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ROSS TAKES REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRATIC FOES TO TASK

With her main Democratic gubernatorial rival starting his airwaves campaign this week, Lt. Gov. Ross gained some attention of her own in Buffalo on Tuesday morning by chastising Gov. Pataki for not bringing a casino gambling referendum to New York voters.

She also wasted no time in joining a National Organization for Women blast at Democratic opponent Peter F. Vallone, the New York City Council speaker, for his ads touting his pro-choice record.

"Obviously from this statement, Peter Vallone does not have a strong pro-choice record," she said in her continuing quest for female votes. "I'm confident most Democratic women want a governor who is unequivocally pro-choice."

The controversy began early Tuesday when NOW's New York City chapter took Vallone to task for new ads that label him "pro-choice."

"It's a sham," said NOW-NYC President Galen Sherwin. "Vallone has said he's personally 'pro-life,' has stated his support for a late-term abortion ban and has even voted to limit women's access to abortion through parental-consent laws."

Vallone campaign aides said NOW's accusations were not based in fact and promised to rebut them soon. The charges centered on Vallone's alleged support for parental-consent laws, for banning late-term abortions when the mother's health is threatened and for a "diluted" New York City access bill that would prohibit protests in front of churches.

"NOW's baseless attacks on Peter Vallone -- the first elected official in America to pass clinic-access legislation -- should not be dignified with a response," said spokesman Peter Ragone.

But the lieutenant governor, estranged from her 1994 running mate, concentrated most of her focus on the casino gambling issue in the Buffalo Convention Center, a potential casino site. Although flanked by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, a major opponent of gambling, she said people in Western New York especially should be given an opportunity to vote on the issue.

She contends that Pataki promised voters during a March visit to Niagara Falls that he would champion such a referendum.

She contended that as leader of the Republican Party and as the state's top elected official, he could have forced the GOP-controlled Senate to vote on the issue during the last legislative session -- and called on Pataki to seek a special session so the issue could appear on the 1999 ballot.