Most politicians, inclined to remain politicians, prefer to have the future charted in terms of probabilities; before they get behind a cause, they want to know its probable effect. As a class, they don't much like surprises, because surprises beget other surprises--before you know it, a vein of unpredictability seeps into the governing process. So it is by design that surprises occur infrequently in the cool chambers of the Phoenix City Council. When they do happen, as in the council's June 16 decision to punt the issue of gay rights into the voters' hands, they are usually accidents--loud, upsetting and dangerous. They signify that something has broken down, or that the powers normally guiding the government have, at least temporarily, been usurped.

It took more than three weeks for Mayor Paul Johnson and the council to respond to the June 16 surprise that left the usually unanimous body fractured and ineffectual. On July 8, the consensus-driven mayor persuaded District 5 representative John Nelson to vote in favor of a watered-down gay-rights ordinance. By getting Nelson to approve the compromise proposal, Johnson engineered a 6-3 majority and may have saved the city a long and divisive debate. But the arrhythmia of the June 16 meeting, played out before about 3,000 interested citizens at Civic Plaza, amplified daily by the media throughout the Valley, signaled more than mere standstill or political timidity. When five members of the council surprised the mayor by voting not to vote on June 16, it was the kickoff of the next season of political career-building, as councilmembers contemplate moving to the next level, or holding on to what they have.

Unlike his predecessor--and possible future political rival--Terry Goddard, Paul Johnson has been reluctant to use council meetings as forums for debate on issues. Under Johnson the council almost always has presented a united front, and potentially controversial issues have been handled gingerly. Compromise, consensus and caution have been the watchwords of this body as the city moves into the post-boom 1990s with diminished expectations. Issues rarely go to a vote unless the mayor knows, with a high degree of certainty, the outcome.

While Goddard would often stake out what he perceived as the moral high ground on an issue and then publicly batter other councilmembers into submission or open revolt, Johnson's style is anticonfrontational. First he and his staff work behind the scenes, exploring positions on issues; then they work to forge a compromise that a majority of the council can support. Most of the sausage-making aspects of governance are relegated to council subcommittees, and approval by the appropriate subcommittee generally means acceptance by the full council. Quite often proposals are placed on a consent agenda and rubber-stamped by the entire council, with no debate, during meetings.

Ironically, the roots of the June 16 breakdown may extend back to an event that, at the time, promised to make the council even less contentious. A lot of people were stunned when Kathy Dubs defeated two-term councilmember Linda Nadolski for the District 6 seat last October.

That surprise victory led directly to the council's surprise decision not to decide whether gays and lesbians ought to be accorded civil rights protection. Because if Nadolski had not been a lame-duck councilmember, it is unlikely she would have tried to attach an amendment to the city's antidiscrimination ordinance extending protection to gays and lesbians. If no amendment had been tendered, then the city council would not have been subject to the tremendous pressure exerted by both the amendment's advocates and opponents, and the council would not have had an opportunity to shift the burden of deciding onto the voting public.

What's more, Mayor Paul Johnson would not now be desperately scrambling to prevent the issue from going to referendum, and Vice Mayor Thelda Williams--who has made no secret of her desire to succeed Johnson--would not be under heavy fire from a gay community that formerly had supported her. And Kathy Dubs, private citizen, would presumably have more time to return telephone calls.

But Dubs, District 6 council representative and physical-fitness enthusiast, is busy these days, chronically behind on her schedule, rushing from the council chambers to dedication ceremonies to community cleanups to neighborhood-association meetings to the small computer-graphics shop she and her husband run out of their east Phoenix home.

That energy served her well in her race against Nadolski. She believes she won 55 percent of the vote last October largely because she knocked on 10,000 front doors in the newly redrawn district. On the other hand, Nadolski, who had pursued a similar strategy in her first two campaigns, hardly walked at all, even though the district had been redrawn to include, by way of a thin umbilical corridor of land along 48th Street, the newly annexed, strictly planned suburbs of Ahwatukee south of South Mountain.

