04 April 2007

How I became a Libertarian activist

This essay was written in April 2002 following my internship with the John Sophocleus gubernatorial campaign. Be sure to buy Bob Murphy's new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism.

By last December, my time spent at Auburn University had left me tired of formal classes. I determined that I would take a semester doing anything but going to class. My desire was to find a way to stay out of the classroom while still earning academic credit, and, more importantly, to spend my time in such as way as to complement my studies thus far. December wore on, and one day I received an email from Scott Kjar. This was not an unusual occurrence. Since October, when I accepted the position of President of the Auburn University Libertarians, Scott had worked with me on a number of outreach tables for the Libertarian party. As a very active county coordinator for the state party, Scott had a great deal of experience with political activism. I was at that time a fledgling Libertarian, having been 'converted' only months before from my previous status as a small government conservative.

It all began in the summer of 2000. I was a resident advisor at The Commons, and I was essentially charged with keeping the peace in the building. Over the summer, The Commons is opened up to groups of foreign exchange students, and a strange group of multicultural economists who were described to me simply as the "mises". My interaction with these visitors was usually as simple as handing out keys to the game room or fitness room. One day, however, a man in his late twenties decided to be amicable as he exchanged his identification for a fitness room key. He introduced himself as Bob Murphy. I took this opportunity to try and learn a bit more about the group of economics students staying in 'my' building. He mentioned free markets, natural rights, and liberty. That combination piqued my interest, and I decided to try and learn a little more.

The rest of my summer was spent playing poker with Bob and some of his continental friends. This was a rather nice arrangement, as Bob and I generally left the table with all of the money. The summer came to a close, and I went back to being a resident advisor, trying to fight a losing battle against underage drinking. The year went by, and I was now out of The Commons, and living in a house in a family neighborhood. One day in May of 2001, I was on my way to the grocery store. This trip was not quite what I expected. On my way to the store, I saw Bob Murphy walking down the road, looking as though the heat was getting the best of him. As Bob describes the scene,

I was making the trek from CVS back to my humble abode in the Commons Dormitory in picturesque Auburn, Alabama. The merciless midday sun made me feel like one of those Mexican laborers crossing the border on foot in a botched endrun around the immigration officials. Just as my legendary endurance ebbed to nothingness, my deus ex machina entered; I heard a voice cry out, "Hey Bob!" As I know absolutely no one in Auburn (surprise surprise), it could only be the former RA of the Commons, Dick Clark. (Murphy 1)

I was surprised to see Bob, but was happy enough to give him a ride back to the dorm. During the brief trip, he explained that he had been chosen as a summer fellow at the Mises Institute. I remembered from the previous summer what the institute was fundamentally about, but I was still interested in learning more. That summer, I was enrolled in three classes that were to be crammed into five weeks. To compound the difficulty, I was schedule to leave in late June for some military training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Despite my somewhat hectic schedule, I made sure to find some time to discuss economics with Bob.

In those few weeks preceding my departure for Fort Knox, I learned a great deal about economics, as well as that word which so many around me have great reverence for—Liberty. I learned about basic market mechanisms, the true role that government plays, and how a consistent system of economics and ethics may be had. This was not exactly what the United States Army had in mind when they told me to train in preparation for Basic Camp.

At the end of June, I packed my bags, shaved my head, and boarded a plane headed for Kentucky. The five weeks spent studying at Auburn at the beginning of the summer were balanced by five weeks of physical and tactical training courtesy of Uncle Sam. Instead of learning about Homer's Odyssey, and the Lais of Marie de France, I became familiar with the M-249 machine gun, the AT-4 anti-tank rocket, and other implements of war. I learned how to move in the woods in such a way as to allow my squad to confront an enemy and win decisively. That five week training period was a bit different for me than for my buddies. While they were concerned about getting good evaluations, I was evaluating my own motivations for wanting to be an Army officer. I tried to apply my fledgling new set of ethics to a career as a soldier in the United States military, and I found that I could not. During the last week of training, our training officers had evaluated us sufficiently to determine who would be offered a scholarship. That day was the one I was supposed to be waiting for, but, as others excitedly discussed their possible branch choices, I quietly pondered my own choice. I knew then that I could not be an Army officer. I knew that I had to decline any scholarship that I was offered. Indeed, when I was called into the room with a young major and his lieutenant, I had already decided what I would say. "I'm sorry, Sir. I am afraid that I cannot accept this scholarship. I am an anarchist." I will leave to your imagination the look on that officer's face. His expression revealed to me that never before in his career had he heard that particular line. Despite my somewhat off-putting remark, the major began flipping through my evaluations, and asked me to reconsider. The lieutenant, a young woman who had recently graduated from Tuskegee University, chimed in to no avail. As I rose to leave, I thanked the two soldiers for the offer. Exiting the room, I walked through a throng of fellow cadets who were still discussing their opinions on the various service areas that lay open to them as future military officers.

