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Rep. Cheri Bustos: Legislating by Listening

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Rep. Cheri Bustos: Legislating by Listening

Representative Cheri Bustos, congresswoman from Illinois and chair of the DCCC, talks about the values that women bring to leadership and about winning as a Democrat in a district that also voted for Trump.

Learn more about Rep. Bustos’s legislative priorities on her website. Find her on Twitter at @RepCheri.

In this episode, Cheri paid tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis, who passed away in July of this year. Read more about him and his life and legacy here.

Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to

Cheri Bustos: You can't be a Democrat that says, "Oh, that's rural America we're going to write that off. They're just going to vote Republican." You don't do that. You go in even if it's uncomfortable. You go in and you show up and you listen to people.

KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

A quick note before we dive into the episode. Cheri and I recorded this conversation about two months ago and at the end of the interview, she takes a moment to pay tribute to Congressman John Lewis. When we spoke, he had passed away just a few days before.

My guest today, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, is the chair of the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is working to elect other Democrats to the House of Representatives. She's been called the future of the Democratic Party. One of the only Democrats representing Illinois from outside Chicagoland. In 2016 she won her district by more than 20 points, a district that voted for Donald Trump. Cheri, welcome to Burn the Boats. It's great to have you.

CB: Thank you Ken. I'm glad to be with you.

KH: I wanted to start by asking you about that margin. How did you pull it off?

CB: Oh gosh, okay. Well, so I'm going to explain my district a little bit just for perspective. In the state of Illinois, there are 18 congressional districts. Of those 18, we have 13 Democrats and five Republicans. And then of the 13 Democrats, 12 are in Chicagoland, and I would be the 13th. So when you said I'm one of the only members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation-

KH: You are the only.

CB: I am the only. I hope not for long. I hope. There's a woman named Betsy Dirksen Londrigan running in central Illinois and I'm hoping she wins in November. So that's for a little perspective, just to understand that. The district I serve starts in central Illinois, covers the entire northwest corner of the state and it's 14 counties, 7,000 square miles, 711,000 people. A lot of farm country. We have 9,600 family farms. A lot of manufacturing. We're the world headquarters for John Deere, so any of the combines that you see out there in the farm country, those we made literally right down the street from where I live. So it is not exactly fertile territory for a lot of Democrats.

But to your question Ken, I think as much as anything, it is about using proportionately what God gave us, two ears and one mouth. Listening and doing something with what we learned from people, so we do everything from what we call Supermarket Saturdays where I just talk to people at the grocery stores. This was pre-pandemic obviously. We do something called Cheri on Shift where I job shadow people. I've done 100 of those. We do something where we take books to small town libraries and it's a really good way just to get people together in a civilized manner. It's interesting, if you go to libraries, people don't like to yell or scream or anything so it's a good way to get to know people. But just those kinds of things. Listening to people and then doing something with what I learn.

That's probably a long answer after I told you I like to listen as much as I like to talk, but that's kind of what I would say how I've learned from people. I've lived in the congressional district that I serve for 35 years. We've raised our three sons there. My husband's the sheriff of our county. I would say that would be what has led to my last election, which was a 24 point margin in a district that Donald Trump won.

KH: I've been tracking my Cheri Bustos news alerts in preparation for this interview, and there's a common thread. The striking thing about the way you are covered is just how very local every story seems. You're covered for your advocacy for health insurance, for ag projects, for infrastructure, for locks and dams and flood mitigation. It's never for getting into a shouting match on the Capitol steps. It's never for the kind of flashy conflict that dominates so much coverage of Congress today. Is that intentional or just a byproduct of your approach to politics?

CB: No, it's very intentional and it's where my passions are. I've lived in Illinois my entire life, other than going away to college. I come from a long line of farmers. My grandfather was a hog farmer, uncle hog farmer, other uncles dairy farmers. So those are our roots. On my husband's side of the family: his father, a WWII veteran, had an eighth grade education, was born dirt poor, literally born inside of a boxcar. I mean, if you think about that. And the only way that he was able to support his wife and his four children was because he was a union member with the UAW, the United Auto Workers, and he built those combines that I talked about earlier. So those are our roots and I just think we are called representatives for a reason, because we are elected to represent the people. And whether you are a mayor or city council member or member of Congress, you represent those who elect you to serve. So you won't see, Ken, a lot of viral moments out of what I do.

