ROCKVILLE -- In a significant policy break from the governor, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend announced her support yesterday for the Intercounty Connector across the traffic-choked Washington suburbs so long as the highway is built in an environmentally sensitive way.
In another step away from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Townsend said in an interview she would be "open" to a moratorium on the death penalty, an idea the governor has not supported.
Her backing of the ICC was cheered by business people -- who have lobbied heavily for it since Glendening rejected the $1 billion project in 1999 -- and decried by environmentalists, who say it would destroy open space while doing little to ease traffic.
"Let me make my position clear," Townsend told about 200 business leaders at a breakfast in Rockville to rally support for her nascent gubernatorial candidacy. "I believe that we should build the ICC in an environmentally sound way."
She made the statements during a daylong swing through Montgomery County, where Townsend laid the framework of her platform and scooped up endorsements and good will for her campaign, which she plans to launch after the General Assembly wraps up April 8.
Glendening has been a strong opponent of the highway for environmental reasons, and tried unsuccessfully to block its eventual construction by selling the land where it would run.
Three years ago, Townsend vigorously defended the governor's position, though more recently she has said she would support the completion of an environmental impact study of the project.
Her backing for the ICC, which would stretch across Montgomery County to Prince George's County, linking Interstate 270 with Interstate 95, could neutralize the issue during the campaign. Republican U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who announced own candidacy for governor yesterday, backs the ICC.
"I think it takes it off the table as a topic for Bob Ehrlich," said Steven A. Silverman, president of the Montgomery County Council, who endorsed Townsend yesterday. "What case is he going to be making that would convince Democrats and independents to cross over and vote for him?"
Townsend said the decision stemmed from a longstanding conviction that it was the right thing to do. She added that she was confident the road could be sensitively constructed, and that she also would push for other ways to relieve traffic, such as extending the Metro, increasing bus use and promoting work-at-home programs.
Environmental advocates were nevertheless dismayed.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said she was stunned by Townsend's apparent turnaround, and called the notion of an environmentally sound ICC "the ultimate oxymoron." She added that money for the highway and for other transit options would come from the same pot. "You can't have both," she said.
Townsend and Ehrlich visited Montgomery County yesterday, an indication of the importance of the state's largest jurisdiction in the governor's race this year. With traffic at "crisis" levels, according to most residents surveyed in a poll conducted for The Sun in January, no politician can appear there without mentioning clogged roadways.
But her remarks also signaled an important departure for Townsend, who has been criticized recently for remaining too long in Glendening's shadow, and not speaking her mind.
"Obviously it means she's her own person," said David R. Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "She's an independent thinker. So if people were worried about that, they shouldn't be."
Death penalty study
Townsend also differentiated herself from Glendening yesterday during an interview by saying she might support a moratorium on the death penalty if a study under way showed racial bias in its application.
"We have a real obligation to make sure that it is used fairly," she said. "I would be open to a moratorium. I would look at what the study says."
Last year, the House of Delegates passed a moratorium bill but the measure died in the Senate. This year, Glendening has refused to consider enacting a halt on executions by executive order.
During her packed itinerary yesterday, Townsend talked to high school students, congratulated participants of a HotSpot crime-reduction program, racked up endorsements from local, state and national firefighters unions, and took questions from residents at Leisure World, a huge senior housing center in Silver Spring.