Camp ended quickly, and as the jet landed in Birmingham, I could not quite think of how to explain to my parents why I declined a scholarship that would have paid for the rest of my schooling. As it turns out, I did not even have to explain. My parents knew that I had changed my mind, and they decided to support my decision. On that day, I looked forward to something which I had barely had time to think about at the training base.

Earlier that summer, Bob Murphy had tried his best to explain the tenets of the economic theory promoted by the Mises Institute. Since Bob was supposed to be working at the institute every day, he did not really have time to explain everything to me. What I really needed was a seminar. As it turns out, the Mises Institute is excellent for just that sort of thing. Bob recommended me for a scholarship to the Mises University seminar, scheduled for the middle of August. How convenient it was for me to be able to go from military training directly to academic training. My experience at the Mises Institute was a positive one, and I bankrupted myself buying books from their bookstore. By the seminar's end, I felt better equipped to explain my position. I had begun my new journey with an idea about why my position was ethically superior to others. After the seminar, I had a vague understanding of why my position made sense economically.

These experiences and others were in the back of my mind as I opened that email from Scott Kjar. The email declared Scott was the campaign manager for an Auburn economist named John Sophocleus who would be running for governor. Furthermore, his campaign desperately needed the services of that class of laborers lovingly known as "interns". My problems had been solved. I replied to Scott's email, volunteering my services for the spring semester. Upon my return to Auburn after winter break, I made the necessary arrangements to receive credit for my internship.

While I had worked a few outreach events in my leadership role with the AU Libertarians, I really had no idea what to expect when I went to work for John Sophocleus. I soon discovered that I would be doing many of the outreach events that I had done before. In addition to those activities, I would be responsible for doing certain research, and coordinating various campaign outings all over the state.

On Tuesday, 22 January, and Wednesday, 23 January, Paul Frankel (campaign research director) and I talked to three hundred eighty-seven Auburn students and faculty. This particular event was sponsored by the campus club, and was intended to show each person his or her place on the political spectrum. The hope was that those that scored in the libertarian area (eighty-five people over the two day span) would be interested enough to participate in future libertarian events. That week, twenty students attended an "Introduction to Libertarianism" speech given by Dr. Roderick Long of the philosophy department.

On the night following Dr. Long's speech, and the second day of outreach, the real campaign event took place. John Sophocleus spoke to an audience of thirty. As the first official campaign event for which I was responsible, I was proud of the turnout. I had been working on media mailing lists, ideas for the website, and other sundry tasks, but this was the first event where I saw smiling faces that I had persuaded to find out more about John Sophocleus. That evening, I realized that Paul Frankel had been right in his methods of attracting people to the event. His methods are simple. First, get the potential listener's attention with a one-line pick-up. You make eye contact. You approach them casually. You cannot be too aggressive, but you must be firm. You act as though you are selling something, but of course you would never admit it.

The individual will do one of three things. He might try and ignore you, refusing eye contact and brusquely stepping away. He might excuse himself by claiming that he is late for class, all the while shuffling by and looking down. The third and final individual, the listener, will stop, perhaps giving a false start or two away from you, and then concede defeat. He follows you to the table, you hand him a clipboard and pen, and the encounter takes shape. Henceforth, the encounter is run almost automatically by the repetitive performances ingrained in your mind. You have learned to direct him to the first question, so as to ease his confusion. You stand near by, your presence discouraging him from walking away without your approval. He finishes the ten questions, and hesitantly looks around, unsure of what to expect. You quickly herd him over to the chart, glancing at his quiz to determine where to place his sticker. You explain the chart, describing how the political spectrum is usually mischaracterized by the media as being from left to right. You complain that the media generalization is too simplistic. Now you have set the stage for the placement of your listener on the chart. Chances are, he is not a libertarian. Four out of five are authoritarian, conservative, liberal, or centrist. You quickly explain things to those folks, and get them on their way. When you find a libertarian, you do the real work. See, the whole endeavor is like a long fishing trip. You seek out the promising fish, and quickly release any that are not what you are looking for. The unwitting libertarians are quickly informed of their place in the world, and are given campaign and party literature, as well as a handbill announcing the next local event. You build up whatever speaker is on the piece of paper, and you let the guy go. Chances are, you will not see him at an event. In fact, the most likely place to find him is at the next outreach event, now brushing you off with a comment about having taken the quiz before. That is what it is all about.

