No Stolen Elections & Other Exercises in Futility

Back in Chicago I was preparing for my move to New Paltz when I received a call from Ben Manski, a member of the Steering Committee of the Green Party. He told me that he, David Cobb, and Wisconsin activist Patrick Barrett were putting together a progressive coalition to monitor the election for voter irregularities and fraud.

The group—alternately referred to as United Progressives for Democracy, No Stolen Elections!, and the November 3rd Coalition [1]—was a who’s-who of progressive figures that included:

Medea Benjamin – CodePink
Leslie Cagan – United for Peace and Justice
Tim Carpenter – Progressive Democrats of America
John Cavanagh – Institute for Policy Studies
Steve B. Cobble – political strategist
David Cobb – Green Presidential Nominee
Rev. James Demus – NAACP, Chicago
Karen Dolan – Policy Studies & Cities for Peace
Daniel Ellsberg – author
Barbara Ehrenreich – author
Larry Fahn – Sierra Club
Lisa Fithian – Root Activist Network of Trainers
Arun Gandhi – M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
Dolores Huerta – United Farm Workers
Rev. Jesse Jackson – Rainbow/PUSH
Van Jones – Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Rabbi Michael Lerner – Tikkun
Robert McChesney – Free Press
Michael Moore – Author
Maya O'Connor – Labor Greens Network
Eleanor Smeal – Feminist Majority
Starhawk – Activist and writer
Gloria Steinem – Author and feminist activist
Chuck Turner – Boston City Council
Jason West – Mayor, New Paltz NY
Bob Wing – War Times
Howard Zinn – Historian

The bulk of the organizing work was done by a team that included Leslie Cagan, Medea Benjamin, Ben Manski, Lisa Fithian, Andrea Buffa, Patrick Barrett, David Cobb, Chris Vaeth, and myself, among others. We circulated a pledge and a decentralized action framework to the 800 member groups of United for Peace & Justice, put together on-the-ground teams for designated “battleground” states, created a a Fair Elections Advisory Council made up of US and international elections experts, and put together a “Signal Committee” made up of most of the core organizers, whose job it was to hunker down on election night at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC and make sure that information flowed freely between all parties.

If there was significant fraud, an Urgent Response Network would be activated on November 3rd, calling on people everywhere to engage in protest, including nonviolent civil disobedience, in front of their local federal buildings and other appropriate places. Those who could were encouraged to converge in the states where the most serious fraud occurred.

Our main concerns with the upcoming election were dubious voting technology, rather obscene conflicts of interest, and potential disenfranchisement. Nearly 80% of the voting technology in use at the time (thanks to George Bush’s shamelessly ironic “Help America Vote Act,” enacted in response to the “irregularities” of the 2000 election) were either Diebold touch screen machines, or ES&S optical scan units. Both companies were run by one of the O’Dell brothers: Scott O’Dell was CEO of ES&S, and Walden “Wally” O’Dell was the head of Diebold. Both were major campaign fundraisers for George Bush, and Wally was known as one of Bush’s “Rangers and Pioneers, an elite group of loyalists who have raised at least $100,000 each for the 2004 race.” [2]  In an August 2003 letter to 100 wealthy and politically inclined friends, O’Dell wrote, ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.''

Diebold touch screen technology was considered protected “intellectual property.” As a rather convenient consequence, the source code was not available to election monitors, so no one had any idea whether the vote totals coming out of the machines were legitimate. It had already been shown that any Diebold employee with a key to the machine could access its programming and change any of the parameters to, for example, flip vote totals or add and subtract votes. [3]  Additionally, the lack of a paper receipt or record of a person’s vote made it impossible to verify who they had actually voted for.

Our next biggest concern was the potential disenfranchisement of African Americans through a variety of techniques that include: inaccurate and misapplied “felon purge rolls” such as those used in Florida in 2000; long lines and a dearth of voting machines in poorer precincts; time-tested scare tactics like stringent ID requirements and rumors of police monitoring polling stations, checking voters for outstanding warrants.