Though Dubs bristles a bit at the "mystery candidate" image that was hung on her by the Arizona Republic, her campaign did modestly awaken the media's radar. A political neophyte whose previous political experience had been as chairwoman of the Loma Linda Neighborhood Association, Dubs avoided public debates with Nadolski, taking as her chief theme the idea that the councilmember--who late in her second term was ending up on the wrong end of a lot of 8-1 votes--was not a "team player." Dubs also suggested Nadolski's pointed criticism of then-Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega was counterproductive. Much of Nadolski's support had come from the older women in her district--District 6 has the highest percentage of older voters in the Valley--and Peter Martori, a citrus farmer and longtime council observer, says these voters saw Nadolski's attacks on Ortega as evidence their councilmember was "disrespectful" and had gone "soft on crime."

Another important component of the incumbent's support, the small but influential circle of neighborhood activists from which Nadolski had sprung, was alienated by revelations Nadolski had accepted campaign contributions from downtown zoning attorneys.

And a third segment of Nadolski's constituency, members of the gay community who had helped in her previous campaigns, underestimated Dubs as a candidate. "It was a technical blunder," says Charlie Harrison, a longtime gay political organizer. "We thought it was impossible for Nadolski to lose, so we concentrated our efforts on other races. We did not make one phone call, we did not walk one district for her, we did absolutely nothing. But we voted, sort of: I think a lot of people didn't bother to even go to the polls."

Harrison says he believes Dubs was offended by the gay community's historic support of Nadolski. He says that during the campaign he tried to explain to Dubs that the gay community's support of Nadolski was "not personal" but that the gay community had a working relationship with Nadolski. "I said Linda Nadolski had done so much for the gay community over the years that Jesus Christ could be running against her and the fags would support Nadolski," Harrison says, "but I think she was still offended."

Dubs, however, says she had a modicum of gay support in her campaign. "In the neighborhood where I live, we have some gay people who I'm good friends with," she says. "There were some gay volunteers who walked for me."

And though Nadolski outspent her by more than four to one--$46,727 to $10,714--political neophyte Dubs had some big help. She says she was talked into running for office by friends. One of those friends, Chris Warner, a local real estate broker who also happens to be one of Mayor Johnson's closest friends and advisers, helped run her campaign.

Warner, the son of former gubernatorial candidate Carolyn Warner, is a member of the mayor's informal kitchen cabinet, a group of young businesspeople who often sees the mayor socially and offers Johnson advice on everything from policy matters to his choice of suits. Described by council watchers as a publicity-shunning, low-profile "political junkie," Warner did not return New Times' telephone calls.

Mike Morgan, an attorney and close friend of longtime councilmember John Nelson, also advised Dubs during her campaign. Mark Dioguardi and Tom Smith, Nadolski's opponents in prior races, likewise served as Dubs' advisers. On election day, near some District 6 polling places, Dubs' yard signs were staked next to the mayor's placards, linked by banners that read, "The Winning Team: Paul Johnson and Kathy Dubs."

While both Johnson and Dubs have denied knowing anything about these yard signs, most council observers and some councilmembers agree the mayor was not unhappy to have Nadolski off the council. Many observers see Johnson's council as a political incubation chamber, where tender, young political lives are nourished and insulated while they prepare for bigger and better things. Nadolski was perceived as a bomb thrower, apparently unconcerned about running for higher office, or even for hanging on to the one she had.

"Linda was pretty ambivalent about the job," Martori says. "She was beginning to question her effectiveness. . . . When she came in, she was seen as an activist, charging in on a white horse, but at first she really did try to play ball with the council. It was only toward the end of her second term that she started mouthing off, but by then she'd lost too much political capital."
Martori says Nadolski's own mixed feelings about her role on the council led her not to work as hard campaigning as she had in previous years. And that, as much as Dubs' unflagging energy and "smart" campaign, was enough for Dubs to upset Nadolski by 1,353 votes. In the end, the redistricting didn't seem to matter much as Dubs outpolled Nadolski in almost every precinct in both the old and new District 6.

But before she left, Nadolski gave the council one final surprise. She drafted an amendment to the city's antidiscrimination ordinance that would have extended civil rights protection to gays, the disabled, unmarried people living together and people in the military. At the time, she said she thought the timing was right to bring the issue to the council and that she--as a lame-duck councilmember--was the perfect person to do so. She said she wanted to introduce the legislation two years earlier, but had been dissuaded by her allies in the gay community who feared the political consequences.

