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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Appears Live on The Brian Lehrer Show

April 12, 2019

Brian Lehrer: It’s the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, live today from the Greene Space, our ground floor theater down here on Varick Street – and as part of the 10th Anniversary Greene Space Marathon today. The first event was at seven o'clock this morning and there will be continuous content on the Greene Space stage until seven o'clock tomorrow morning and all free. The Greene Space 10th Anniversary Marathon is free. So, come down anytime today or pull an all-nighter here tonight – not recommended for studying for finals, though.

For the Brian Lehrer Show’s part of the Greene Space Marathon – and I should say, listeners, when we're in the Greene Space, you can watch the Brian Lehrer Show as well as listen because we do live streaming video so you can go to the WNYC website or the WNYC Facebook page. And for the Brian Lehrer Show’s part of the Greene Space Marathon, I think we have some good stuff lined up – Actor, Laurie Metcalf, who is currently playing Hillary Clinton on Broadway –


In the play called ‘Hillary and Clinton’ – save some of that applause for her. The playwright, Lucas Hnath, will be here, too. He wrote that play. We'll have the popular activist and podcast host DeRay Mckesson here today. We'll have today's edition of our April series, ‘Reefer, Managed’. Today it’s a debate – Legalization Versus Decriminalization. And to start us off right now, well, we begin as usual on Fridays with our weekly Ask The Mayor segment with Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for coming to do this in person on the Greene Space stage.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: I love the Greene Space. Happy anniversary, Brian.


Lehrer: Happy anniversary to our [inaudible] –

Mayor: It’s always a party at the Greene Space.

Lehrer:  It's always – a party, sometimes very serious, sometimes it's a party.

Mayor: You can be serious at a party.

Lehrer: And we're going to do something a little different for this Greene Space marathon edition. Usually we talk about things in the news of the week with the Mayor and we'll do a little of that, but mostly we'll take a step back from the news cycle and talk about some bigger picture things including what a Mayor of New York thinks about regarding the world outside the city when he's contemplating running for President. You are contemplating running for President as of today? Yes?

Mayor: I've said, I have not ruled it out.

Lehrer: Were you one of those kids who grew up imagining yourself as President someday?

Mayor: I spent more time imagining myself as a major league baseball player, but that did not work out. And there's no question I thought of, you know, being a leader. I don't know how specific it was, but something.

Lehrer: What first really politicized you and gave you the bug for this kind of a career as kid or a young man?

Mayor: I think it was one part family reality – probably the biggest part, obviously. My dad served in World War II and lost half of one leg on Okinawa. And so the reality of the world around us was present all the time in our family and unfortunately a lot of trouble, a lot of problems, what we would now call PTSD. But then we did not know what it was. So, the world came home to our family that way. My parents had gone through McCarthyism, not as bad as some people, by any stretch, but they had been victims of McCarthyism and it had an impact on their lives. That brought it home. My oldest brother, Steven, was draft age during Vietnam. So, there were many, many nights at the dining room table worrying whether he would have to go to a war, which by then everyone knew was unjust.

Lehrer: How'd he get out? Bone spurs?

Mayor: No, he got out normal – no, no, he was not –

Lehrer: Some of you got that.

Mayor: He was not related to a President or U.S. Senator, so he had to go through the whole process and he did have a real health deferment. But all those things were very real. And you know, I don't – for me, I think it felt like, honestly, it wasn't even a question of whether you have to be involved in the world or try something – try to do something to change it very aggressively. It was not, it needed a little change. It needed a lot of change.

Lehrer: So, let's imagine you are the 46th President of the United States following Donald Trump. Before you even get to policy changes, what are some of the most important norms of American government and civic life that you think would need repair after he has taken a sledgehammer to them?

Mayor: I think that's exactly right. I think we have to restore the notion of respecting all Americans, respecting all people. I think we have to restore the notion of common humanity. And it's – that is easier said than done after what's happened here. But leaders are supposed to be unifiers, are supposed to be there for the entire community of people they serve. That will have to be put back into our national consciousness as the norm because right now hatred is being given permission, white supremacy is being given permission. We have to very aggressively put that right back in the bottle and close the stopper, and end that before it becomes even more dangerous. I think New York City is a very good example. We have gone through, you know, our challenges over generations, but in the last five years we've consciously worked at repairing our social fabric and creating an atmosphere of respect.