Ohio, New Mexico, and Florida were identified as having the highest potential for fraud. In Ohio there was an eerie repetition of the circumstances that Florida witnessed in the 2000 election.  Like Catherine Harris had done for Florida in the 2000 election, the person tasked with certifying the vote totals was Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, like Harris an avowed Bush supporter, and like her as well, the Chairman of the statewide reelection committee. Despite her obvious and somewhat appalling conflict of interest, Harris fended off criticism (and apparently,  the law and moral decency) and certified a highly dubious vote in Florida, and was promptly rewarded with a Congressional seat. Knowing the carrot that was dangling before Blackwell, and expecting the worst, we took special care to have a large on-the-ground presence in Ohio.

Two weeks before the election I once again said goodbye to Edie and Milhouse and headed off to New Paltz. My brother flew in from New York to help me drive a rental truck across country. In the two years since I had visited him while covering the anniversary of 9/11, we had begun rebuilding our relationship. Even though he lived in the hyper-conservative financial world, he had turned against Bush and was now decidedly against the war. He told me he was proud of what I had done in New York, and this was his way of showing me.

We were somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when I got word that both the job I was supposed to take and the place I was supposed to live had fallen through, so I was arriving in New Paltz homeless and jobless. Once there, no one seemed particularly interested in helping me, and I detected a distinct chill from my new friends. It took me only a few hours to figure out what had happened.

When I was in New Paltz in September following the convention in New York, I made an offhand comment to a friend of Jason West’s that I was looking forward to being in New Paltz and to “helping keep an eye on Jason.” Ever since the gay marriages and the People Magazine issue, Jason had been on a non-stop touring schedule, and the wear was starting to show. I considered Jason a friend and I was concerned about his health. Somehow, this was misinterpreted to mean that I had been sent by the national party to keep tabs on him, and that was why I was so eager to relocate to New Paltz. In essence, I was under suspicion of being a spy of sorts.

What drove this suspicion was the fact that nearly all the Greens in New Paltz were behind the Nader campaign, and I, because of my position within the party, had committed to David Cobb as a means of showing my support for party building. The New York Greens were one of the more vocal groups squawking that the convention in Milwaukee was rigged, and that Nader was the real Green candidate.

To make matters worse, most of the people in New Paltz seemed to be in the Anybody But Bush camp and were terrified by a Nader candidacy. Some had begun to take it out on the Greens publicly in the op/ed section of the local paper, and the Greens, being the party in power, were only too eager to respond in their defense. Jason West may have committed a supremely noble deed by solemnizing gay marriages, but it was not with the full support of the town, and around the time of the election, dissatisfaction with his policies began to bubble up in the public debate. His open support of Nader only compromised his standing.

The week I arrived in New Paltz, Nader made a campaign stop at SUNY. Word spread that there were going to be protests against his appearance, and that ABB people were planning on disrupting his speech. When the day came, he stood before a packed lecture hall and gave an eloquent and rational argument as to why his candidacy was necessary. The moment he finished, as he opened the floor up to questions, they went at him like piranhas.

Why don’t you drop out! You’re going to cost us the election! Wasn’t Florida enough? Is your ego so big that you can’t do what’s best for us all?! etc etc.

Nader’s head dropped and his shoulders went slack as he gripped the podium for support. He was a portrait of an already-defeated man, and no matter what he said, he consistently got the same response. While the people in the lecture hall argued back and forth with each other, Nader stared at the ground, silent. I would have given anything to know what he was thinking in that moment.

What these people didn’t understand was that Nader wasn’t coming from a place of ego, that was a ridiculous and intentional smear. If he was, he never would have run in 2004. Virtually everyone with a prominent name had turned on him publicly. He was utterly savaged by the Democrats, who dragged his name through a mile of shit and spent untold resources undermining his ballot petitions and campaign teams in every state in which he attempted to run. He had been widely pilloried by the mainstream as the spoiler of 2000, and everyone but this small committed cadre of Greens wanted him out of the race. He was definitely not feeling the love.

