Sidney Katz, former mayor of Gaithersburg, current member of the Montgomery County Council, was born in Gaithersburg when it was largely rural. Now 72, Katz represents the 3rd District, comprising Rockville, Gaithersburg and Washington Grove.
Katz’s family, like many small-town Jewish families, were small-town merchants. They owned Wolfson’s Department Store on East Diamond Avenue in Gaithersburg. Katz was its last owner and closed the store in 2013, 95 years after his grandparents opened it.
Katz was a Gaithersburg city council member from 1978 until 1998, when he was elevated to mayor by the death of Mayor Edward Bohrer. He was elected to the county council in 2014.
We spoke with him the day after he won his third term.
Q: What’s next for the County Council?
A: We’ve gone from nine Council members to 11 members. It’ll be actually a new majority of people coming in. There’ll be six who are new [Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-at-large), Marilyn Balcombe (D-District 2), Kate Stewart (D-District 4), Kristin Mink (D-District 5), Natali Fani-González (D-District 6) and Dawn Luedtke (D-District 7)]. We only had one woman Council member, Nancy Navarro.
Q. One of the things that the Council is dealing with is the Thrive 2050 growth and development plan.
[Thrive 2050 is a 30-year policy document that favors denser development in the county, but does not change zoning. The Council approved it unanimously in October.]
Many people believe that they have the answer. They believe they have the vision, you know? But nobody believes they know what the lottery is going to be tomorrow. And the one thing that you can guarantee is, everything that you think of today, you’re not going to think of everything, and things are going to change. Bottom line, it’s tough to predict.
Thrive 2050, I had considered not voting in favor of it. At the end of the day, I did because I really believe that it’s a fundamental document. It’s not an in-the-weeds document, but zoning had to change. I didn’t think we were informing the public properly. But at the end of the day I think the fundamental part of the document is a good document.
Once you get to the actual zoning and the zoning text amendments, that’s when the bigger conversations should and will take place.
Q: Have you lived in Gaithersburg your whole life?
A: Yes, my mother was actually born in a house in Gaithersburg. I tell people, my family had become very modern by the time I was born. I was born in the hospital.
My maternal grandparents came [to Gaithersburg] in 1918, and the reason they came to Gaithersburg was because my grandfather Jacob Wolfson’s twin brother, Albert, had opened a store in Rockville. He gets drafted in World War I and so my grandfather came to Rockville to run his twin brother’s store.
And the twin brother comes back from the war. My grandfather didn’t want to be in competition to his own brother, so he comes to Gaithersburg to open up a store five miles away. My family continued to own the store up until the time I owned it. I closed it was when I became a Montgomery County Council member.
If it wasn’t the first dry cleaning business in Montgomery County, it was certainly one of the first. My grandfather was a tailor and he would fix things for the dry cleaning side. He also had ready-made clothing, and he was a suit maker. He literally would make suits. I can’t sew on a button, I mean, but that was their trade, and they made a very nice living.
When I was born in 1950, Gaithersburg was a much smaller place. Everybody knew everybody, very pleasant. We were the only Jewish family for many, many years.
Q: How have Gaithersburg and the county changed over time?
A: Once when the Montgomery County Fair was starting, I was asked about it, and I said, well, you know, when I was growing up, the kids in my class would go to the fair to show their cattle. Now you take your children to the fair to show them what cattle look like. Not that my family ever farmed. But many, many a good friend and many a family did.
There was that kind of small town feel to it. It just made you feel good. I tell people I’ve had a blessed life, and I have. I’ve been very fortunate in many, many ways.