You can see it in the relationship between police and community, and it was so important to get away from stop-and-frisk, but a lot of other things – the neighborhood policing philosophy has helped to bridge that gap. You can see it in the approach we're taking to our Muslim community, which is respectful and inclusive and celebrates that community's contributions. You can see in the approach to immigrants, IDNYC and all the other things we're doing to embrace our immigrant brothers and sisters, including undocumented folks who are our neighbors – are just as much New Yorkers as anybody else. That norm that you refer to, that norm of inclusion, respect, common humanity, it can be done. I don't have a doubt in my mind it can be restored, it can be restored energetically, but it's going to take conscious effort.

Lehrer: But how much do you think Donald Trump is the cause of that? Or how much is he a symptom of that? The fact that someone with his putting it out there on all that stuff, the way he did very explicitly during the campaign, was able to be elected. Maybe he's a symptom of a culture war that's been going on in this country since the 1960s or something like that.

Mayor: I would blame Richard Nixon a lot more than Donald Trump. If you want to go to origins with the southern strategy in 1968 and a very purposeful turn of the Republican Party to become a party of racial division and, Lee Atwater – I mean we could go down all the – the Willie Horton ad. There’s a thousand examples, right –

Lehrer: But on the other side then does progressive Bill de Blasio have an outreach plan for those mostly white Americans who rightly or wrongly manipulated by Nixon and Lee Atwater and everybody or not, feel aggrieved and victimized by policies of the liberal elite that they feel is making their life – their [inaudible] in life worse.

Mayor: I want to explain my views, as I said, I'm not going to speak from the perspective of candidate unless at some point I am a candidate, but I'm going to speak about my views. I felt for a long time that Democrats and progressives fell into the trap of being perceived as elitist and being perceived as not being focused on the needs of working people. And by the way, that's across the color spectrum. I think that's the original sin on the Democratic and progressive side of the ledger. It's inconceivable to me that a party and a movement that's supposed to be about equality and economic empowerment and redistribution allowed itself to be somehow painted as elite, and did not fight back. And I think the timidity that came out of the Reagan era, I think it wraps around, I think it started in the ‘60s, ‘70s in smaller ways.

But you know, the, the bigger problem emerged with the election of Ronald Reagan. By that point progressives, Democrats were back on their heels. It was the moment for a counter offensive, not for a retreat. And unfortunately we got a sustained retreat, which is why I'm so critical of the Democratic leadership council and others who urged moderation. It was desiccation, it was robbing the Democratic Party of its soul and its meaning. And so it just doubled down on the problem. And therefore a lot of folks – working class people, again, across the spectrum, but I think it was particularly acute with white working class folks, they saw a party that decreasingly seemed to be willing to fight for working people, fight for labor, being willing to take on the one percent. They started to see Democrats in league with the one percent, you know, all the ways that appeared the Democratic Party was a party of elites.

Lehrer: Do you consider yourself a patriot or does that word not have a positive meaning these days?

Mayor: No, I love that word. I love that word. I think, you know, I say this as a matter of fact, we are a revolutionary country. We are a country born in revolution. We are country born – based on some extraordinary ideals. And if you go back to 1776, you know, there's the cutting edge reality, the avant-garde reality of what the leaders of that time were thinking. They were far from perfect. I'm not trying to paint them with too rosy a brush, but I do want to say this is a country based on a set of ideals, still in many ways extraordinary in world history. And, you know, the question in my mind has always been how and when will we live up to those ideals.

And sometimes we have and many times there's been obvious contradictions that have to be addressed. But I love the possibilities of this country. And I love the humanity of this country. I've traveled this country throughout my life and there is something beautiful in the American experience, profoundly beautiful. And the fact that we're a country that also is based from our very origins on this – we had very explicit decision. This is pertinent to today in such a powerful way – country not based on having a state religion or even a favoring of one religion over another. I mean that was an extraordinary concept in 1776. It is alive in the hearts of many people today and others are trying to undermine it. But when you think about those ideals and then you think about a country also based on immigration, it's explicit. The only way the country came to be in some ways just and beautiful, in some ways, obviously, painful and unjust, including slavery and what happened to – was done to Native Americans, there's still an underlying fact that it’s a country made up of people who came together from all sorts of backgrounds. And there was some explicit hope in that and there is even more hope today.

