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Casino foes push 'citizens' election'

They view the unofficial vote as a salvo to Harrisburg.

Anti-casino activists, conceding that the ballot initiative to bar slots parlors from most of Philadelphia has been all but killed by the state Supreme Court, are now promoting their own shadow referendum.

The "citizens' election" is aimed at sustaining Casino-Free Philadelphia's anti-slots effort. Activists hope to use the results to pressure legislators to amend the 2004 law that legalized slots.

Logistics for the unofficial vote are still being worked out just a week before next Tuesday's mayoral primary election.

At least one key anti-slots ally, City Councilman Frank DiCicco, was cool to the idea. "I don't know that anyone is going to take them seriously," he said.

The activists' plan calls for at least one ballot box to be placed outside a polling place in each of the city's 28 state legislative districts, and at selected high-traffic spots such as City Hall and Rittenhouse Square. Casino-Free Philadelphia says it will have 250 volunteers on the street for the primary.

Philadelphians will also be able to record a choice by voting online or by telephone. Daniel Hunter, coordinator for Casino-Free Philadelphia, said only registered Philadelphia voters would be able to participate.

The question is: Should casinos be kept 1,500 feet from schools, parks, churches, homes and playgrounds?

That was the ballot question the Supreme Court blocked last month with a preliminary injunction. The court offered no rationale for the decision; a final ruling could come any day.

The goal of the referendum was to effectively overturn the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board's decision to award slots licenses to the Foxwoods Casino in South Philadelphia and the SugarHouse Casino in Fishtown. Both sites are on the Delaware River waterfront.

Opponents say the casinos will snarl traffic, attract crime, and create more problem gamblers. Some activists flatly oppose slot machines in the city.

A variety of other court appeals challenging facets of the Gaming Control Board's licensing decisions are also before the Supreme Court, though even advocates acknowledge that the state law legalizing slots makes it unlikely the board's decisions can be reversed.

After the primary, anti-slots organizers will focus on persuading state legislators - many of whom are up for reelection in 2008 - to change the 2004 law that authorized slot-machine gambling at up to 14 sites in the state, including two stand-alone slots parlors in Philadelphia.

The proposals range from banning casinos to limiting slot parlors to industrial areas.

Casino-Free Philadelphia hopes to ally with the movement spurred by anger over the legislative pay-raise issue.

"It's all about persuading our elected officials to represent the people," said Paul Boni, Casino-Free Philadelphia's attorney. "The referendum was a legally binding way to accomplish that, but we have other politically binding ways to hold them accountable."

Before the preliminary injunction on April 13, the question was already placed on each of the city's 3,430 voting machines. That position on each machine has now now been covered with a sticker.

If the court reversed itself - widely seen as unlikely - removing the stickers, or pasting the ballot question back on each machine, would be "a very expensive task, and a very time-consuming task," said Nelson A. Diaz, acting city commissioner and former city solicitor. "But it could be done."

Bob Lee, the city's voter registration administrator, was not willing to say what he would do - "except I'm praying they don't rule" before the election, Lee said.

DiCicco questioned how the Casino-Free Philadelphia effort could generate representative, verifiable results. Without that, "it's a good gesture, but that's about all it adds up to," he said.

Yesterday, Casino Free Philadelphia lobbied for votes at a meeting of Grannies for Peace at The Watermark retirement community on Logan Square.

More than 25 residents listened as the Grannies' president, Florence Cohen, introduced Hunter by saying: "A casino doesn't bring peace; it brings turmoil and problems that we don't need in our city."

Hunter urged the senior citizens to vote against casinos, while his colleague, Mary Reinhart, said she believed she would lose her 1860s home in Pennsport to Foxwoods' plans to build a new ramp off Interstate 95.

"These casinos will devastate the quality of life," Reinhart said. Foxwoods says its construction plans will not displace any homes.

Casino companies say any impacts their casinos have will be more than made up by creating more than 2,000 permanent jobs and contributing millions in annual tax revenue.

"Philadelphia is one step closer to seeing millions in tax revenues, thousands of jobs, and more police on the streets," said Maureen Garrity, Foxwoods spokeswoman.

Construction could start later this year.