Besides outreach tables, there are many campaign events to be held. Fundraisers are important, as they provide resources necessary for producing campaign literature, traveling to the next campaign event, and, eventually, buying paid media. In this business, every party event is a fundraiser. If you get any number of people in a room who are known supporters, you ask them to support the cause. You tell them about the success of the campaign thus far, and about the goals that could be accomplished. The goals generally require some financial backing, and that is how you make the sale. With Libertarian Party candidates, you will not find yourself meeting with corporate executives, wrangling for thousands of dollars in contributions. You get donations ranging from five dollars to two hundred, with the occasional five hundred dollar donation. Every dollar counts for a Libertarian candidate, and every donation means a thank you note from the candidate, and the assurance that one more person will be added to the campaign mailing list.

My most essential duty this semester was not doing outreach, or giving speeches, although I did plenty of both. As someone with a mechanically sound vehicle, I was required to provide transportation for myself, the candidate, and other members of the campaign team. Over the course of the semester, I covered more than ten thousand miles, almost completely within the state of Alabama. On 28 January, I drove to Huntsville with Paul Frankel. We stayed with Chris Brown, a local activist, and prepared for an outreach table at University of Alabama, Huntsville on the following day. The event that we were promoting at the table was a speech John Sophocleus was to give that night. That day Paul and I spoke to nearly four hundred students and faculty, all on the campus of a school that was foreign to both of us. Having spoken to so many individuals, we expected fair attendance at the speech. Strangely, very few people showed up. The number of names that we had gathered countered this disappointment. At the end of the night, we turned over the contact information that we had gathered to the local campus club president, Mark Ruocco.

After teaching, traveling, and speaking, John Sophocleus was tired, and ready to enjoy the comfortable accommodations that Chris Brown had provided. The Huntsville trip was still incomplete, and we arose the next morning with a full slate of events for the day. First, we met with Byron Bonds, a local supporter, and Tim Smith, the president of the Alabama Family Rights Association. Over breakfast, John explained his views on the issues concerning Mr. Smith, and in so doing gained another supporter.

The next item on the agenda involved visiting local gun dealers, and presenting John's view on the private ownership of arms. These gun dealers were wary of a 'politician' in their establishments, and guardedly accepted campaign literature. After visiting these shops, we drove to the office of the Huntsville Times, where John had an appointment with the editorial board. The meeting with the board was different than the past meetings with supporters. These guys were looking for a clear understanding of John's positions, and tried their best to pick apart his political ideals. John was friendly, and eagerly answered the questions offered to him. I discovered that day that I really did not have to worry about John tripping up when confronted by those not in agreement with libertarian principles. John was solid and firm in his answers, sometimes explaining them twice to the board. I remained in the corner, occasionally taking pictures of the encounter.

Upon the conclusion of the interview, the campaign team drove to Athens, where a local television personality, Keith Larson, had booked a half-hour interview with John. Keith was already a bit of a libertarian, so the atmosphere was congenial. I again sat off to one side, remaining silent and noting the way that Larson tried to dumb down John's answers, presumably for the benefit of the audience.

The interview was quickly over, and Paul and I started the trip back to Auburn. John and Scott Kjar headed to another newspaper interview, this time in Decatur. The day was done, and the whole team finally arrived back in Auburn.

