Montgomery County Council candidate Ben Shnider was born in 1989, about a decade after the incumbent he is challenging in the Democratic primary was first elected to public office.
That incumbent, Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) says his long experience in politics and government is invaluable — especially in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, which will elect a new county executive and fill four open county council seats this fall.
But Shnider is pushing back against that claim, piling up campaign cash and endorsements and aggressively knocking on voters’ doors to make the case that new, more progressive blood is needed, particularly in the not-quite-as-affluent central stretch of Montgomery that is Katz’s District 3.
“If it comes down to who has the most years in local government, council member Katz is going to be looking pretty good on primary day,” Shnider conceded in an interview. “But who really can relate to what District 3 residents are going through . . . in a place where it’s harder and harder to make ends meet?”
District 3, with an estimated 200,000 residents, is solidly middle class, with growing ethnic diversity and the county’s most concentrated population of Asian Americans (19 percent as of the 2010 Census). Anchored by Rockville and Gaithersburg, just north of the far wealthier neighborhoods of Potomac and Bethesda, its residents face often-long commutes on Interstate 270, and relatively hefty home prices that averaged about $415,000 at the beginning of the decade.
Like the rest of Montgomery, it is overwhelmingly Democratic. No other candidates — including Republicans or independents — have filed to run for the District 3 seat.
Shnider, 28, points to Katz’s initial vote against Montgomery’s $15 minimum-wage law as a key ideological divide between the two candidates. His campaign issues also include providing universal prekindergarten and tuition-free community college, fighting crowded schools, and expanding commuting options on MARC and Bus Rapid Transit.
A graduate of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Shnider previously worked as the political director for J Street, a liberal, nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on policies related to Israel, and launched the political arm of Bend the Arc, a progressive, Jewish justice organization.
Katz, 67, is completing his first term on the county council but previously served 16 years as Gaithersburg’s mayor. He was elected to the Gaithersburg City Council in 1978 and for years ran a family business in the city.
In an interview, he said that the original minimum-wage legislation would have hurt small businesses and that he was instrumental in ironing out the compromise the council unanimously passed in November.
Katz also highlights his record working to establish Montgomery’s mental health courts, which help keep low-level offenders with mental illness out of confinement. His deep understanding of how government works will be key, he said, as Montgomery implements term-limits, leaving four of the other eight council members ineligible to remain in their seats.
“The institutional knowledge is something people are extremely concerned about,” he said.
Both candidates say they voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary over the far more progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). They also chose then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate over then-Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who was embraced by progressive groups.
In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, Shnider says he voted for Heather Mizeur, the most progressive of the three Democratic primary candidates. Katz voted for then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who was considered the establishment pick. Brown won the nomination but lost to Republican Larry Hogan in the general election.
Candidates can often be compared most concretely on fundraising numbers. But those metrics are hard to parse this year, because Katz opted to participate in the county’s new public financing system. Candidates seeking matching funds are barred from accepting corporate or PAC donations, and qualifying donations must be of $150 or less.
In the most recent campaign finance report, Shnider reported raising more than $156,000 in contributions in 2017, with nearly two-thirds of donations coming from outside Maryland. He had a cash balance of $112,000.
Katz — who to qualify for public funds had to raise at least $10,000, with a minimum of 125 donations — reported more than $64,000 in cash on hand, a combination of donations and matching funds. He is now requesting an additional $10,000 in public funds. (Two weeks before the primary in 2014, Katz, who was facing three Democrats, had raised nearly $90,000.)
Shnider’s endorsements from progressive groups include CASA in Action, the Montgomery County Sierra Club and SEIU Local 32BJ. Katz’s endorsements come from longtime local officials, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), former county executive Doug Duncan and Phil Andrews, who held the District 3 seat for 16 years.
Andrews credited momentum for primary challengers like Shnider, in part, to political turmoil at the federal level “that may be having some spillover impact in local government.”
A case in point is Karen Brooks, 73, who said she is volunteering on Shnider’s campaign because she wanted to promote a new generation of Democrats following the 2016 election of President Trump.
“This country is in such a mess, and they’re the ones who are inheriting this mess,” said Brooks, a lifelong Democrat who lives in Leisure World and was phone banking for Shnider last week. “So they’re the ones that have to take care of it.”
But Andrews said he believes that voters in Montgomery County also “value and look for candidates that have a lot of substance and experience and a record. I think that probably counts for more in Montgomery County than perhaps in other parts of the country.”