But if Nadolski thought she was doing her colleagues on the council a favor by absorbing the political heat by proposing a measure she believed they all supported, she was mistaken. In fact, one Nadolski supporter said there may have been "a bit of spite" in her final gesture. Whatever her motive, some members of the council bristled at what they perceived as an attempt to ram an ordinance through without adequate discussion and debate. In particular, Mayor Johnson was not thrilled with the timing of Nadolski's amendment.

"It was obviously being rushed," Johnson says. "It was being rushed because one councilmember who had been defeated believed that she needed to deliver a going-away present."
And maybe it wasn't just the content of the amendment that made it difficult for some of the council to take. As Kathy Dubs pointed out in her campaign, Nadolski hadn't always been a "team player."

"The first time I went to see Skip Rimsza and Thelda [Williams] and Paul Johnson about this issue, the first thing they brought up to me was that it could never fly because Linda Nadolski had put it on the table," Charlie Harrison, the gay political activist, says. "They were so pissed at her about other things. That really flew in my face pretty badly. That a group of people running the ninth-largest city in the country could trash my life because the wrong person, somebody that they had some juvenile, immature vendetta against, had put it on the table. If that's the way they run this city government, then we're in deep trouble."
But even so, for a time it appeared the amendment would pass. A week before it was brought before the council, Nadolski was counting on five votes--herself, District 8 councilmember Calvin Goode, District 7 councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox, District 4 councilmember Craig Tribken and Williams. At the time, Nadolski told New Times she thought the mayor, seeing that the measure was going to pass, would add his vote. While she allowed that Skip Rimsza, Alan Kennedy and John Nelson might have trouble voting for the amendment because their districts were conservative, Nadolski said she thought there was an outside chance the amendment would pass unanimously.

But Nadolski's coalition fell apart. Williams did not vote as Nadolski expected, but instead supported a substitute motion that prohibited the city from discriminating in its hiring practices or in the delivery of services. The council also sent the original motion, which would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by private businesses within the city, to a panel of community leaders--the Human Relations Commission--for further study.

Williams says she voted her conscience, that she believed the issue needed more discussion than it would have received if it had been passed in December. But Johnson was lobbying several councilmembers, including Williams, to defer action on the proposal and to vote for a compromise. And Williams, at that time, was perceived as a strong ally by the gay community. Having lost Nadolski, some gay organizers were reluctant to have Williams "out on a limb."

"She called me from Washington, D.C., in November to say that she would be back to vote on this thing and be in favor of it," Harrison says. "And she came back the weekend before the vote and, in that amount of time, was turned around from a 'yes' into a 'no.' I believe it was Paul Johnson who turned her around. Paul is incredibly skillful, incredibly persuasive and Thelda has a conservative district."
Harrison says Williams' vote for the substitute amendment was understandable under the circumstances.

"We basically made the decision that, frankly, Johnson had set her up in a position that she could be taken out for voting in favor of this," he says. "I think Thelda was totally right on the issue, but we didn't want to see her take a stand that would cost her seat. She couldn't be the deciding vote."
So Nadolski left the council in characteristic fashion, on the short end of a losing vote. This time it was 6-3, as Goode and Wilcox joined her in refusing to vote for the compromise.

That surprise outcome set the stage for the June 16 fiasco. With the addition of Dubs and Frances Barwood, who had defeated Alan Kennedy in the District 2 race, the dynamics of the council changed appreciably. Both Republican women with limited experience in government, Dubs and Barwood might be more pliable than the veteran councilmembers they replaced. Ironically, though, Dubs' background as a neighborhood advocate was similar to Nadolski's when she first joined the council--both had a lot to learn about the gears of governance. Says Dubs: "I really didn't know a lot about the process when I first got here. But I've learned an awful lot in just a few months."

Though almost no one on the city staff or council knew her before she took her seat, Dubs seems to have earned a reputation as a hardworking and earnest member of the body. While Martori, a Nadolski supporter, calls Dubs a "prop-up candidate," liable to be controlled by Johnson, she voted against the mayor on June 16, and again on July 8, when she was one of three councilmembers to vote against Nelson's compromise.

Other observers--including former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard--believe Dubs is exactly what she appears to be: an energetic woman in a battered old pickup who is determined to be an advocate for her district.