But I feel like there is a battle we have to fight for the soul of the country. And it gets back to the question of norms. I think. Yes, sure those forces have always been out there. That's not a surprise, but they need to be confronted and they need to be shown that there is a change happening rapidly in this country. I believe the generations coming up are the most inclusive, tolerant, respectful, multicultural minded. I think the generations coming up are going to save us, but we better fight for their ability to save us.

Lehrer: So if the liberal left has ceded too much ground, to paraphrase you from before, on who's the lead and who's not, has the left in this country ceded too much ground to the right on the idea of love of country. You know, you don't see liberals and progressives flying the American flag outside their homes very much, for example. And when some people on the right do, it's almost like flying a MAGA hat sometimes. So has the left in this country ceded too much ground to the right on the idea of your values or even the symbolism that reflects love of country?

Mayor: You're asking a huge question. I'll try and get to a simple answer. I think first of all, it obviously you're asking about millions and millions of people each of whom think differently. I can only express it from my own point of view. I think it's very important to express love of country and patriotism, but not someone else's version, everyone's own version and – because I still have great hope for this country. And I don't like to see – I'll flip it also to the previous question – I don't like to see cynical efforts by some to act that some are patriotic and others are not. I don't like to cede that ground. I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's accurate. I think there's so many – many, many, many people of all different viewpoints who love the country and act on it in their own way.

And I think actually if you look at our values as a country, there's no definition, just like there's no state religion. There's no definition of how to be patriotic. And I think the First Amendment explicitly grants the ability for everyone to have their own version of what it is to be American. But I, for one, believe that those expressions of pride have a lot of power. And in terms of saying to everyone, our fellow Americans that we have a mutual respect and I think it's important. I think it's an important message because again I say it from the heart, but I also say it in the best sense thinking about how we move forward. I think there's a lot of good people out there asking, Brian, the question you just asked and wondering. And I want them to be reassured that progressive people love the country as much as they do, have as much hope for the country as they do, are going to fight for the country as much as they feel, they have and a lot of them have literally fought for the country and they need to know we respect that sacrifice.

Lehrer: Let's take an Ask the Mayor phone call on line four, Edward in Manhattan. You're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hi Edward.

Question: Hello.

Lehrer: Hi, Edward you are on the air.

Question: Yes, can you hear me?

Lehrer: We can hear you. Go ahead.

Question: Okay [inaudible] my call. I just want to give a little pretext to this. Me and my girlfriend [inaudible] we can't afford any kind of housing whatsoever. So my question is, when is minimum wage going to match inflation rates to be able to afford housing?

Lehrer: All right, good direct question. When is – and I think we had bad sound quality on that call. I can't totally tell in the Greene Space monitors, but listeners, if you couldn't hear it, when is the minimum wage going to match inflation and he related it to affordable housing.

Mayor: So look, first of all, a lot of us fought to get to the $15 minimum wage and thank God we're there because it opens up a pathway for so many people. But minimum wage – it's a great question because we need to remember, and I'm saying this as a Democrat and a progressive, minimum wage is not the goal. Minimum wage is the floor, not the ceiling. We don't aspire for working people to get to minimum wage and stay there. We aspire to have a society where we set a minimum that's a realistic minimum, and then go much farther. I think it's right that minimum wage should move with inflation for sure, locally, nationally, everywhere. But I think it is just the beginning of a bigger strategy. And again, there cannot be fear of the concept of redistribution here. We must tax the wealthy on a much greater level. We must change the way we are governed as a country and a city, a state in every – across the board because the income inequality crisis is literally killing us. I say very bluntly, and I say it to be purposely provocative, I say there's plenty of money in the world and there are plenty of – there's plenty of money in this country. It's just in the wrong hands. It's just in the wrong hands.


And that is – that is because of government policies. We shouldn't kid ourselves. It started with Reagan and it proceeded – remember the Bush tax cuts? And now of course what Trump and the Republican Congress did, which is the biggest giveaway to corporations and the wealthy we've seen in many, many years. So this is explicit, it's out in front, it's in the open, and unless that is radically reversed we're not going to be able to address issues like the caller is asking. So I think we go back to the kind of tax rates on the wealthy during the time of that radical left wing Marxist, Dwight D. Eisenhower.