KH: Give us one.

CB: You know what? Here, I'll give you one, which is so bizarre. When I was first elected, and I think it was the very first State of the Union that I went to, and I have a group of close girlfriends who are other members of Congress from all over the country. We all wore pink suits to this State of the Union. And I can't even remember if we planned it or if it's just what we ended up wearing. And somebody shot a picture of us and posted it and it went viral. We got called “the Pink Ladies”. So something so benign, and it just struck me at that moment... I'm a former journalist. I was a journalist for 17 years of my career and I just thought of things that I've done, whether it was in my campaign or early legislation that I sponsored, nothing really took hold like a group of six woman, members of Congress, wearing a pink suit. So that just shows you to some degree the shallowness of what's out there.

KH: Yeah.

CB: But I don't seek to get viral moments. I really want to make sure that I am doing right by the people that I serve. That is my primary goal.

KH: I did not see that picture of the congresswomen in pink, but I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't in some way a reactionary reflex to the wave of women now making their way into Congress and representing their districts. And you've commented about that at length, and I would love your thoughts on the different sensibility that women bring to the job. The focus on dialogue and coalition building and a different style of leadership. And I'll contextualize this comment by pointing out that today over 62% of Democrats in Congress are minorities and women and for Republicans that figure is below 10% and still falling.

CB: Wow. You know what Ken? I had not heard those numbers in those terms. That's remarkable. I'm the mom of three sons and I've been married for 34 years, so this isn't by any means... they've run the world for centuries. Women being in positions of power is historically relatively new. And I think we're off to a really good start. But I'll give you one anecdotal story about how women view things differently than men. I am on what's called the Congressional Women's Softball Team. I was a college athlete. I did not play college softball. I played college basketball and volleyball, I wasn't division one quality but I was good enough to play at a division three school, and I love sports. And so I joined the Congressional Women's Softball Team as soon as I was elected. I'm the shortstop on the team and just for the record I typically bat third or fourth in the order. But the reason I'm bringing this up in context about how women do things, there's also a Congressional Men's Baseball Team. Now I'm going to tell you the difference between these two teams. The men, and that game’s been around for 100 year, ours has only been around for a dozen or so, but the men, they structure their teams this way, it's Democrats against Republicans. And that's how it's been structured for a long time. So there's this big competition.

So the teams they practice as Democrats only, same thing, or Republicans only. Then they practice and they play this one game and it's all for fun and it's for charity. So look at the women's team now. Our team is made up of Democrats and Republicans, House members and Senators. We practice at 7:00 o'clock in the morning two to three mornings a week for months for one game. And our opponent is the Women's Washington Press Corps. Now the reason I share that with you is because we structure things where we can work together. We take pride in the fact that on first base is Martha Roby from Alabama. On second base is Debbie Wasserman Schultz from Florida, a Democrat. I'm the shortstop, a Democrat from Illinois. Third base is Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia. Pitching is Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat Senator from New York. Catching is Joni Ernst, a Republican Senator from Iowa.

So my point is that when you're practicing at 7:00 o'clock in the morning, two to three mornings a week for months you get to know about people's families, about what excites them, what they're working on legislatively, what they do in their spare time, and you just get to know people as human beings as opposed to just “they are the other party and they are the enemy”. But the way the men's is set up, they don't even structure it so they can work together in sports. So I think that says a lot about women and our way of building relationships and governing versus how maybe more historically men have approached it.

KH: There used to be so many more avenues for that kind of interaction between sides, and it seems like we're down to softball and to a lesser degree baseball, but you read about the House and the Senate of 20 and 30 years ago and there were bipartisan dining clubs.certainly we lost something when we did away with those institutions and those mechanisms for forcing Democrats and Republicans to interact. Seth Moulton once told me that the place in Washington where the most work actually happens is the House gym because it's where members are forced to interact.

