A tit-for-tat zap by Building Trades

In political payback for a series of unanimous City Council votes that could derail casino construction, the Building Trades Council has opted not to endorse any Council incumbents in May's primary election.

The unprecedented decision - reached quietly last week by the Building Trades executive committee - will deprive Council members of campaign cash and election-day supporters, as well as the votes of at least some Building Trades members.

The news stunned incumbents, particularly those, such as Juan Ramos, who have long been backed by labor generally and the construction unions in particular.

"Did I stutter?" responded Building Trades Council president Pat Gillespie when asked if longtime union friends would indeed be among those locked out.

"How bad do I feel about this? How disappointed am I in people who I considered friends?" Gillespie asked. "This is distasteful for me, but they're the ones who voted for it."

At issue is a sequence of Council votes that put a question on the May ballot asking whether Philadelphians wish to limit casino construction to a handful of remote sites that casino proponents call untenable.

Instead of backing incumbents, the Building Trades Council will work to elect at-large challengers Bill Green and Sharif Street, Gillespie said.

Street's campaign did not say where the candidate stood on the referendum.

Green said he likely would have voted with Council to put it on the ballot. When told that, Gillespie said the Building Trades Council was backing Green because he is "an honest and intelligent guy."

Gillespie is worried that if the referendum question is approved, his council's union members ultimately could be deprived of more than $1.5 billion in construction work, which includes the cost of the casinos as well as the Convention Center expansion that is to be funded by casino proceeds.

Most members of City Council are very friendly to organized labor. But with all facing reelection this year, they are also keenly aware of growing opposition to the proposed SugarHouse and Foxwoods casinos along the Delaware River.

"So they're going to punish us for this, and ignore all the other projects we have collectively supported over the years: the stadiums, the Comcast building, the 10-year tax abatement. None of that's being remembered," said Councilman Frank DiCicco, who has led the anti-casino movement on City Council.

DiCicco has a frosty relationship with Gillespie and did not expect to have Building Trades backing.

But at-large Councilman Ramos has deep and personal ties to organized labor, and has come to rely on union support in elections.

Yesterday, Ramos called Gillespie his friend three times and said, "I respect his views all the time and every time."

"It was a very difficult decision for me," Ramos said of his vote to put the referendum on the ballot. "But my labor credentials are impeccable, and I think this was the right thing to do."

The Building Trades Council also decided last week to publicly campaign against the referendum question, Gillespie said. The question asks voters to prohibit casinos from any parcel within 1,500 feet of any Philadelphia home, school, park, or place of worship. That restriction, coupled with a state law that prohibits casinos at sites within 10 miles of racetracks, would leave casino operators few, if any, viable sites in Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has challenged the referendum in court, seeking to strike it from the ballot. Yesterday, the Foxwoods casino joined that suit.

Not to be outdone, anti-casino activists filed three lawsuits against the gaming board. Collectively, the suits allege that the board violated the Sunshine Act, ignored environmental-impact and traffic studies, and disregarded local zoning laws.

Daniel Hunter, a member of Casino Free Philadelphia, said yesterday that he welcomed the chance to debate the Building Trades Council ahead of the May 15 election.

"We're gearing up for it. Democracy is about different opinions, and we think it would be very useful to have a debate," Hunter said.

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.