And which also was when the country was investing in education and higher education and transportation and science and propelled us into something of a golden age in terms of actual prosperity that to some extent was shared. We need to get back to that.

Lehrer: Do you consider yourself a Democratic Socialist? And if not, why not?

Mayor: Social Democrat, which is a difference I think is important. We live in a capitalist society and we have to address the many challenges and problems of capitalism. And I think social democracy is the way to do that. I think it is proven in the sense of a lot of a western European nations that have proven you can have a much stronger safety net, a much stronger higher standard of living, a much more humane standard. One of the things we're talking about right now, we're going to pass it this year. Every other industrialized nation on Earth mandates at least two weeks paid vacation for working people. We are going to pass a law in New York City doing the same thing first in the country, we are going to mandate two weeks paid vacation for working people.


That is a Social Democratic idea that says you put in place actual laws and mandates that protect people's quality of life. Because right now Americans, or New Yorkers for sure, are working harder and harder and having a worse and worse quality of life.

Lehrer: But just to be clear on the language, you reverse the noun and the adjective. Why does it matter? Democratic Socialist or Social Democrat?

Mayor: Because I think it's more precise. I think when you say Social Democrat, you're talking about actual countries that have traveled this path over the last half century or more and you have real life examples of universal health care, of things like paid vacation, of efforts to actually put some guarantees in people's lives. Look at what's done on early child education and childcare in many countries that are thriving economies or at many times at least had been thriving economies. They are still – they still work with a capitalist system, but they confront the problems with that system very, very aggressively, which has not been the history in this country except for certain ways. The New Deal to some extent did that. We have to get back to that much more aggressive balancing. And since Reagan, it’s been the opposite. Since Reagan, the worst problems of capitalism had been exacerbated and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the one percent has gotten absolutely out of control. So I use that phrase – Brian, great question, but I want to be just straight forward – I use it because I think it's the best way to understand what I actually believe.

Lehrer: Let's take another Ask the Mayor phone call. On line two, Beatrice on the Upper West Side. You're on WNYC with the Mayor in the Greene Space. Hi, Beatrice.

Question: Hi. How are you?

Lehrer: Good, thank you.

Question: I'm calling because I wanted to first say that 99.9 percent of the time I agree with both you and the Mayor and that you're both extremely progressive.

Lehrer: We don't agree with each other 99 percent –


Mayor: Wait, wait –

Lehrer: There's a math problem there.

Mayor: Let it go, Brian, let it go. This is good.


Lehrer: Go ahead, Beatrice.

Mayor: Thank you, Beatrice.

Question: But I feel like when it comes to vaccinations, all bets are off and all rights go out the window. And I like that you're talking about restoring the notion of common humanity, but there is a real persecution going on in this country right now with anti-vaxers. It really doesn't matter whether you personally want to get vaccinated or if you have a religious exemption or if you think it's poison. It's a about a fundamental human right to have a choice about what goes on with your body. It's just like you're very supportive about a woman's right to choose. We have a horrible history in this country with forced medical procedures, with forced sterilization. And I really feel like you're going to fall on the wrong side of history here because you have an opportunity to quarantine instead of forcing healthy people to get vaccinated with something where they – the disease could easily be quarantine-able. And measles is not even considered a dangerous disease. It's not even like we have Ebola going on here. But if we had Ebola going on here, we would quarantine. It’s a much more effective way to deal with it. And there are –

Lehrer: Let me jump in and get you an answer, Beatrice, just for time. We did have the City Health Commissioner here earlier this week talking about, in her opinion, why it is dangerous with the percentage of children with measles who are now in the intensive care unit in New York City hospitals and things like that. Though there have been no deaths in the New York outbreak. But Mr. Mayor, she's asking a question of individual liberty.

Mayor: Sure. And Beatrice, thank you for the question because I think it's a powerful question and obviously a heartfelt question. But I think the challenge – so I'll speak as you know, the steward of this city, I'll speak as someone who has to think about the safety and health of 8.6 million people, and also someone who knows how important it is to listen to public health leaders. And those that I have brought into my administration like Dr. Herminia Palacio, our Deputy Mayor and Dr. Oxiris Barbot, our Health Commissioner, are progressives who have devoted their entire life to serving at the grassroots and serving people in need. And they feel strongly, and I believed them that there's a tremendous danger here that if unaddressed would lead to deaths and would lead to brain damage and lasting negative problems.