Mary Rose Wilcox, who recently resigned from the city council to run for the county Board of Supervisors, says she was impressed by Dubs' willingness to hear all sides of issues that come before the council--particularly the gay-rights amendment.

"She'll meet with anybody," Wilcox says. "I don't agree with her on this issue, but I believe she really wants to do what's best for the city."
Dubs dismisses the idea that her vote to send the amendment to referendum was either an abdication of her responsibility or a politically unsound move.

"The R&G is really pissed at those of us who thought it would be a good idea to hear more discussion on this issue," she says. "But they've made up their mind on the issue and they're unhappy with those of us who would like to hear what the people think. They didn't think I could win [this seat], either, and they ignored my race. I don't think they really know what the political fallout is going to be."
Dubs says an overwhelming majority of the calls she and other councilmembers received had been in favor of the council's action to put the amendment on the ballot.

The other freshman, Frances Barwood, has also distinguished herself from her colleagues on the council. While she was among those who voted on June 16 not to vote on the gay-rights amendment, she is the only councilmember who has publicly voiced her opposition to the amendment on unequivocal moral grounds. She says she voted to put the issue on the ballot simply because she wasn't sure the proposal would be defeated if it had gone to a vote.

She didn't want to be surprised by Johnson or Rimsza, either of whom she thought might vote in favor of the amendment. She compromised, she says, because she's confident the people would have rejected the amendment. For her part, Williams, who made the substitute motion to send the issue to the voters, says she acted from her conscience.

"I have spent hours listening to people on this issue," Williams wrote in a letter to some of her constituents. "Religious leaders, psychologists and individuals have championed both sides. Gays and lesbians, their parents and friends have described the hardships they endure. Business owners have expressed their fears of potential disruption and litigation expense in a time they are finding it difficult to survive. Some see this as a pure civil rights issue, while others see it as a violation of their religious beliefs. It is clearly time to open doors to the public. This is an issue that can and will not be reconciled without discussion, education and consent of the community."
Williams also says her stand has proved popular with her constituents, though it seems to have cost her the support of the gay community, which had worked for her in previous campaigns.

"I've never been so disappointed," Harrison says. "There haven't been any campaigns the gay community has worked on where we didn't get 1,000 percent return on our investment in time and money. And this [with Williams] was just an absolute train wreck."
Williams is one of several councilmembers said to be considering running for mayor should Johnson decide not to run again. Other likely candidates include Rimsza and Craig Tribken, and some observers see the council's June 16 "breakdown" as the kickoff to that race.

"Williams and Tribken are making a big point, in their language and even their body language, to differentiate themselves from one another," Peter Martori says. With Johnson presumably looking at higher office--possibly a run for governor or the U.S. Senate--some councilmembers may be preparing to lift their own careers to the next level. And, as the composition of the council has changed, some of the old coalitions have also been altered.

Many of those who deal with the council on a regular basis have noticed a subtle shift in the dynamics, as various councilmembers seem to step forward and test their strength. A good many observers read the June 16 vote--and the mayor's apparent exclusion from the back-channel negotiations that led to it--as a small rebellion against his power.

"Craig Tribken might see this all as a plot to harm his chances," one local Democrat says. "He thinks the whole thing was an attempt to embarrass him. It's ironic that he and Paul Johnson probably came out of this in better shape than anybody. If it was a plot to get either one of them, it backfired."
Charlie Harrison doesn't see how the June 16 breakdown helps any councilmembers' chances to advance. "I'm afraid it's just over for Skip and Thelda," he says. "The mayor comes out smelling like a rose, as usual."

But Johnson will admit that, for perhaps the first time in his tenure as mayor, he lost control of the council. Some, such as Frank Meliti, the president of the Arizona Coalition of Patriotic Societies and an outspoken opponent of the gay-rights amendment, see the mayor's failure as evidence of weakness. "He's wishy-washy and he ought to step down," Meliti says. "He's been playing both sides against the middle. We need a strong mayor, someone like Thelda Williams."

While Meliti, who doesn't shy away from using epithets such as "homo," may hold an extreme view of Johnson's effectiveness as a leader, others agree Johnson's once-firm grasp on the council may be slipping as various members begin to eye his job.

"They're all starting to jockey around for position and trying to nudge each other out of the way," Martori, one of the few council watchers willing to be quoted, says. "There's a leadership vacuum, and when you have a leadership vacuum, strange things happen."