CB: Yeah. I mean, you really do have to look for those opportunities. When I was first elected, and I can look back at this and think, "Well, maybe I was naïve to think it," I hate to say that, but I called or sent emails or sat down with every new member of my congressional class, Democrat and Republican, “let's first get to know each other before we're sworn in”. And my hope was really to build those relationships early on. I remember also early on reaching out to Republican women on various legislative opportunities to see if we could co-sponsor some things and it was much more of a struggle than I had anticipated. That's not healthy.

I'm told, and I wasn't in Washington then, but when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House that that was really where things changed. He encouraged his Republican members under his leadership not to build those relationships because his goal was to go after those Democrats and hang on to the majority and grow the majority, and all of that. But the side effects of that kind of direction I think has really hurt our democracy actually. I hope for better days ahead.

KH: Do you think that's a possibility given just how damaging the last decade plus of scorched earth politics has been? I mean, it's not as if we have a foundation left to build on. What happens the morning after the November 3rd election? And I'm not taking it on faith that Donald Trump will be removed from office, but should he be how do you begin rebuilding that trust between two sides that have been at each other's throats?

CB: Well here's why I have hope for it, but it's going to take work. Hope alone will not do it, but we currently have 30 Democrats serving in Congress from Trump districts. So in other words, people went to the polls in those congressional districts, voted for Donald Trump, and then when they went down ballot voted for the Democrat. So 30 of those. I think we are going to have even more after the November 3rd election. The reason I'm bringing that up is because if you're a Democrat and you come from a Trump district, like I do and probably all 30 of those now serving would say the same thing, you have to show the people that you are serving that you want to work across the aisle, that you have friends on the other side of the aisle, because they do not tolerate anything other than that. They don't want their member of Congress to be far, far, far one way or another. They want to see you working together. That is viewed as something that is positive. So that's number one.

Number two, and I do think Joe Biden is going to win. And I think he is a remarkable public servant who has always taken pride in having friends on the other side of the aisle. Now he got beat up for that a little bit in one of the debates or a statement that he made early on, but I think that's a good thing and I'm proud to be supporting him. Joe Biden is a healer, and I believe that he will help heal this nation. He's a kind man, and I think we're going to have the right members of the U.S. House of Representatives who will be elected. So that is why, Ken, I have hope that things will get better after this election.

KH: Like Joe Biden you have also taken your share of incoming for your efforts to reach out to Trump voters to understand them, to empathize, and that speaks to a real tension within the party today between those like you who are making that appeal and those who fear it will dilute or water down the ambitions of progressives to effect real systemic change. How do you answer that charge?

CB: Well, I think again, it gets back to listening, it gets back to understanding the people you serve in the district. So after Donald Trump won and it was such a surprise to so many people, I decided to figure out what happened at a deeper level, focusing on the Midwest. I mean, rural America is where I'm strongest. So I partnered with a political science professor who lives in my congressional district, a guy named Robin Johnson. He teaches at Monmouth College. We interviewed Democrats who were successful in very Republican areas in eight states in the Midwest, with the idea being, “how are they successful when all around them those areas were trending more Republican?” What we learned from that is that kind of to the point we made earlier. You show up. You can't be a Democrat that says, "Oh, that's rural America we're going to write that off. They're just going to vote Republican." You don't do that. You go in even if it's uncomfortable. You go in and you show up and you listen to people. What you realize is that when you talk to people, whether they voted for Donald Trump or whether they've been moderate Republicans or whatever their background, but you figure out there is a heck of a lot more that unites people than divides people. Health care is a uniter from a personal perspective. Not politically, but whether you're poor or rich or young or old, health care is a high priority. And we, frankly, Democrats have become the party of health care.