Unfortunately, Nader didn’t do himself any favors by letting it get to him. It was clear the 2004 campaign embittered him, you could see it in virtually every interview he gave during that time. This was when the cranky Nader began to emerge, a man so markedly different from the one who stood in jubilation before the Green Party in November of 2000 after having posted three million votes. By the time he rolled into New Paltz four years later, you could tell he was over it.

Whatever you may think about Nader as a candidate, he deserved better than he got. He was a man who had dedicated his life in service to the greater good, and he spent his career holding accountable the most powerful corporations and governments. He attained certain heights of prominence and even power because he was the voice of the little guy. When he ran for office, it was to give voice to the voiceless, and stand for the things that the major parties eschewed.

But instead of letting you look at the platform, they had you look at the man. The man was much easier to discredit than the platform and the ideas behind them. Because of this, future generations may never understand how hip Nader was back in the day, and one of the most powerful public advocates may pass into history as a footnote.

The rancor in New Paltz continued after Nader’s visit, and things only got worse for me. I was seen as an interloper, at best a party flunky, at worst a provocateur. I was even accused of being some kind of government agent because I didn’t have a well documented activist history. At the time, I was trying to keep my past and my convictions on the DL, and so my ensuing silence about them only inflamed suspicions. To make matters worse, I was deeply resentful of all the suspicion, and I responded with a great deal of anger and defensiveness. I was completely dislocated from everything I knew, living out of a suitcase, surviving on slices of pizza, and it made me bitter. Very soon I had worn out my welcome, if it had ever existed at all.

I hopped a bus to DC the day before the election to meet up with the rest of the core team from the November 3rd Coalition. On election day I headed over to the Institute for Policy Studies to set up shop for the night. Throughout the early evening we received calls from our teams in Ohio, New Mexico, and Florida, and already things were amiss. We were receiving reports of day-long lines in the pouring rain for African Americans in Ohio, and machine glitches in New Mexico. But all in all, it looked like things were going well.

As the first returns were coming in, a Zogby exit poll predicted that Kerry would win by a landslide with 305 electoral votes.

Around 9pm things changed, dramatically. As polls closed in the eastern states, the vote-count put out by the National Election Pool (a private polling organization that had replaced the consortium that had handled previous elections) and broadcast on CNN, showed Bush leading Kerry by a massive 11 percent margin, an unprecedented gap of 12 to 14 percent between the tallied results and the exit polls. Anyone who understands the mathematics of polling knows that this is a statistical impossibility. The final figures put out by the National Election Pool seemed to flip the vote totals for Bush and Kerry, and this pattern was evident in the three key battleground states. This was clear evidence of vote tampering. [4]

As the night wore on, we received reports of more “irregularities” from our street teams, and it became clear to us that Ohio was the main focus of the Bush reelection team. There was most definitely coordinated voter fraud going on, particularly in the African American community, just as we had predicted.

By three o’clock in the morning the race was still undecided, so some of us who had been working all day and night curled up on the floor and got a few hours of sleep. When we woke up, the election was still “undecided,” Ohio was being called the new Florida, and it looked like we were in for another long drawn out battle. We were in the process of contacting the member groups of our coalition to prepare them for Phase II of our action plan when John Kerry suddenly conceded the race! The votes weren’t even counted yet and he still bowed out. People openly wept in the IPS offices.

If I didn’t know any better (which unfortunately, I do, but I’ll say it anyway) I’d say Kerry was in on the fix. You could say that I feel it in my (skull and) bones.

By the end of the week there was abundant evidence in the media of tampering and outright electoral fraud. [5]  The “smoking gun” came on Monday, November 8th, when MSNBC’s Keith Olberman reported [6]:

The mainstream newspaper, the Cincinnati Inquirer, reports that officials in Warren County, Ohio, that`s 20 miles northeast of Cincinnati, locked down their administration building last Tuesday night to prevent anybody from observing the vote count. Moreover the secrecy, unique among all 88 of Ohio`s counties, was attributed to concerns about potential terrorism.

