Bethesda Beat: Rockville Activist Ben Shnider To Take On Incumbent Sidney Katz for District 3 Council Seat

Clash in Rockville and Gaithersburg area to feature candidates of different generations, backgrounds

By Louis Peck

Ben Shnider, a Rockville-based political operative and civic activist, announced Monday that he will challenge incumbent County Council member Sidney Katz for the District 3 seat in next year’s election.

Katz, a former Gaithersburg mayor who was first elected to the council in 2014, confirmed Sunday that he plans to seek a second term representing the district—which, in addition to Rockville and Gaithersburg, includes the town of Washington Grove and the Leisure World community, as well as portions of Potomac, Derwood, and Aspen Hill.

The contest between Katz, 67, and Shnider, 28, sets up not only a faceoff between generations in the 2018 Democratic primary, to be held June 26; it will also pit Katz, a career small businessman, against a challenger who is emphasizing his background as a progressive activist.

“I do plan to aggressively seek the endorsements of progressive organizations across the county,” Shnider said in a telephone interview.

While saying that he has “all the respect in the world for council member Katz and his many years of service to the county,” Shnider, currently vice chair of Rockville’s Human Rights Commission, pointed to the recent vote on raising the county’s minimum wage as highlighting the differences between himself and Katz.

“Over the next decade, we’re going to have to make some really tough choices as a county when it comes to the folks who are really struggling to get by,” Shnider said. “I think when it comes to making those tough economic choices to this point—I would put the minimum wage vote front and center—council member Katz has fallen on the wrong side.”

Shnider said he “absolutely” would have voted for legislation to raise the county’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020 for most businesses, which passed the council in January. The measure was approved by a 5-4 margin, short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a subsequent veto by County Executive Ike Leggett. Katz—arguing that a minimum wage increase should not take effect until a study was done of the economic impact on Montgomery County and its workforce—was among the four votes against the measure.

“Montgomery County is a great place to live, but that quality of life is out of reach for an increasing number of our residents,” Shnider declared. “Folks are really struggling in this county to make ends meet. To me, there’s no doubt we should have a $15 floor.”

Katz on Sunday echoed recent comments by council President Roger Berliner, who told reporters in February that he expects legislation supporting a $15 minimum wage will pass the council this year; Berliner also voted against the January measure. “I believe, just like Roger does, that there will be legislation … passed, I think probably during this year,” said Katz, who indicated he is awaiting the results of a study that Leggett’s office is conducting on how best to structure a future minimum wage increase. The county’s minimum wage, now set at $10.75 an hour, will increase to $11.50 this July under existing law.

“I certainly am open to trying to get the best life for all involved—but I am concerned, especially for small businesses,” said Katz, who for many years ran a Gaithersburg family business, Wolfson’s Department Store, that was founded by his grandparents. He was first elected to the Gaithersburg City Council in 1978, and became the city’s part-time mayor in 1998.

Shnider, whose family moved to Kensington when he was in high school, attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. He has been a resident of Rockville’s King Farm neighborhood for about the past three years.

He is the political director of Washington-based J Street, an organization established nearly a decade ago as a counterpoint to the more hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee in the debate over U.S. policy toward Israel. He was a field organizer for the Obama for President campaign in 2008 and, locally, served as campaign manager of former Del. Saqib Ali’s 2010 candidacy for a state Senate seat in District 39—a contest that Ali lost narrowly to Sen. Nancy King.

Whether Katz or Shnider ultimately will tap into the county’s newly created public campaign finance system is less than certain at this point.

“It is my hope to be able to use public financing,” Katz said. He said he has held off on a formal announcement of his candidacy to see whether “there is enough money in public financing once we get through the budget.”

Leggett, in proposing his budget last month for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1, proposed adding $4 million to the public financing fund, bringing it up to $10 million. That is the level that was recommended by a residents’ panel in conjunction with the establishment of the public financing law in 2014.

Katz’s latest financial disclosure report, filed with the state Board of Elections in January, showed him raising $49,900 during 2016. Only about $300 of this would be eligible for use if he does tap into the public financing system, which limits participants to private contributions that are no larger than $150. Candidates for district council seats participating in the system are eligible for public financing of up to $125,000; their initial eligibility is contingent on raising an aggregate of $10,000 from at least 125 contributors.

While saying he is a “big proponent of the proposal and I’m glad that the county enacted it,” Shnider said his current plan is to raise money in the traditional private manner.

“Council member Katz already has raised a considerable sum, and so… I don’t want to run with one arm tied behind my back,” he said. When told that Katz is tentatively planning to use the public financing system, Shnider responded, “From what I know, his recent report shows that he raised about $50,000. If he makes a firm commitment to taking public financing, I’ll have to take another look at it.”

Even if he doesn’t seek public financing, Shnider said, “I am making a commitment not to take corporate LLC [limited liability corporation] checks. I do think we need to do everything we can to make sure corporations aren’t having an undue influence on our politics.”

In an email Monday announcing his candidacy, Shnider said that, in addition to passage of a $15 minimum wage, he favors a countywide rent stabilization policy—a proposal that has gained little traction on the council in recent years—as well as an increase in the amount of affordable housing contained in new residential development. At present, a minimum of 12.5 percent of any residential development with more than 20 units must be comprised of so-called MPDUs—moderately priced dwelling units—under county regulations.

Shnider also wants to move to a system where graduates of Montgomery County public schools can attend Montgomery College and emerge unencumbered by student loan debt as they move on to further education or enter the work force. ”If you achieve at a certain level, and you go to Montgomery County public schools, you should able to attend Montgomery College debt-free,” Shnider said. At present, students pursuing a two-year associate’s degree at Montgomery College pay about $4,900 per year in tuition and fees.

Shnider, who stepped down from the board of the advocacy group Action Committee for Transit after deciding to run for council, termed himself an “aggressive advocate of transit” and said that he wants “to prioritize investment in rail and bus rapid transit over paving new roads.” But he expressed reservations about the long-sought Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) as now proposed.   

“I’m skeptical that the plan in its current form warrants the investment,” Shnider said, citing the current price tag of approximately $550 million. At present, the first phase of the CCT is envisioned as a bus rapid transit system connecting the Shady Grove Metro station and the Metropolitan Grove stop on the MARC commuter line.

Shnider said he would like to see a study of running express ride-on buses between Shady Grove and communities such as Crown Farm and Kentlands in Gaithersburg “to see whether there is the demand to invest in the current BRT proposal as it’s laid out.”

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Ben Shnider