Josh Kurtz: The Nine Lives of the ICC

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On the night of April 18, 2000, Rich Parsons, a political operative best known for his time as executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party and president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, jumped on a rickety table at a campaign office in Bethesda and began rhythmically chanting.

“ICC! ICC! ICC!” he cried joyously, pumping his fist in the air.

The occasion was the victory party of Howie Denis, a Republican ex-state senator who had just upset Democrat Pat Baptiste in a special Montgomery County Council election. Parsons, like many other Montgomery Democrats and their affiliated groups – some overtly, others, like County Executive Doug Duncan, more covertly – had supported Denis over Baptiste, in part because Denis favored the proposed Intercounty Connector highway while Baptiste was a very vocal opponent.

It’s hard to say whether Denis’ victory was the turning point in the fight to build the ICC, which had been left for dead just half a year earlier by then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D). In the history of the road, there seemed to be many turning points. But with the first leg of the almost mythical highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel finally opening this week, it’s interesting to reflect on the long, strange trip the ICC has already been on – and its extraordinary, phoenix-like rise from the ashes.

We will dispense very quickly with the first half century: the idea of an “outer Beltway,” or at least a highway linking western Montgomery County to Prince George’s, had been in the talking or planning stages for decades. But its fate seemed to be sealed when Glendening, in a triumphant September 1999 State House press conference, announced the stunning news that he was pulling the plug.

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no Intercounty Connector,” the governor said at the time.

Politics has permeated every aspect of the ICC’s history – in fact, the road has twisted some pols in knots through the years, and the disputes over it have become downright tribal – so Glendening’s announcement was no different. During his time as governor and in Prince George’s County politics, he was seen as at least a nominal supporter of the project. But in late 1999, it was easy to imagine that he was campaigning for a top environmental job in a hypothetical Al Gore White House. In that context, his decision made absolute sense.

In all my years covering Maryland politics, I was always kind of agnostic on the ICC and the dueling hot-button questions of whether it would solve the region’s traffic problems or permanently spoil critical environmental habitats. Even today, I have my doubts whether it will ease Maryland’s crushing traffic burden.

Back then I largely sympathized on general principle with the environmentalists who were fighting the project. But their tactics often seemed shrill and amateurish. On the other hand, I was skeptical, to say the least, of the powerful forces that were arrayed in favor of the highway – especially the editorial boards of the Washington Post and my own newspaper, the Gazette, which made support for the ICC the single determining factor for whether or not they’d endorse candidates for local office.

On a local talk show at the end of 1999, I was asked whether I thought the ICC was truly dead. Yes, I replied, “but a lot of people will be carrying an eternal flame for it.”

Shows you what I know. I thought dead meant dead. But people who carried the torch for the ICC would not be satisfied – they took that eternal flame and built an unstoppable political wildfire.

In February 2000, two months before Denis’ improbable victory over Baptiste, Maryland legislators, led by Senate President Mike Miller (D), and Mike Subin (D), then the president of the Montgomery County Council, held a hastily arranged news conference on the ICC in the State House. They announced that they had struck an “agreement” – but in reality, the pro-ICC legislative leaders had essentially bullied the anti-ICC Council into keeping its mouth shut and not taking any additional votes on the road until after the 2002 elections (Subin, who supported the ICC, was clearly OK with this, even if a majority of his colleagues weren’t).

Between that behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and Denis’ upset win, it suddenly seemed as if Glendening hadn’t killed the ICC after all but had merely delayed it, and that the highway would inevitably be a huge election issue once again.

The issue became even more emotionally charged after Fred Arscott, husband of Maryland GOP operative Carol Arscott, was killed on his way to work on the back roads of Montgomery County on Valentine's Day 2002. He died when a 12-ton roll of steel fell from a flatbed truck that was on the road in front of him -- immediately prompting arguments that if the ICC had existed, the tragedy would never have happened. Arscott's death put a human face on the debate, and Carol Arscott went on to become a major advocate for the ICC, both in private life and when she worked for the Department of Transportation in the Ehrlich administration.

On the day in March 2002 that Bob Ehrlich (R) formally announced his candidacy for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) announced that she was breaking with Glendening, offering a surprisingly full-throated cry in favor of the ICC – and stealing some of the limelight from her rival.

But perhaps the biggest catalyst for building the ICC was Duncan putting the weight of his political machine behind a pro-roads plan he called “Go Montgomery,” and cobbling together a slate of pro-ICC County Council candidates. Aided by an entity called Citizens for Quality Living – a group largely funded by developers and other business interests – the Duncan slate found itself awash in money and airing ads produced by Anita Dunn, who later went on to become a top adviser in the Obama White House (Citizens for Quality Living, it must be pointed out, was headed by Damian O’Doherty, one of the founders of the Center Maryland website – thus a very important man in my life).

The political operation was masterful, to say the least, making traffic congestion generally – and the ICC specifically – the only thing Montgomery County voters heard about. More significantly, the “Go Montgomery” forces all but called Blair Ewing (D), a veteran county pol who was a leader of the anti-ICC forces on the Council, Satan – and, as Ewing fought back with the aid of a few environmentalists and the county’s toothless civic associations, obliterated any notion that politics in Montgomery were being practiced on a level playing field.

(There is no small irony that the No. 2 person on Duncan’s hit list that election year, a left-wing council candidate named Marc Elrich, who was ultimately elected in 2006, was hailed by the Post and Gazette as he ran for re-election in 2010 as the one essential member of the council. The Post has turned its attention from the ICC to bashing public employee unions, and Elrich, a 30-year public school teacher, isn’t afraid to take on entrenched interests in the county’s education system.)

Between Ehrlich’s election as governor and a pro-ICC council, the die was cast: the road was back on track. It took a few more years to get full federal approval and adequate funding, but here we are, less than five years after the feds signed off, and the first drivers will be on their way. The full Interstate 270 to I-95 link is slated to be completed either late this year or in early 2012.

It’s said that success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. No doubt there are a thousand fathers and mothers who deserve credit for resurrecting the ICC – like Duncan and Ehrlich, who surely will never get adequate credit from the O’Malley administration. Rich Parsons was a fierce, single-minded advocate. A special word must also be said for John Porcari, who as Glendening’s transportation secretary presided over the highway’s demise and who as O’Malley’s transportation secretary helped facilitate its renewal.

Whether we’ll be calling the ICC a success five, 10, 20 or 50 years from now – and whether these and all the other parents will still want to be taking credit – is another matter entirely. But as a political achievement, the ICC surely belongs in the annals of Maryland history.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.