The newspaper reports that Warren County emergency services director Frank Young had recommended the walling off of the vote count based on information received from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Mr. Young did not explain whether al Qaeda might have been planning to hit Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville or the King`s Island Amusement Park [two local attractions of note]. After some negotiating, reporters were finally admitted to that building around midnight. They were kept in the lobby. The counting went on unobserved two floors above them. Warren County`s polls were among the last in Ohio to close, thus among the last to report and thus among the votes that clinched the state and the election for President Bush [emphasis added]. A local television news director called the homeland security explanation a, quote, " red herring."

County prosecutor Rachel Hutzel told the newspaper that the Warren County commissioners were, quote, "within their rights to lock the building down, even though no other Ohio county did so because having photographers or reporters present could have interfered with the count." You bet, Rachel.

Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes were based on a margin of 2 percent in the vote, has other problems tonight. The state reports 92,000 presidential votes did not count. Ranging from votes improperly cast to votes improperly counted. And in Cuyahoga County, that is greater Cleveland, the official records of 29 different voting precincts show more votes than registered voters to a total of 93,000 extra votes in that county alone.

It wasn’t just a bad day for the Democrats, the third parties were humiliatingly trounced. Nader walked away with only 10% of his 2000 vote total, and Cobb barely pulled 100,000 votes. When I stopped into the Green Party office, I was told the national office might be closing. It was a bad day for the Greens.

If there is one silver lining to this fiasco, it is in the subsequent conduct of the third parties, and those most affected by the disenfranchisements, in Ohio. In a shocking and inspiring display of solidarity the Green and Libertarian Party joined forces with Progressive Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus to challenge Kenneth Blackwell’s vote certification.

David Cobb joined with Jesse Jackson and Libertarian presidential candidate, Michael Badnarik, to file suit in Federal court compelling three Ohio counties to recount their vote totals. They would unsuccessfully attempt the same with Nevada and New Mexico. For months they would deal with court prevarications and political obstacles strewn in their path, and ultimately lose. [7]  But the lawsuit led to a congressional inquiry by the House Judicial Committee, led by Michigan Congressman John Conyers, which concluded:

We have found numerous, serious election irregularities in the Ohio presidential election, which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters. Cumulatively, these irregularities, which affected hundreds of thousand of votes and voters in Ohio, raise grave doubts regarding whether it can be said the Ohio electors selected on December 13, 2004, were chosen in a manner that conforms to Ohio law, let alone federal requirements and constitutional standards. [8]

This report led to Robert Kennedy Jr’s precision analysis in Rolling Stone which built on the Conyer’s Report to present a detailed description of widespread electoral fraud. [9]  Kennedy concludes, “For the second election in a row, the president of the United States was selected not by the uncontested will of the people but under a cloud of dirty tricks.” Perhaps telling is the fact that Rolling Stone has since disappeared the article down the memory hole.

It doesn’t matter what the pundits try and argue, it was clear to anyone in the November 3rd Coalition that for the third time in a row Americans had been outright robbed of their democratic process. [10]  Perhaps the saddest aspect was how quickly the public rolled over and acquiesced. Despite abundant, concrete evidence, they refused to believe another election had been stolen. The biggest insults came from some of the liberal elite, who, rather than face that they had once again been duped and their boy had thrown the fight, decided, “Americans are just that stupid to reelect Bush.” The blame had been sloughed on the electorate, and the rest of us were told to “get over it.”

How, exactly?

Thoroughly demoralized, I dreaded going back to New Paltz. I vented some of my frustration to Medea Benjamin, and she suggested I accompany her to San Francisco for a change of scene and offered to buy me a plane ticket. The “Green Festival” was taking place that weekend, which her husband had co-founded, and she said it would be a nice way to decompress. It took me all of a minute to take her up on the offer. I had nothing to lose, and needed something, anything, to keep me going.

At Reagan Airport in DC I was pulled out of the security line and given a comprehensive search of my body and bags. I had in my suitcase my press tags for Newtopia and the Green Party, and a few political books including Mike Ruppert’s Crossing the Rubicon. The TSA agents present took note of everything they found, and asked me why I was in DC. After I explained it all to them, they added the November 3rd Coalition and the Institute for Policy Studies, to their list, and then sent me on my way without any explanation.