I try very hard not to get defensive. If somebody's going after me, you just listen. I don't like rudeness. I don't want people getting in my face and yelling at me because I don't think I deserve that either, but you got to have thick skin in this line of work. But in the end, there's just so much... And Ken you know this too. When you were out and about running for your seat in Congress and you were a remarkable candidate. Coming out and spending time with you, you did exactly what we talk about in this report that we called Hope From the Heartland. Sometimes Democrats run in districts that it's just nearly impossible to win. But I think if you do all of those things that we talk about over time, I think that's the secret to political success.

KH: After that 2016 election in which you prevailed by a massive margin in a district that Trump won, Politico called you the secret weapon Democrats don't know how to use. You're now the chair of the DCCC. Clearly the weapon Cheri Bustos is finally being deployed. How are you bringing your experience to bear on that job? Which again is a coalition building job and you're in a distinct minority. There may be 30 Dems from Trump districts, but it's only 30 in a caucus of many, many more. How have you prevailed upon your colleagues to take your approach seriously?

CB: I like to use the phrase if you are either running for office or you are running for reelection, I always say “run like you're the mayor”. And what I mean by that is, all things are local. When I served on a city council, one of my vivid memories is of a neighbor marching down the street in front of my house and I'm outside doing some yard work and she's waving her water bill at me saying, "You better do something about this or I'm going to go to the press." Or the assistant at a law firm asking what I was going to do about the weed that was growing in the crack of the sidewalk. I mean, it's like nothing was too small or too minor when you're on the city council or for that matter when you're the mayor. So what I mean by that is, you got to know your district just like it's your town. You got to know the people in it and the idiosyncrasies of different people, of different groups, of different neighborhoods. And you've got to show up. That is the term I use. “Run like you are running for mayor or like you are the mayor”. It gets back to- I told you earlier I was a journalist for 17 years of my career. I followed in the footsteps of my father who wrote a five day a week political column for the local paper back in the day before he himself went on to be a deputy press secretary and a chief of staff for various offices of public service. But my dad used to say, "In journalism," and this applies to politics, he would always say, "you localize dog poop," but he would not say poop. And as weird as that sounds, what he meant is that you find the local angle to everything, no matter how small or insignificant it may be. And he always did that as a journalist. If there was something that was happening in the Middle East, who in your community had come from the Middle East who could talk about what it was like when they were there. And that applies so well to politics. I'm on the Appropriations Committee, but what is the local project that I need to fight for as part of a bigger bill in appropriations? And when I told you before Ken that I'm not looking for viral moments, I'm looking for successes that I can take home and help the communities that I serve.

KH: That's obviously a personal reflection, but is it a larger critique. Do you think politics, in particular the politics of the House, has become too performative?

CB: Social media doesn't always do us favors. This was very controversial, but there was a columnist at the New York Times who resigned and in a scathing letter wrote that Twitter had become the editor of the New York Times. I make a practice of- I don't look at comments on social media as a way of living my life. I stopped doing that in 2011, okay? So for nine years now I don't pay attention to whether something is really positive and we're getting a lot of good buzz or whether something is really negative, because I just don't think that's healthy. And so, I just think that in politics and even in public service social media has played a role in I guess playing to the camera that I don't think is very healthy. So I don't know if that answers your question well enough but that's just kind of what came to my mind when you asked that.

KH: It does. It begs a follow on though, which is other than disciplining oneself to not pay attention to those kinds of things, is there a systematic fix? I mean, is there a way for example to identify Twitter users who opt in by their congressional district? I mean, how do you know who to listen to and what to tune out? Because part of the job is listening, right?

