Paid petition circulators hit the streets yesterday evening in an ambitious push to collect nearly 17,600 signatures of registered D.C. voters before a Tuesday deadline to get a proposal to legalize slot machines on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The workers fanned out from a Red Roof Inn in Chinatown several hours after the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics held a special hearing to issue the petition form, giving proponents of the project less than 120 hours to gather the required number of signatures.
"We are not taking any stand on the initiative, whether we support it or are against it," board member Stephen G. Callas emphasized after the three-member panel approved the language in the petition, which contained revisions ordered Tuesday by a D.C. Superior Court judge.
Among the revisions was removal of language saying the D.C. Council would receive a nonbinding recommendation to spend its share of the slots money "to improve public schools and to help senior citizens." But one circulator included that pitch last evening as he urged city residents to sign the petition.
"Are you a registered voter?" Willie Hampton shouted as patrons entered and exited a Safeway grocery store in the 500 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE. "Free medical for senior citizens!"
Himie Pickett, who owns a management consulting firm in Northeast, shook his head. "I signed the petition because I want citizens of the District to be well informed and to make an educated decision, but I do not care for this guy's approach," he said. "I feel that his tactics are deceptive because it has not been proven that the money from slots will be going for medicine for senior citizens and jobs for District residents."
The initiative would ask voters to approve a plan to install as many as 3,500 video lottery terminals in an entertainment complex to be built on 14 acres at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso said yesterday that he and Rob Newell, a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands, were the investors in the project at this point and that they hoped to attract others.
Alfonso said organizers had recruited 60 to 70 petition circulators. But representatives for Progressive Campaigns Inc., the California company hired to run the petition drive, have told trainees that they have signed up at least 100 workers. Several of the petition handlers said they have been offered $1 to $3 per signature and $5 to recruit other workers for the campaign.
In the early evening, workers were seen at the Chinatown hotel wearing yellow T-shirts with red lettering that said, "Sign Up! For Jobs, Schools, and Health Care."
Outside the Safeway store on Rhode Island Avenue NE, Archie Harris gladly signed the petition.
"We have such a problem getting revenue from other streams [that] this is a good idea," the 39-year-old lawyer said. "I don't see gambling as an ill of society. There are worse things."
Near Union Station, James Smith, 41, also expressed hope that revenue from slots could improve city services.
As long as slots stay out of residential areas, they would be just another tourist attraction for the city, he said, adding, "It's just like an entertainment thing."
But Milton McGee, 44, and Robin Jones, 45, said they signed the petition because they thought it opposed slots.
"Do you know how many people are suffering today because of stuff like that?" McGee asked circulators. Jones added: "To bring that here isn't going to do nothing but make things worse."
The petition distributors will have to work through the Fourth of July holiday weekend, when many residents are out of town, to get 17,599 valid signatures, or 5 percent of the number of registered voters in the District. Supporters of the initiative also must make sure that the total includes 5 percent of the registered voters in each of five of the city's eight wards.
The general counsel for the elections board, Kenneth J. McGhie, said at the hearing yesterday that the petition workers must be District residents older than 18. But two men who said they had signed up with the petition effort noted in interviews that they live in Virginia and were never asked by petition organizers whether they lived in the District.
Board officials also explained that signatures must be those of registered District voters. Several of the newly hired petition workers said they have been instructed not to ask people if they are registered to vote in the city for fear it might make them reluctant to engage with the workers and sign the petition.
Two petition circulators also said they have been told by those directing the drive not to use such words as "slots" or "gambling" when discussing the initiative with potential signatories.
Calls made to Progressive Campaigns in Santa Monica yesterday were not returned.
Backers of the initiative have said they would like to collect 40,000 to 50,000 signatures in case some are invalidated by the elections board during its review. Once the petitions have been submitted to the board, it has 30 days to review them and make sure they meet the requirements.
McGhie also explained that petition handlers cannot make false or misleading statements to people in order to get their signatures. "If it is a false statement meant to induce somebody, you could be prosecuted," McGhie said. He added that petition handlers must "personally watch" each person sign the form and cannot offer anything of value to someone in an effort to get them to sign.
Meanwhile, the initiative's backers were scrambling yesterday to acquire airtime for a 60-second radio ad and a 30-second television ad promoting the project and its economic benefits.
"We would like to be on the air by [today], but there is a process of buying TV and radio ads and finding out what the availability is for spots," said Deno Seder, who is handling the media campaign.
"It is possible that if we don't get on [today], we won't do it at all," Seder said. "We are racing against the clock."
Staff writers David Montgomery and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.