The next campaign jaunt was on that Thursday afternoon, and consisted of my driving John to Clanton to meet with Sheila Ballard, a writer for the Beacon, a weekly newspaper. Sheila loved John, and quickly absorbed his positions. This interview spawned a full page spread about John and his campaign, and was very successful in terms of the amount of information accurately relayed through the media to the public. I rode with John and Sheila to meet with the local probate judge, and, in so doing, met with the first of many public officials that I would meet over the course of the semester. The day was short, and John and I headed back to Auburn in the late afternoon. I had learned that an affable demeanor with the press can work wonders in getting your message out.

The next morning, I attended the weekly campaign strategy meeting in John's office. The team went over the schedule with John, and reviewed the travel plans for the following week, as well as a few news tidbits that John might be able to use in future speeches. It was at this meeting that the team discussed a news story about some Marengo County families that had lost their lands to eminent domain abuses by the state. As property-rights stood as a plank in John's platform, John decided to use the story as the basis for a press release.

That weekend, Paul and I drove to Birmingham to hold an outreach table at a local flea market. The ground was fertile, and more than a quarter of those that took the quiz were libertarians. With no event to promote, we closed up shop somewhat early, and took advantage of the comfortable accommodations provided us by my parents. The following Monday, I encountered the first failed event. A Birmingham-area supporter had scheduled an outreach table at the University of Montevallo, but had forgotten to schedule the event with the university. Making the best use of our time, we drove into Birmingham to do some work at the Libertarian Party of Alabama headquarters. We worked with the party administrator, Mike Rster, on some basic tasks such as the editing of state party membership rolls, moving various items around in the office, and basically just trying to get things squared away for future events.

That evening, John and Scott joined us in Birmingham, and began preparing for a speech John was to give to the Birmingham area libertarians. This event was very focused on getting volunteers, candidates, and money. John's speech was a general platform speech, and was followed by Scott's plea for donations. The tact worked, and we collected a sizable amount of money from the attendees. Sizable is a relative term, of course, and in all honesty would not be the appropriate adjective for similar contributions at a republican or democrat event. Nonetheless, we were pleased by the event, and we began the drive to Gadsden, hoping for more of the same. Unfortunately, our desire to get to Gadsden was not supported by Scott's car, and we ended up on the side of the road, rearranging materials in my car so as to allow for two additional occupants. Scott's car had refused to go any further, and Mark Bodenhausen (the chairman of the state party) arranged for the car to be towed to an auto shop owned by a friend of mine. We made the drive to Gadsden in my vehicle, leaving Scott's to the fates. Arriving at our hotel at two in the morning, we quickly collapsed into sleep.

The next day, I drove John and Scott to a Jacksonville radio station, and then doubled back to pick Paul up at the hotel. After driving Paul to Jacksonville State University, I began the trip back to Auburn, where I had an appointment with a professor. After the meeting, I drove up to Birmingham, and then to Jacksonville, where John was again speaking at a fundraiser dinner. After the event, everyone loaded into my car, and we returned to Auburn. All in all that day, I drove over one thousand miles. During my absence that day, Scott had to arrange for local supporters to transport John from event to event. Things worked out, and I learned the importance of having a statewide volunteer network.

While I was gone, John was interviewed on two radio shows. One talk show host, J. Holland, was particularly swayed by John's platform, and changed his own position on the constitutional rewrite issue. This success in persuading the media was a clear indication that we had some hope in making a difference in this state. Up to that point, I had some doubt about the effectiveness of debate in actually changing people's minds. I knew it worked for me, but I was unsure about the general public. That J. Holland would change his mind demonstrated to me that the tactic of logical persuasion would be of at least some use over the course of the campaign. It is understood that average people may not be convinced by such methods, but it is also understood that the media, through analyzing the various positions of candidates, gives the public a condensed version of their own resultant position.

After that long day, Paul and I again staffed an outreach table in Auburn, this time with the help of Holly Heckman, a new campaign volunteer. Young women seemed more comfortable at the table, since Holly was present. I had expected that this would be the case, and was pleased. Many of those that stopped by the table attended that evening's speech by Scott Kjar. On Friday, we again met for our weekly strategy meeting.

The next big item on the agenda was the live gubernatorial forum held by the Auburn Student Government Association and Alabama Public Television. We spent much of the weekend printing, folding, and packing the four campaign brochures that we would hand out at the forum. Monday arrived, and the campaign team met at the Student Activities Center, the venue for the forum. Dressed in our Sunday best, we manned the table and handed out literature to the passers-by. Interest in our materials was not overwhelming, but the forum had not yet started. I spent most of the forum watching and listening as the attending candidates tried to convince the audience of their merits. Tim James, Lieutenant Governor Steve Windom, Congressman Bob Riley, and Gladys Riddle attended the event. None of the candidates who had declared as Democrats chose to make an appearance.

