s equally easy to imagine the opposite. The calamitous conditions in low-income neighborhoods could slow and ultimately reverse Center City’s growth. A less prudent mayor than Nutter could quickly spend and borrow the city into outright insolvency. A collapsing school system could lead middle- and upper-class families to desert the city in droves, just as earlier generations did.

The point is that Philadelphia is—right now—in the midst of radical change. The city could tip one way (call it the way of tech-and-research hive Boston). Or it could tip the other (Detroit). Some years
matter more than others in a city’s trajectory. Some moments—and the chance to beat back 60 years of population decline is one of them—come along only once every few decades.

This is the opportunity that the city is poised to entrust to one of the usual suspects?

If only there were someone else.

City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer Just Can’t Get Along


Stephanie Singer is warming to her point.

For 45 minutes she has been explaining the arcane workings of elections in Philadelphia to a few dozen would-be reformers gathered in a classroom at the Community College of Philadelphia. Her presentation has included role playing, an accounting of the outsized political influence of the Jewish vote in Washington, D.C. (“What’s so special about Israel?” she asks. “France doesn’t get that kind of treatment”), and repeated references to her margin of victory in 2011’s Philadelphia elections.

But that was just buildup.

“I tell you what number I really care about. The number I really want is one million, one hundred thousand.” This, she says, is the total number of registered voters in Philadelphia. “I want to be able to go to the governor of Pennsylvania with that number … on my forehead, and say, ‘Help us with our school system. Or, ‘Governor, don’t get rid of general assistance.’” Now she starts to yell. “Or; ‘DO NOT SIGN THAT VOTER ID LAW!’”

There’s no denying that Singer’s presentation is stirring, if a bit unorthodox. She certainly has the crowd with her, so it’s easy to look past the fact that as a city commissioner, the 48-year-old Singer has as much pull with the Governor as any other individual Philadelphia voter, which is to say, none at all. It’s also easy to see why Singer, as recently as a year ago, was considered the fresh face of reform in Philadelphia, the woman who took on the notorious Marge Tartaglione—the epitome of the city’s onerous Democratic machine—and won with ease. As I watch her on this night, she’s earnest, intelligent and endearingly quirky, and it’s easy to see why this magazine (at my urging, no less) dubbed her Philadelphia’s best political newcomer in 2011.

Easy, that is, if you forget entirely that the past year has taken place.

“Wait,” a man in the audience says, early in the evening. “Who are you? Are you Singer?”

She nods. A look of compassion flickers across the man’s face. Then he blurts out: “What happened to you?

It’s a good question, and one that a lot of reform-minded Philadelphians have been asking. Almost 14 months after Singer took office vowing to bring “free and fair” elections to Philadelphia, she and her fellow commissioners are stonewalling a panel appointed by Mayor Nutter to probe Election Day irregularities. Meanwhile, Singer is now openly at war with her fellow commissioners, including reform Republican Al Schmidt, who took office with her and had been expected to play Joe Clark to her Richardson Dilworth. Instead, Schmidt masterminded a surprise coup, teaming up with sole incumbent commissioner Anthony Clark (a figure best known for spending as little time in the office as possible) to depose Singer from her chairmanship immediately after Election Day last fall.

One might expect a Republican-led putsch of a Democratic elections boss to generate major controversy in a city like Philadelphia. But the widespread perception was that Singer had bungled the job, and few Democrats objected. Consider that 12 days before the presidential election in November, Singer dashed off an email to 2,000 of her closest friends, including many in the media, that began: “As a woman, and as a Jew, I am horrified at the prospect of Republican control of government.” Singer went on, “If you are glad to see me doing the work I am doing, please consider this: It would have been much harder to dedicate myself to work through my entire adult life to date if I had to either prepare for the prospect of unplanned motherhood or forego that natural, healthy source of joy and comfort, sex.”

Uh, too much information, Commissioner? And too much partisanship as well, considering the email was sent on the eve of a contentious contest by the very woman responsible for overseeing a free and fair election in Philadelphia. And yet as glaring as her mistakes may have been, Singer’s quick political demise tells us as much about the city’s political culture as it does about her personal failings. In truth, reformers in Philadelphia usually disappoint, if not always quite so spectacularly.