Lehrer: What about her policy alternative of quarantining rather – those with who actually come down with measles, rather than forcing everybody to get vaccinated?

Mayor: I think I'm going to say I, I'm not one of the public health officials, so you should ask them about all of the nuances of quarantine versus vaccination, but I'll make the common sense point. We already have close to 300 cases. It's grown rapidly. We can't see all the places where the cases are. I don't think quarantine structurally is effective in a situation where you need something that gets to the root cause, not something that you address only when you find out it's too late, if you will. But I think there's a really crucial point about – I totally, of course, respect individual liberty, but there are times when we say that the safety of so many people has to come first. And remember we are saying we have an order and the only way we can enforce that order is with a fine and it's a substantial fine. It can be as much as a thousand dollars. But it does not, is not arrest. Let's be clear to the individual liberty point. If someone's still says, I – you know, even in the middle of an outbreak, because we're not applying the standard if there isn't an outbreak, but even the middle of an outbreak, I refuse. They have that right. But like many other things that we regard as dangerous in our society, we have a sanction. It doesn't take away their individual liberty, but there is a sanction because of the impact they could have on others. And I think individual liberty always has to be balanced against the needs of the collective and the safety and the health of the collective.

Lehrer: Question from one of our Greene Space audience members. Does your administration have a concept peak population for New York City?

Mayor: It's a great question. I think right now we don't see a model that takes us much past nine million. If you're talking between now and say 2050, I think that's where we believe we're going. And that we’re going to kind of organically can't get a hell of a lot bigger than that under current conditions. And I think we, I believe certainly that's a tenable level. We can get to that level. It will give us challenges. But will also, I think strengthen some things about this city. And I, and this is the – one of the number one things going through my mind is this, the existential threat of our time is global warming. To address global warming, we must have people whenever humanly possible move closer to mass transit, move closer to where they work. We have to reverse the sprawl that has dominated so much of our country and other all over the world. It – there is an underlying reality we have to change. And this city is one of the exemplars on the Earth of a city you can walk around, a city you can use mass transit in. So from that point of view, we have to grow certainly some. But I think it's a great question to say off in future after 2050, is there some maximum that needs to be enforced? I think it's a very fair question. I don't have that answer today. I think it's a very fair question.

Lehrer: President Trump just said the country is full.

Mayor: Well, it's interesting. I heard that when I touched down in Nevada and I had just flown over to country and I was with an audience of progressive activists in Nevada. I said, I just want to report to you. I've just fallen out of the country. I looked around, it is not full.


There are a lot of wide open spaces, but let's get to the essence of that. The essence of that is it's a fundamental misunderstanding of our history and where we need to go. And I would argue that the American people are ready for a much more honest conversation about immigration. American people actually are not buying what Donald Trump is selling. They want – look at all the survey data is very consistent. They want DREAMers to be allowed to stay. They understand that DREAMers are already contributing to this country and they should be part of us. They do not believe in family separation. They do believe in comprehensive immigration reform. I think it's time for a counter offensive where Democrats and progressives say, we need comprehensive immigration reform. We actually need immigrants coming to this country to be part of our economy, to be part of the life of this country.


Lehrer: [Inaudible]

Mayor: And just one more thing, I'll tell you this from having been an Iowa. A lot of places, the crops are going unpicked and you talk to people in Iowa and they – they are not just thinking ideologically, they're thinking personally and practically. Their rural economy is being undermined. And I think people are ready for that mature conversation. There may be a subset of this country that can't hear that, I think most Americans can. And we should really go forward and say, this is where we need to go for the good of all of us.

Lehrer: Couple of things from the local news before we run out of time. News of this week, obviously there's the AOC wing of the party at the national level and the parallel movement of freshmen in the New York State Legislature considering the mainstream Democratic Party too passive and still too in bed with corporate power and things like that. And yesterday, Governor Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, said that the threats of primary challenges risk being to Democrats, what the Tea Party has been to the Republicans.  I think that's exactly the point. Tea Party leverage over John Boehner and Paul Ryan helped elevate conservative principles more to national prominence. I think that, you know, those people in the new progressive wing of the New York State Legislature think that's a good strategy for progressive's either in Washington or in Albany. And I'm curious where you are on that?

