By Adam Pagnucco.
One of the more remarkable things occurring in MoCo this cycle is the snowballing of progressive groups around District 3 County Council challenger Ben Shnider. Just look at our latest endorsement chart. Shnider, who was virtually unknown a year ago, has collected about as many progressive endorsements as much better known politicians like Council Members Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro, Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (running for Council District 1) and Council At-Large candidate Will Jawando. That’s a challenge for Shnider’s opponent, incumbent Council Member Sidney Katz, but it’s a challenge for the progressive groups too.
Sidney Katz is an odd target for progressives – and basically anyone else. Consider this: he has been an elected official at the municipal or county levels for forty years and no one dislikes him. Generations of Gaithersburg residents think of him as Dad, an uncle or Grandpa. No one would paint him as a conservative – for Heaven’s sake, he voted for a nine percent property tax hike along with the rest of the council two years ago. He has also voted for nearly every other progressive initiative passed by the council, including more school funding, more non-profit support, bills establishing sick leave and parental leave and almost everything else.
But there is one glaring exception: Katz was one of four Council Members who voted against the 2016 minimum wage bill which was then vetoed by County Executive Ike Leggett. That bill had incredible symbolic importance for many of MoCo’s liberal groups, who viewed it as a litmus test for determining which elected officials were true progressives. Katz’s efforts to forge a compromise and get a different version of the bill passed later did not mollify the left. For them, the damage was done. And someone’s head had to roll. But whose?
Four Council Members – Katz, Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen and Craig Rice – voted against the first bill and Leggett vetoed it. Leggett and Floreen are term-limited and retiring. Rice has only token opposition in his Democratic primary. Berliner is running for Executive, an election in which progressive groups would be aligned with minimum wage lead-sponsor Marc Elrich regardless of the bill vote. That left Katz, the only opponent of the original bill against whom the left had a clear shot. And in Ben Shnider, the left has a challenger who is appealing, smart, hard-working, experienced in campaigns and an unquestioned progressive.
SEIU Local 500, a lead player in advocating for minimum wage hikes at the state and county levels, was the first major progressive group to endorse Shnider. Many more followed, including SEIU Locals 32BJ (janitors) and 1199 (health care), Progressive Maryland, the Laborers, Casa in Action, the teachers and more. The Sierra Club’s endorsement of Shnider was probably connected to another vote of Katz’s, this time against a bill banning pesticides. Katz is supported by the police and fire fighters unions, the volunteer fire fighters and the apartment and office building owners. MCGEO is the largest progressive group to not yet weigh in.
Shnider pressures Katz on the minimum wage bill.
Knocking off an incumbent is not easy. Indeed, only one Democratic district council incumbent has been defeated since the County Council’s current structure was established in 1990 and that happened twenty years ago. In the last six times that a Democratic district council incumbent was challenged, the incumbent won by 50 or more points five times.
Ben Shnider has nothing to lose by challenging Katz. He is running a tremendous campaign and has built great relationships with the left and the smart growth community. If he loses, he could very well come back to win another election as so many other MoCo politicians have. Win or lose, Shnider will be just fine.
But what about these progressive groups? The fact that so many of them have endorsed Shnider has MoCo’s political community watching this race – especially the county’s elected officials. The left will have many priorities in the next term and some will cost serious money and political capital. If these groups actually knock off Katz – or come close – then no one will want to run afoul of them in the future. But if they do nothing other than allow Shnider to use their logos and Katz wins big, they will look weak. Other elected officials will think, “They can’t hurt me so I can do what I want.” Let’s remember that for most politicians, the main thing on their minds is ALWAYS whether a group can help them or hurt them. If you can’t do either, you just don’t matter.
The progressives are making a big gamble by targeting Sidney Katz. For their sake, it better pay off.