CB: Well, yeah it is. We have a very robust legislative correspondence department, and it does matter if somebody is contacting us from within our congressional district. I mean, we have a whopping 711,000 people, so there's plenty of people to go around in our congressional district for us to listen to, so when somebody calls us, writes a letter to us, communicates on social media we want to know where they're coming from. And it matters a lot as to whether they are coming from one of the 14 counties or the 150 towns in the congressional district that I serve or if they're coming from across the country in Wyoming. But the answer Ken, I think is very, very complicated. You got to be very thick skinned in this line of work and I think it actually there is a lot of people who would be great public servants, who would be wonderful members of Congress or mayors or school board members or whatever, that just don't want to go through the political process. And that's really a shame. Your life is out there for everybody to see, to scrutinize, to criticize, and... But it was my husband back in 2011 when I would read every comment to everything and I would at the end of the night I would say, "Gosh, I can't believe this person said this about me." Or, "This is just so untrue." He finally after listening to me for a while said, "By you reading that does that make you a better person? Does that help you feel better?" And when he put it that starkly I'm like, "No, it's not." He said, "Well stop reading it." I said, "I got to know what people think. I got to know what people are saying." And he said, "You have your team to do that." I had a political team at that point and now we have a congressional team and a political team, and he's right. If there's something that needs to be elevated to my level in a reasonable way, then I'm going to know about it. But literally sitting in front of your smartphone or your iPad or anything else and just reading so much negativity is just not healthy. So I think I have a healthy self-awareness and self-respect and self-confidence, and that I do not want to compromise no matter what I'm doing in life. I just don't want to compromise that.

KH: You have said that you consider the Democratic majority in the House to be a fragile majority. Do you still hold that view? Do you perceive a seismic culture shift underway that might cement it for much longer than majorities have existed in the past or as chair of the DCCC, do you operate by Sherrod Brown's maxim, you're either running scared or running unopposed?

CB: I believe in what Sherrod said. I think that's how you should run every race no matter what. And I can tell you the race that I won by 20 points in 2016 and the race that I won by 24 points in 2018, again in a swing district that Donald Trump ended up winning, we worked very, very hard. We had a team, so I do believe that. Here's the reason I call it a fragile majority, we as House Democrats- we only have a 15 seat majority. That had been 17, by the way, but one Democrat switched and became a Republican in the last several months and another Democrat resigned and then we did not hang on to that seat. We only have a 15 seat majority. So that's one number to look at. Then again, back to the number we talked about earlier, Ken. We have 30 Democrats from districts that Donald Trump won. He's at the top of the ticket on November 3rd. We have some Democrats who are in very, very, very tough districts who are wonderful members of Congress, but they have fights ahead of them in this race. They're in the middle of fights right now. So to hang on to those seats, everything has to go right. We know we've got the right candidates and the right members in these districts. They will have the resources they need to get their messaging out. You just especially when you're in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and we’re gonna have vote by mail, it's like all of that coming together to hang on to this House majority. And my hope is that we grow the House majority and make some wonderful things happen for our country and heal the massive divisions that have like really grown wide over the last three and half years.

I'm hoping that post November 3rd and if the political landscape looks different, that we fix some of what's broken, and that we really just focus on making our country a better place. If we do that in a reasonable way that we bring people along, instead of alienating people, then I think that's how you solidify the Democratic Party and the strength of the Democratic Party. I'm from the land of Lincoln and grew up in Springfield, Illinois several miles from Lincoln's home and Abraham Lincoln had a saying that public sentiment is everything. With it you can do almost anything. Without it you can accomplish almost nothing. And so, I think it will be critically important that as the political landscape changes and as Democrats gain strength, and I think we will, hope we will, but that we bring people along. And I just think that's very, very important. It takes a lot of work, a lot of communication, but I think that's the way to success.

KH: In a electoral system though that is so vulnerable to outside influence, to attempts by the president to discredit the integrity of elections, is public sentiment really everything? I mean, we've had two elections in my lifetime now where public sentiment did not carry the day when it came to the outcome of a presidential election. What are the biggest threats to the democracy that you're perceiving in the run up to the November 3rd election? Is the DCCC focusing on any particular issues?