In San Francisco we were picked up by Medea’s husband, Dr. Kevin Danaher. The couple had co-founded the international human rights organization, Global Exchange, in the early 90s, and  later Danaher co-founded the Green Festivals, which he produced through a partnership with Co-Op America. He was a fast-talking, no bullshit, walking encyclopedia of politics and sustainability. Sporting a wool knit cap and a white goatee, Danaher exuded a hipness that was rare for the activist world. Able to explain pretty much anything to anyone, he never let you feel like you didn’t know something, and you always walked away from him knowing more than when you greeted him.

He and Medea were surrounded by a cadre of fiercely intelligent younger activists who were utterly committed to their cause. The Global Exchange offices on Mission St. were a vibrant locus of political consciousness. The day I first visited some filmmakers from Argentina dropped by to screen a documentary they had just finished on the cooperative movements that grew out of the country’s economic collapse in 2002. For the first time since I got involved in political activism I was surrounded by professionals whose knowledge base was humbling. This was nothing like back in Chicago.

In its third year, the Green Festival, held inside San Francisco’s Concourse Center, was unlike anything I had ever seen. I freely admit to being late to the party, that this stuff had been going on for a long time, but coming as I did from a conservative background, and living most of my life in Chicago and on the East Coast, I had no real awareness that there was such a thing as a Green Economy. What little I did understand about the Green movement was almost purely ideological. Now I was surrounded by scores of green merchants featuring sustainable technologies, clothing, food, and consumer goods. The speakers were giving solutions-based presentations, and the crowds were eating it up. In the midst of the most liberal city in America, where less than a week after the election the general mood was dark and gloomy like the pervasive fog coating the streets, the thousands of people inside the Concourse Center had not given up, and the place was bubbling over with hope.

“You want to see what the future looks like,” Danaher said, “take a look around. Everyone here is contributing something towards building an entirely new system, one built on three simple ideas: ecological balance, sustainable economics, and social justice. We’re not trying to tear anything down, and we’re not raising our fists in the air, we’re gettin’ busy making things.  Screw marching, let’s make worm poop. You wanna know how the Greens are gonna make themselves relevant, its not in Washington, it’s right here in this room. When shit starts to break down and the cats in Washington are scrambling around looking for solutions to energy and food crises, who do you think they’re gonna turn to? Who do you think will have the answers?”

Suddenly it all made sense. I had spent so much time talking shit about the hippies, how they gave up and didn’t finish the job in the Sixties, how they were useless and self-indulgent. But they didn’t give up, they just changed their strategy. When things got too inhospitable, they retreated to their isolated communities in Northern California and Oregon and they started building shit. They channeled all of their defiant energy into innovation and created technologies and lifestyle products that spoke to their value system. Oh, and they had kids and handed down those values to them, and the kids didn’t grow up to be Alex P. Keaton, they grew up to be more refined versions of their parents, carrying this hippie innovation into another generation. Now here we were, in 2004, and an entire sustainable subculture had emerged and converged on this narrow strip of convention hall.

I realized that I was meant to be there, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. It hadn’t taken long, I was quickly burning out on the whole protest thing. This was a new model, a wildly engaging one, and Danaher embodied the kind of personality that seemed commensurate with my own brash approach. His melange of business acumen, cultural awareness, and political savvy exuded what I would call a refined radicalism. He was able to navigate the system and speak its language while at the same time actively subverting it.

It took less than a week for me to convince myself that I was in paradise in San Francisco, and that I never wanted to go back to Chicago. The beauty of the landscape, the level of social consciousness, and permissiveness, and the dense collection of people doing pioneering work was more than I had ever experienced, and I finally felt like I was in some place where I could be appreciated. Even though I had no home and no job, I decided to stay. 

I began a nomadic existence. A friend of Medea’s let me house-sit her place in Oakland while she was out of town. Before she left, she turned me on to the work of writer Mike Davis, who I had read only sparingly and outside the context of his larger body of work. She gave me a book of his essays called Dead Cities, and I was transformed by it. It was some of the best writing I had ever seen, the perfect mix of socially relevant stories bearing deep political consciousness, vivid language and imagery, and proper contextualization, undergirded by an all-pervading sense of justice.