Like what happened on June 16. Martori believes Williams proposed the motion to place the gay-rights amendment on the ballot in part to break away from the pack and distinguish herself as a leader. But while Martori thinks Williams' motion was a political mistake, former Mayor Goddard says it might have positioned her as a "sleeper" in the race.

"Whether you agree with her or not on putting it to a vote, she seized the leadership position away from other people who had customarily held it," Goddard says. "You don't hear anyone saying it was Skip's move."
Skip Rimsza is also sticking to his guns, saying he believes the council's action was appropriate and that his constituents support it. He, too, is often considered a likely candidate for mayor, but while he once seemed to be the mayor's hand-picked successor, observers say in recent months his once-warm relationship with Johnson has cooled.

Despite different party loyalties--Rimsza is a Republican, Johnson a Democrat--the two thirtysomething pols have much in common. Both are native Phoenicians from middle-class backgrounds with uncommon appetites for politics. Their friendship deepened during Johnson's tenure on the council, as the two men bonded during basketball games at the Renaissance Club near City Hall. Some trace the minor "rift" between Johnson and Rimsza to an embarrassing photo opportunity that the mayor participated in shortly after the controversy over the pots on the Squaw Peak Parkway erupted. Several sources say Rimsza invited the mayor to the scene of a symbolic pot-smashing--an episode that resulted in political embarrassment for both men.

There is evidence to suggest Rimsza may have played a key role in the June 16 vote that apparently took the mayor--and the three councilmembers who favored passage of the amendment--by surprise. Johnson says he thought a compromise might be worked out right up until the motion to send it to a public vote was made. Johnson had supported a compromise that exempted religious schools and businesses employing 50 or fewer people--a measure that would have exempted about 80 percent of the city's employers--but he was willing to bargain on the size of the companies to be exempted.

Calvin Goode, though he says he would prefer not to compromise on a human rights issue, had suggested that the exemption be limited to businesses that employ fewer than 15 people, a level suggested by federal statutes. Tribken had championed a proposal exempting businesses with fewer than 25 employees. Johnson says he thought Rimsza and John Nelson, who had both told him their primary concern was small business, would be willing to go along with a compromise. It wasn't until just before the meeting, sources say, when Rimsza and Nelson informed the mayor they would not agree to a compromise on the issue, that Johnson realized the prospects for passing a modified amendment were bleak.

But, he says, he thought the amendment would simply be defeated by the council--he never imagined that a move to put the issue to referendum could pass. Johnson assumed the referendum option was dead.

"It's something we'd heard from either side on different points when they thought that maybe we were against them," he says. "I never thought that the council would take that kind of vote. I was exceptionally shocked. I wasn't as shocked when the motion was made as I was when I began hearing council comments that I recognized it was about to happen."
Wilcox, Goode and Tribken all say the idea of putting the issue before the public had been briefly discussed months before and then--they thought--dropped.

"I was surprised, I was angry," Wilcox says. "One of my colleagues put a note in front of me just before the motion was made asking me how I felt about putting it to a vote of the people. I thought, 'Oh, no, this is not the right thing to do.' I know the issue was controversial--well, to some it was controversial. I knew that it was the right thing to do--and I could see how it put Thelda in somewhat of a box."
Twice after Williams made her motion, and Dubs provided the second, Johnson pleaded with the council, trying to convince the members it was "absolutely the wrong move." "I said I understand how hard this issue is, I understand why you may feel that this is an appropriate action, but I promise you this is just going to make it worse."

It was too late--at least that night. Before the mayor could formally adjourn the meeting, plainsclothes police were hustling the councilmembers out a side door while hundreds present at Civic Plaza voiced their disapproval. Frank Meliti, one of Thelda Williams' constituents and biggest fans, was among the few who did support the measure.

"Thelda Williams, Frances Barwood and Kathy Dubs are all great ladies," Meliti says. "Paul Johnson should step aside so Thelda can become mayor. She's like Margaret Thatcher; she stood up to the gays."
Although the five councilmembers who voted to send the amendment to the public all said their constituents' response was overwhelmingly supportive, only three of them failed to join the July 8 Nelson compromise. In the days before last week's meeting, council observers wondered if they weren't simply engaging in face-saving exercises.