CB: It's got to be engaging voters. We have way too many people who sit out elections. We have to excite people, and I don't mean by being provocative at every level, but taking the time to in schools talk about the importance of civic engagement. We've got people out marching now and I think we have to look at that in a way that people are interested in making changes, especially as it pertains to social justice. Making sure that no matter who you are, where you're born, what color your skin is, whatever your income level is that people have a shot at succeeding. And that's always been the hope of Americans, right? The old American dream. We've got to make sure that people feel that again and we get the levels of participation up. We will have a plan to register new voters, to engage people. We're having to do this virtually- we have built from the ground up at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee what we call the Virtual Action Center to engage people from the comfort of their homes, but to bring people in. We've got to get that right. Right now more than 750,000 voters have engaged through our Virtual Action Center in what we call peer-to-peer texting. We had 22,000 people sign up for congressional campaigns all over the country, so we are trying to figure out a way how do we reach people where they are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic where I don't believe that our country can live through and hang on to this democracy that is so precious, I don't think we can afford to do that under Donald Trump's leadership for another four years. I think this election is that important. And Joe Biden I think is the antidote to getting our country back on the right path. We just have to get enough people engaged to bring about some meaningful and some lasting change in our country.

KH: Do you think those efforts are going to be enough to overcome the overt voter suppression and intimidation that we're seeing day after day?

CB: We've partnered with our sister committee called the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and also with state parties all over the country in investing $10 million in lawsuits in about half of our states where there have been overt steps to get in the way of people's democracy, of their right to vote. And I mean it's everything from in the state of South Carolina where in order to register to vote you had to give someone your full social security number. We changed that through the court systems, so you only have to give your last four digits. Or in the state of Michigan where if you're a college student you had roadblocks set up to be able to vote at college. When you think about it like pre-pandemic you were in college and you were not allowed to vote from your college address.

So lawsuits like that to ballot order. There's as much as a five point advantage to the person whose name is on top of the ballot, you know the first name listed, and yet in several states the Republicans always had their names first, including in Florida. Election after election after election it was always the Republicans' name who was listed first, so we filed suit on that and we won that. So just things like that that if you're an average every day voter you don't give it a whole lot of thought, but we know that these were things that were set up to benefit a certain party or get in the way of people's voting rights.

KH: Well thank you so much Cheri for coming on the show. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question. What is the bravest decision that you've ever been a part of?

CB: Actually it was less than a week ago that Congressman John Lewis died, I'm going to turn this to him. And for your listeners I think probably most know who John Lewis was, but he was a civil rights leader. He was one of the leaders marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the Selma to Montgomery march where after they crossed the bridge faced a line of police with batons, and John Lewis was beaten, thought he was going to die. And that was back when he was a very young man, but he spent his entire life making difficult decisions in service of others, whether he walked towards personal danger. If he knew that it was the right and moral thing to do, he did it. I never saw him rude to anyone. He was kind to everyone, and so many people wanted something from him, whether it was a picture or to go to their congressional district and speak or speak at a commencement or whatever. And he treated everybody with every request with kindness.

But just as a closing thought, we were on a call yesterday with our Democratic Caucus, and Steny Hoyer from the state of Maryland who is our majority leader, he said of John Lewis that he was the most Christ-like person he has ever known. And a lot of times when you hear members of Congress talk you kind of think, "Oh, there was a little hyperbole in that or a little exaggeration in that." But after Leader Hoyer I said that I started thinking and it's like, "I believe that John Lewis literally is the most Christ-like person I have ever known in my life." So to me the fact that I have been able to serve in Congress alongside a legend like John Lewis and to see him day in and day out treat everybody with kindness and just how he stood up for the underdog at every single turn, to me I guess I will say that that was something that I witnessed that was truly in service of others every single day that I saw him.

KH: Well thank you so much for sharing that Cheri and thank you for coming on the show.

CB: Thank you Ken.

KH: Thanks again to Cheri Bustos for joining me. You can keep up with her on Twitter at @RepCheri.

Next week on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Tim Ryan - representative for Ohio’s 13th Congressional district. We talk politics - about Trump and Ohio and about Tim’s current reelection campaign. But we also talk about something a little more positive - and that’s mindfulness, which he considers key to his success as a leader and politician.

And we want to hear from you - do you practice mindfulness and, if so, what does it do for you?

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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