As luck would have it, John drew the first speaking position. This allowed him to set the tone for the forum, and essentially left the other candidates in the position to answer his remarks. As I previously mentioned, I had discovered early on that John was a solid candidate, and that I need not worry about his speaking ability. I was not disappointed, and there were many instances where the other candidates found themselves agreeing with John, and even admitting that his perspective had merit. That had to be a tough pill to swallow for Bob Riley in particular, since John had specifically attacked him throughout the fledgling campaign season. John had also been Riley's sole competition in the race that gave Riley his current congressional seat.

After the forum, attendees decided John's literature was worth a second glance. We busily gave away materials until our supply was exhausted. After congratulating John on his success, we packed up and prepared to leave. Before I could escape, I was confronted by an Opelika-Auburn News reporter who I had met only hours earlier while I was in line for dinner at a local restaurant. That chance meeting at the restaurant apparently motivated her to ask me a few questions about John's candidacy. Drawing on what I had learned in the previous weeks, I gave a statement indicating that we were happy with John's performance, and that we expected great things for the future. This was of course vague and basically uninformative, but she seemed happy enough with it. I breathed a sigh of relief, and I departed in the general direction of my bed. I decided on the way home that I would have to develop a good response for such questions in the future, so as to best represent the campaign, and more importantly, what the campaign wanted to reach people with.

I was not to receive much sleep that night, as Paul decided that we should drive to Troy in order to get an early start at Troy State University the next day. We arrived at the home of Floyd Shackelford, a congressional candidate for the Troy area, and were shown our accommodations for the evening. The following morning, Paul and I set up a table at the university, and we talked to a number of students. Given our lack of sleep, we closed shop rather early, and prepared for that evening's fundraiser dinner. Floyd had done a bit of promotion, and the dinner was well attended. The usual format was followed, and John gave a platform speech. Scott's plea for money was well received, and we received several large donations.

The following evening, the campus club had a speaker scheduled. The speaker was Joe Stromberg, historian-in-residence at the Mises Institute. I was happy to see Joe, as I had enjoyed his talks the previous August. Unfortunately I had to teach a violin lesson that night, and, after introducing him, had to leave. The small audience enjoyed the talk on the history of libertarianism, if the positive comments I later received were any indication.

The next day was Thursday, and there was an event in Montgomery. That day was the day of the "Higher Education Rally" in the capital city, and we arrived prepared. Following the lead of Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, John introduced the "Tax Me More" PAC. This PAC was a means by which concerned individuals might voluntarily donate money to the supposedly faltering Education Trust Fund. To combat the cries of various speakers for higher taxes to fund education, John, along with the campaign team, distributed information on how these individuals might put their money on the table, so to speak. As one might guess, there were no donors that day. As a matter of fact, there have been no donors since, either.

Later that afternoon, John was a guest on another talk show. The host was fairly knowledgeable, and the show went well. In a trend that started with John's first radio interview, the host kept John on for longer than the previously allotted time. This was a good indication that the host was pleased by John's performance. Call volume was relatively high, and John was invited back.

Yet another fundraiser was scheduled for that evening, and there was good attendance. The usual rules applied, and by the end of the evening we had collected a fair amount of money. This event was unique in one respect. One must understand that observing the demographics of an event, though not always seen politically correct is an essential concern for a campaign. Racial demographics in particular are a concern for the Libertarian Party, since the stereotype for Libertarians is young, male, and white. The reason for this discussion is that one of the attendees that evening was a man named Horace McCoy. Horace was a retired soldier, a small business owner, and an African-American. Horace also wanted to run on the Libertarian ticket for a state house seat. This was good news, and not only gave us a good candidate, but also racial diversity on the ballot. The undesirable nature of this sort of assessment does not escape me, but I feel it necessary to note, as it truly is important in this business.