"I was so stultified by the action I can't tell you what the heck they were thinking," Johnson says. "But I can also tell you what they're saying now is that their constituents are supporting it. My opinion is if this thing goes to the ballot and turns as ugly on the public as it did on this council, everybody's going to be a loser. No winners, not the people who voted for [or] against, not the business community, not the gay community, not the religious right, not our citizens--there are no winners."
"This wasn't even discussed as an option," Martori says. "It wasn't part of the debate. Nobody said you can either be for the ordinance or not for putting it on the ballot. A lot of people on both sides are angry, a lot of people on both sides are going to say, 'No, this is not good for the city.' But the council weasled this little gutless out for themselves and the community is the loser."
"People like Rimsza, as soon as he laid eyes on it, saw it as an opportunity to get off the hook," says Peter Croizer, an ASU physicist who serves as a spokesman on gay and lesbian issues. "We didn't quite think that the council would abdicate their responsibility. If they wanted to avoid a clash, then they've done the worst possible thing."
And even though the mayor voted to vote on the issue, there are those who hold his leadership style culpable. "Because of this consensus council, they've never had any practice dealing with tough issues," a longtime council observer, who asked not to be identified, says. "They figure a way out of it or go down the middle. They've never had to take a stand based on an ideology. Never."

Crozier points out that Johnson was the architect of the December delay.
"I think the mayor realizes now what we told him a long time ago, back in November and December, that we needed this issue to be resolved," he says. "It's the old story of appeasement politics. You try and keep both sides happy and it never works. It's just like pouring gasoline on the fire. We're now all victims of this situation."
Johnson admits the gay-rights amendment was the most difficult issue the council has faced during his tenure.

"What happened with those councilmembers, it was tough in two ways," he says. "One was externally. We've never been beat up on an issue as bad as we were on this one. We've never had people as angry. We've never had as many people lobby us and yell and scream and talk about how we'd be the devil incarnate if we voted for it or voted against it. And the second part of it is internal pressure. You know that you're going to be defined by your negative--you're either going to be defined as someone who is against family values or someone that's for discrimination. That's the bottom line: You've got the negative going to define you, not the positive."
Before Nelson made his substitute motion last week, Mayor Johnson was downplaying his chances of convincing councilmembers the interests of the city--as well as their own political careers--would be better served by an up or down vote on the issue.

"It's a lot like the right-to-life/right-to-choice issue," he said. "If you believe in it, you can't talk people out of it, you can't talk people into it. What we were trying to do was to find something we thought reasonable, but I think that in hindsight, on this type of issue a compromise is extremely difficult and maybe ill-advised."
But the mayor's penchant for compromise won out over his tactical pessimism.
On July 8, Nelson, the longest-tenured councilmember, asked that the council reconsider its decision to send the gay-rights amendment to the voters. He substituted a motion that exempted religious schools and employers with 35 or fewer employees from the ordinance. It received the obligatory second.

Frances Barwood, opposed to the amendment on principle, voted "no." Then, somewhat surprisingly, Kathy Dubs, Johnson's hand-picked successor to Linda Nadolski, also voted against the compromise.

Before casting his vote, Rimsza asked the city attorney if the ordinance would apply only to those employers who chose to do business with the city. Once assured that a company could discriminate against gays so long as it conducted no business with the city, Rimsza cast his vote in support of the compromise. With "reluctance," Goode also cast his vote for the compromise. Tribken, Nelson and newly sworn-in District 7 councilmember Pat Ortiz--Wilcox's appointed replacement--also cast her vote for compromise.

Vice Mayor Thelda Williams, a trace of a tremble in her voice, said she could not support Nelson's substitute motion. She said sending the issue to the voters was still the right thing to do.

Finally, with the issue decided, and without comment, Mayor Paul Johnson at last said "yes" to a gay-rights amendment. Weeks after the surprise breakdown of the council, Johnson had brokered a symbolic measure unlikely to affect the way Phoenicians conduct their lives.

But the belated, toothless compromise would not erase the damage and divisiveness that occurred on the mayor's watch. For the first time, the council had slipped through the mayor's grip. Though the mutiny had been contained, and order restored, June 16's isn't likely to be the last surprise. It was only a warning shot--that these nine politicians were off to the races, and all bets were off.


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Philip Martin