Once upon a time, the three elected city commissioners had real power. Over the years, though, their duties—oversight of the courts and prison system, for instance—have been whittled away. Now the commissioners exist to do one thing and one thing only: administer Philadelphia’s elections.

It’s a challenging job, and one that requires a large staff of skilled civil service workers. It’s less clear that it makes sense to directly elect—and pay handsomely—three politicians to oversee an operation that, ideally, should be run as apolitically as possible. The commissioners are one of the body politic’s vestigial organs, like the tonsils or an appendix; they can cause all manner of problems, but it’s not entirely clear what good they do.

For 35 years, the office was the personal playpen of Tartaglione, a larger-than-life figure on the city’s political circuit. In the 1970s, she was arrested for supposedly moving voting machines—and was reelected. In the 1990s, she was called before a grand jury investigating suspected vote tampering—and was reelected again. She’s famous for physical altercations, including the time she knocked a cigar out of a fellow ward leader’s mouth, and once said of federal election observers dispatched to observe her office, “These young guys, they think they’re Hitler.” Tartaglione’s daughter, Renee Tartaglione, resigned her patronage job as her mother’s deputy in 2010 after the city Ethics Board concluded she violated the ethics code on nine separate occasions. And Carlos Matos, Renee Tartaglione’s husband (and Marge Tartaglione’s political ally), was sentenced to three years in prison for bribing three Atlantic City council members. To cap it all off, Tartaglione was a DROP-er, one of a handful of elected officials who “retired” to collect a lump-sum pension payment—in her case, $288,136—only to return to work a day later when their new terms in office began.

This was the swamp Stephanie Singer vowed to drain as she campaigned to replace Tartaglione in 2011. She seemed ideally suited to the job. Singer was relatively new to the city. She was smart. And she had a background that could not have been more different from that of a political mud wrestler like Tartaglione. A former Haverford College professor who specialized in the mathematics of atomic particles, Singer is the daughter of Washington, D.C., elites. Her father was a lawyer; her mother was an accomplished molecular biologist. Their family friends included the powerful and famous. (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiated at Singer’s first wedding.)

Yet for all that, Singer doesn’t come across as a refined intellectual. She’s an ebullient figure, with a mind that flits ea­sily—too easily, maybe—from one s­ubject to the next. She’s the sort of person who wears American-flag-themed sunglasses on Election Day and, when told she’s thought of as kind of kooky, embraces the description. “Look, if I were more perfect, I’d be a supermodel,” she says from her office on the first floor of City Hall. “I can live with kooky.”

During her 2011 campaign, Singer’s eccentricities came across as endearing. She was perfectly serious about the problems in the commissioners office, and she’d already shown—by publishing reams of city election data on her own website—that she was committed to transparency. And unlike some other reform candidates, Singer wasn’t too pure for party politics. In 2008, she was elected leader of Center City’s powerful Eighth Ward.

The more involved she became, the more fascinated—and disgusted—Singer grew. “This city’s political system, it’s a really robust organism, right? It keeps surviving,” she says. “And it was really, really interesting for me to learn how it works. We know who the powerful people are, but how are they powerful? What is the real action taken to exert that power? I was fascinated, because it certainly didn’t work the way I had been taught it worked in school.”

And Singer wasn’t alone in her crusade. Al Schmidt, 41, an equally compelling figure, was running for commissioner on the Republican ticket. Schmidt had made his local reputation by helping to lead an insurrection against the city’s complacent and incompetent Republican leadership. Like Singer, Schmidt was a PhD (political history, from Brandeis University) who’d moved to Philadelphia from Washington, where he was a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. And like Singer, he had impeccable reformer credentials.

They were smart, where the incumbents were dim (excepting Tartaglione, who is as wily as they come). They were forward-looking, where the old guard was stuck in the past. And, critically, there were two of them. It was a chance for a bipartisan housecleaning: Elect both—the GOP is effectively guaranteed at least one commission seat—and the reformers would have a majority of the three-member commissioners’ office.

Reform voters answered the call. (So did electricians union boss John Dougherty, but more on that later.) Singer and Schmidt both won handily. Tartaglione was banished, and the technocrats were ascendant. Surely all would soon be well.

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