By Matt Blanchard
In a week of public outcry both for and against casinos, Philadelphia politicians struggled to get on the right side of the casino issue – though some say they still don’t know which side that is.
With City Council facing a key casino decision on June 13, councilmen Darrell Clarke, Frank DiCicco and Bill Greenlee each appeared in listening tour fashion before keyed-up crowds of river ward citizens. So far, all three are singing the same tune: “Don’t ask us how we’re going to vote.”
Meanwhile in the statehouse, Center City state Rep. Babette Josephs finally picked a side and went on the attack.
State Rep. Babette Josephs unveiled legislation on Friday that would force the relocation of Sugarhouse and Foxwoods casinos to sites at least 1,500 feet from residential areas.
Speaking at a press conference near City Hall, Josephs said she had the support of at least 30 co-sponsors in the state House, including river ward rep. Mike O’Brien.
The measure is essentially a state version of the anti-casino referendum pushed by Casino Free Philadelphia in the May 15th primary. That referendum was stricken by the courts, but if Josephs’ measure somehow passes, the Center City legislator said it would have overriding legal power.
“If the state legislature says you cannot do something in the city of Philadelphia, then that is the controlling power,” Josephs said. “Basically, we can tell them what to do. It’s not what I like to do, but in this case, I like it.”
With just three weeks left in the legislative session, Josephs’ measure is unlikely to shift the casino struggle any time soon. Yet anti-casino activists rallied behind Josephs yesterday, test-driving a new chant: “Move them or lose them.”
“We are here today because casinos were legalized though a secret, midnight, holiday weekend vote that has long been discredited, and yet the consequences of that process continues,” said Matt Ruben of the Delaware River Neighborhood Alliance. “This is the beginning of the end of that.”
Supporters of Josephs’ election opponent, Larry Farnese, were also on hand to criticize her bill as a “flip-flop.” In the May primary, Farnese gave Josephs the closest election of her 22 years in the legislature.
“Babette Josephs originally voted for Act 71, and three weeks before the legislative session ends, she suddenly decides to introduce a bill,” said Farnese spokesman Mike Luce. “It’s really insulting to the constituents of her district to sit by and wait so long.”
Josephs also promised to open another front in the casino war. As chair of the House State Government Committee, Josephs said she would convene hearings this summer to open the records of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, where she expects to find material shocking enough to swing public opinion against the casinos statewide.
“I predict we are going to find some shocking things when we open those records that are going to bring to our side more supporters and supporters across the state,” Josephs said.
Mr. Clarke’s Conundrum
The casino question is also on city council’s front burner, with a vote on Juan Ramos’ proposed Commercial Entertainment District zoning designation for Sugarhouse scheduled for June 13.
Councilman Darrell Clarke’s fifth district is mostly North Philadelphia, but the small arm that happens to reach into Fishtown has put Clarke in a sticky spot: No matter how he votes on the 13th, he’ll be losing friends in Fishtown.
Clarke started the week facing a crowd of 300 pro-casino neighbors at a meeting of Fishtown Action, a community group that welcomes Sugarhouse for the jobs it will bring. He ended the week with a Thursday night meeting of 100 generally anti-casino residents who live closest to the site in six blocks of rowhomes sandwiched between I-95 and Delaware Avenue. They’re terrified that casino traffic and crime will wipe their small enclave off the map – perhaps literally.
“My greatest fear is the eminent domain of where we live to clear up traffic,” said one resident. “Ten or twelve years down the road, they’re gonna take our houses from us.”
Through both meetings, Clarke’s position has been admirably consistent yet unsatisfying to both sides. Though he can’t say how he’ll vote, Clarke says casinos are probably inevitable – and at their present locations – no matter what city council does.
“Casinos are coming to Philadelphia,” Clarke told the immediate neighbors. “And the way it looks right now, I don’t see any way the locations are going to change.”
Clarke had called the Thursday night meeting to gather ideas for how this part of Fishtown can survive casino impacts.
Residents, however, showed more interest in fighting the casino, at times begging Clarke to take a strong stand in council, using his vote to stop Juan Ramos’ zoning bill that could clear the path for casino construction.
“Vote with your good friend Frank DiCicco and defeat the Ramos bill,” urged attorney Katie Recker.
Clarke declined that call, saying such a hard stance would weaken his ability to protect the neighborhood when the casino arrives. Sugarhouse simply wouldn’t talk to him.
“I don’t know why they would negotiate with me if I’m trying to kill their project,” Clarke said. “If this thing happens, I need to be in a position to protect the neighborhood.”
Intended only for residents of houses immediately around the site at Delaware and Shackamaxon Streets, the meeting got off to a rocky start when Clarke asked the press and non-immediate neighbors to wait outside.
Clarke eventually relented, and instead ended up asking representatives of Sugarhouse to leave when the crowd called for their exclusion.
At large councilman Bill Greenlee sat quietly through the three-hour session. He eventually took the microphone to share a position that, for better or worse, seems quite popular on council:
“I’m not committing to anything tonight,” Greenlee said. “You all should keep fighting if that’s what you want to do. But you should also try to make sure you get what you need from the casinos.”