Mayor: I don't agree with the analysis. I think what the Tea Party did besides being incredibly destructive, and a smokescreen. It was, it was very much about the power of the one percent being treated like some grassroots uprising. It was not a grassroots uprising. It was the Koch brothers and all sorts of other forces engineering a rightward, movement. What's happening with progressives in the Democratic Party is night and day from that. I think no Democrat should fear a primary. I think – and our party apparatus should get the hell away from and, interfering in primaries. Primaries are part of how we define who we are. And if you're an incumbent and you're doing your job and you're expressing real values, you should never fear a primary. So I don't buy this sort of purity test of, you know, are you going to be involved in the primary – are consultant's going to work on a primary. I don't like any of that.  The progressive movement is a blessing. I think the folks in the progressive movement in this country are asking a lot of the right questions and pushing for a lot of the right things. It doesn't mean anyone agrees on, you know, everyone agrees on everything. That's not the point. I think it's a good and healthy movement. And, in the end I think one thing I've seen about Democrats, despite our many foibles, generally we're able to come home and support whoever prevails. And I say it as a progressive and I remind my brother and sister moderates, we many, many times as progressives accepted when your candidates won the nomination and we loyally believed it was better to support the Democratic nominee than let a Republican, I expect moderates to do the same thing when a progressive prevails. And I do think most of the grassroots voters and activists agree with that theory. That we're going to have this discussion in the family and we’re going to have a decision and then we all come together for something greater.

Lehrer: Alright, three things quickly, kind of lightening round style if you can. Charter schools, they are public schools, but there's an issue now of some of them using City-owned lists, if I understand the story correctly, for marketing themselves, which regular public schools don't or can't do, are you going to stop that practice?

Mayor: We're looking at that. I have real concerns about that practice, but we're going to make a decision on that soon.

Lehrer: The City Council passed the bill this week to stop testing prospective employees for marijuana. I don't know if it's all drug testing or just marijuana. There would be exceptions for jobs that have to do with public safety or people who drive for a living, things like that. Will you sign that bill?

Mayor: I will sign that bill. I think that bill was absolutely right, because they made the right exceptions too. And I think it's part of how we change our culture to be less punitive and exclusionary. I think it's a healthy step.

Lehrer: And Gothamist just published a story yesterday. I guess this is circulating now on the Museum of Natural History being rented out each year by a Brazilian group for a gala that honors a Brazilian and an American, And the Brazilian this year is Jair Bolsonaro, the right wing nationalist –

Mayor: That’s not good.

Lehrer: Trump of Brazil as they call him as person of the year. And besides his public racism and homophobia, he's considered anti-environment.

Mayor: Yeah.

Lehrer:  And apparently they hold this gala in one of the iconic, you know, galleries of the Museum of Natural History. When I heard this, I thought I was back on April Fools’ Day. They're going to honor Bolsonaro there. But it is a rental. It's not the museum itself doing it. They're just renting out the space. But the question is, even with that, should an institution that accepts City funding be hosting a private event in that particular –

Mayor: So, this goes beyond the irony to like shocking contradiction. I mean this is really troubling. This guy is a very dangerous human being, and he's dangerous not just because of his overt racism and homophobia but because he is unfortunately the person with the most ability to impact what happens to the Amazon going forward, and if the Amazon is desecrated and destroyed as a part of our global eco-system, we are all in grievous danger. So this guy needs to be invalidated and confronted at all turns. I – again, I believe in the First Amendment. So, this is always a bit of a challenge. You know, it's like the college campus issue should people be allowed to speak who have different views, of course. But you have a very good point. If you're talking about a publicly supported institution and you're talking about someone who's doing something tangibly destructive, I'm uncomfortable with it, and I would certainly urge the museum not to allow him to be hosted there.

Lehrer: Ladies and gentlemen, please thank Mayor de Blasio.


In person on stage today. Mr. Mayor, thank you as always, talk to you next week.

Mayor: Thank you, Brian.

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