The following week brought another fundraiser letter, which is an enormous manpower requirement. Mass mailings are easy with a large budget, as a campaign can just hire out the labor. In the Sophocleus campaign, such an effort is all in-house. This letter took the effort of eight volunteers, and approximately forty man-hours. Such a task is necessary, as I learned, not only to raise funds, but also to keep the mailing list active. I learned that a mailing list will go stale very quickly if not immediately utilized. The recipient of fundraiser letters and updates is more likely to actively contribute to the campaign effort if consistently given the opportunity to do so.

After sending the fundraiser letter out, I had a day to relax. Believe me, that day was much shorter than those preceding it. The next day, Wednesday, John and I drove to Huntsville to attend another fundraiser dinner. At this event, John spoke, and then I made the plea for donations. We raised a pretty good sum of money, and I was very pleased, having had some concerns about how effective I would be as a speaker. A local supporter paid for hotel accommodations. The following morning, we met another local supporter for breakfast at Aunt Eunice's, a local restaurant that has achieved legendary status among Alabama politicians. As the story goes, no one has made a successful bid for governor without stopping by Aunt Eunice's for some biscuits and molasses. Being Libertarians, John and I figured we could use all the help we could get. After ordering breakfast, John followed tradition by making the rounds pouring coffee for other customers. Aunt Eunice was pleased to meet John, and accepted some campaign literature. John was eager to get back to Auburn, so we headed home after breakfast, stopping along the way to meet with his civil rights attorneys at their home. John has a third amendment case pending against the Alabama Department of Transportation, and he wanted to check on its progress.

That Saturday, Paul and I drove to Cullman, where Paul had arranged for us to set up an outreach table. Adam Gilman, our campaign webmaster, drove John to the event, and while Adam and Paul worked the table, John and I made the rounds, talking to the dealers as they sold their wares. We encountered some Native Americans leaders who, upon learning of John's perspective of their plight, immediately pledged their support. When we returned to the table, we were greeted by Jerry Vines, a constable who is one of six Libertarians in elected office in Alabama. A number of attendees scored as libertarians on the quiz, and seemed very receptive to John's message.

That night, John, Paul, and I stayed with my parents in Birmingham. John spoke at length with my parents about libertarianism, and eventually won them over. I had committed some effort to this cause, and was pleased that John had succeeded. This was yet another demonstration, albeit a personal one, that given the right means, the libertarian message is an effective one. I noted the approach that John took in speaking with my parents, so as to use it in the future with people who might resemble them in either belief or attitude.

Early that next week, virtually everyone on the campaign team was ill, and, with the exception of John's speech to an anti-quarry crowd in Loachapoka, the team took a bit of a break. On Wednesday, yet another event failed due to inadequate preparation. The Auburn campus club had scheduled a showing of Fahrenheit 451 without first securing a copy of the movie. There were no attendees, so no one was disappointed, but the failure was glaring just the same.

Over the rest of the semester, events transpired in a predictable manner. Most events were reasonably successful, and some simply fell flat. I learned that planning is great, but actual preparation requires real initiative and hard work. The most difficult thing to do in a campaign of this sort is to attract supporters, who then become volunteers, and then to keep them active. There was a high turnover rate with volunteers, and the coordination of events sometimes suffered from lack of manpower. Nonetheless, the campaign has been, in my estimation, a successful one. There has never before been such a Libertarian campaign in this state, and we hope that an upward trend will continue for the party in the future.

At the state convention, I applied some of the skills that I learned over the course of the semester, and I spoke to the attendees about the campaign, and about myself. I was nominated to run for the Alabama Public Service Commission, against George Wallace, Jr., and a Republican. I persuaded several of my friends to run for various positions as well, and the LPA will have sixty-one candidates on the ballot. Scott Kjar is leaving the campaign team to work on his dissertation, and I have been hired as campaign manager. I have also been elected to the LPA executive committee, representing the Auburn district. This makes me the youngest EC member in LPA history. I feel a bit overwhelmed by these positions, but I am excited. I have learned a great deal about campaigning, Alabama politics, persuasion, and much more. Above, I have learned that with a little effort, and a lot of conviction, one person can make a difference. That sounds cheesy. It is. Unfortunately the truth is that way sometimes. I am committed to going the distance with this fight, and I hope that one day I will see the free society that I have worked for this semester.

Works Cited

Murphy, Bob. "My First Time". LewRockwell.com. 12 June 2001. [1]

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