Reading Davis, I was reminded how good writing can be, and how much I had been neglecting my own work. Although I cranked out at least one feature a month on Newtopia, I hadn’t really branched out to other publications, and I wasn’t happy with the pieces I had written. They felt rushed and incomplete, and were crying out for more research and serious revision. It was becoming clear to me that all this running around trying to save the world was keeping me from doing what I loved most, writing, and Davis’ work lit a fire under my ass to start producing better quality material.

But I was conflicted. I took my obligations to the Green Party seriously, and I couldn’t escape the nagging guilt that I would be abandoning them, even as I was staring the futility of protest square in the face. I couldn’t understand how people like Medea and her Code Pink ladies kept at it in the face of so many repeated and consistent disappointments, but for the fact that it was their job, and if she didn’t do it, she didn’t pay the bills. Still, their level of commitment was astounding. For chrissakes they had been wearing nothing but pink for two years! They would march in the street for hours, chanting their slogans and holding their signs. I couldn’t do that. I admired them for what they were doing, but I needed to find another way.

Unwittingly, Medea’s friend more or less confirmed it for me when I asked her how she kept going. She looked at me as if the question itself was strange.

“I push myself until I can’t push anymore and then I have a little breakdown, and then I get up and do it all over again. And when I think about complaining or stopping, I remind myself of those who have it worse than me.”

I didn’t know whether this was supremely selfless, or willfully self-destructive, yet it was important for me to understand because I was in the same boat. I was wearing myself down. The summer and the election had totally depleted me, and I was completely stressed out because there was still so much more to do, and everywhere you looked we were losing. I didn’t want to push  it all the way to a breakdown, I knew enough to know it was the worst possible option for me. What I needed was a kind of reset, an ability to look at everything in my life from a fresh perspective.

I could never have known that the “reset” I was looking for was just around the corner, headed towards me on a high speed collision course, wearing a bird hat.

~~~~

Endnotes:

  1. Now known as the Liberty Tree Foundation for Democracy.
  2. “Machine Politics In the Digital Age,” by Melanie Warner, The New York Times, November 9, 2003.
  3. Taken from an Affidavit filed on December 6th, 2004 by Clint Curtis, former lead programmer of Yang Enterprises, who was asked to design a program for the 2000 election in Florida that manipulated vote totals without being detectable (published on the Brad Blog, December 2004)
  4. “Footprints of Electoral Fraud: The November 2 Exit Poll Scam” by Michael Keefer, Global Research, November 5, 2004.
  5. “Evidence of Electoral Fraud in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election: A Reading List” by Michael Keefer, OpEd News, 15 November 2004.
  6. “Did Your Vote Count: The Plot Thickens” COUNTDOWN, MSNBC, Monday November 8, 2004.
  7. “Ohio, recounted: A Green timeline” by Blair Bobier, Green Pages, Vol. 9, Issue 1, Spring 2005.
  8. “Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio” – Status Report of the House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff, January 5, 2005. 
  9. “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Rolling Stone, reprinted in its entirety on Third World Traveler.
  10. “What Happened in Ohio? A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election.” by Bob Fitrakis, Harvey Wasserman, and Steve Rosenfeld.

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Exile Nation copyright © 2010 Charles Shaw. All rights reserved.

Charles Shaw's work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review,Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guerrilla News Network,Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen's Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.

Charles is the Director of The Unheard Voices Project, the Editor of the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum, and the Editor of the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Sainsbury/Tedworth Charitible Trusts. He was Editorial Director of Conscious Enlightenment Publishing (Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Whole Life Times, and Seattle's Conscious Choice), the founder and publisher of Newtopia, head writer for the nationally syndicated radio show Reality Checks, Senior Staff Writer for The Next American City, and a Contributing Editor for Worldchanging.

Along-timeactivist and former official for the Green Party of the US, heis a native of Chicago who lives on the West Coast…for now.