An East Baltimore union boss. A lefty City Hall staffer. A bilingual pastor. A South Baltimore football coach with a flock of devoted Reddit disciples.

After a stunning primary election cycle, Baltimore’s City Council is poised to welcome a fresh crop of young Democrats who could help to shape city policy for years to come.

This cohort of new city leaders won tough Democratic primary battles across Baltimore, in two cases toppling veteran incumbents from the City Council’s more moderate wing. Thanks to outgoing City Council President Nick Mosby, that faction has held a controlling stake, and plum committee assignments, in the legislative body for the last four years.

The four new members — all unopposed this fall — are likely to start their terms with a City Council president’s office that is also changing hands. Councilman Zeke Cohen, among the most prominent members of the council’s more politically liberal faction, vacated his 1st District seat to challenge Mosby and handily won the Democratic nomination. Cohen will be a strong favorite against Republican Emmanuel Digman in the general election.

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Is a progressive bloc about to take hold of City Hall? The four newcomers don’t uniformly embrace the label. Political power struggles and racial, geographic and economic differences between districts could expose differences on the next council.

Still, voters have signaled an appetite for a “new direction,” said Paris Gray, a community outreach coordinator in outgoing Councilman Kristerfer Burnett’s office who eked out a narrow win in West Baltimore’s crowded 8th District primary, setting him up to succeed his boss. Gray said he and his new council colleagues are now well positioned to deliver a more progressive agenda under Cohen’s charge and with Mayor Brandon Scott reelected to another term.

“It’s a new day in Baltimore,” said Gray, 37.

This incoming freshman class has a clear “progressive edge,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore College of Public Affairs, who characterized the newly elected council members as a group of “younger, professional, hungry change-makers.”

Hartley said the infusion of new blood into the City Council continues a recent trend of the legislative body getting younger.

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Paris Gray. (Handout)

Whether the 2024 class was elected expressly because Baltimore residents were looking for more progressive leadership in City Hall is harder to parse.

Hartley noted that a rainy election day and the noncompetitive presidential primary at the top of the ticket contributed to one of Baltimore’s lowest turnout elections in recent memory. That means many of the Democratic voters who went to the polls were likely more politically engaged and left-leaning, the political scientist said.

In an interview, Cohen didn’t embrace the “progressive” label for the City Council he’ll oversee. But he argued that the results of this month’s primary show that Baltimore is looking for leaders who will work together rather than getting lost in “cliques and rivalries” — an issue he said has held the council back in recent years.

“There’s been an undertone of unresolved conflict that I think has at times been unhealthy for us as a City Council and for the city,” Cohen said. He pointed to tense meetings over the Israel-Gaza war last year as one culminating example.

Cohen said it was too early for him to get into the weeds on his plans for the body’s new committees and leadership assignments. He did hint, however, of plans to revive a committee devoted to land use and transportation issues. And he reiterated a campaign promise to take more of the council’s work out of the stuffy confines of City Hall and foster stronger ties with communities.

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When the council’s education committee holds meetings, Cohen said, he will encourage them to convene in schools. Other committees could host hearings in neighborhoods, he said. “Or when we revive the Land Use and Transportation Committee, why not hold a hearing on a bus?”

While Burnett pushed progressive causes on the council such as curbing police surveillance and establishing a public campaign finance fund, the three defeated members — Eric Costello, Robert Stokes Sr. and Mosby — were more politically moderate.

In about a decade on the council, Costello championed developer interests and earlier this year carried legislation to pave the way for the nearly $1 billion redevelopment of Harborplace. An East Baltimore native, Stokes was a fervent advocate for that part of the city. Mosby fought for more resources and opportunities for low-income communities as council president, at times clashing with the mayor over policies he felt sold short the city’s Black, longtime residents.

The City Hall newcomers’ success also may also represent a rejection of outside influence in city politics, particularly from a pair of Baltimore County businessmen: Sinclair, Inc. exec David Smith, who personally purchased The Baltimore Sun in the lead-up to this primary election, and developer John “Jack” Luetkemeyer Jr. Smith, his family members and Luetkemeyer collectively pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Baltimore elections this year.

Their money primarily went toward financing Sheila Dixon’s unsuccessful bid to return to the mayor’s office, but Smith family members also fruitlessly put money behind candidates in several council districts, along with Mosby in the council president’s race.

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Mark Parker, the Lutheran pastor from Highlandtown who beat one such challenger, Liam Davis, for the Democratic nomination in the city’s 1st District, said enough voters understood the implications of outside influence in their politics.

“That big-money establishment lined up along a certain set of candidates and lost,” said Parker, 42. “Whether that means a new, progressive majority: I don’t know, we’ll have to see. But certainly I would say a more conservative and well-funded political establishment did not come out very well in these races.”

In the 11th District, which includes Central and South Baltimore neighborhoods, 31-year-old Zac Blanchard pulled off a shocking, razor-thin upset over Costello by running a publicly financed campaign that lambasted the incumbent council member for taking donations from the Smith family. Blanchard, a neighborhood association leader, football coach at Digital Harbor High School and former Marine, also seems to have benefitted from a keyboard army of bike lane, public transit and public financing advocates on Reddit and X.

Zac Blanchard smiles for a portrait while sitting on the steps of Lexington Market.
Zac Blanchard, a candidate in the District 11 City Council race, smiles for a portrait in Lexington Market on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Blanchard has been critical of Costello’s legislative track record, accusing him of prioritizing “politics” over policy. The outgoing councilman missed opportunities, Blanchard said, of improving quality-of-life concerns in the 11th district starting at the root causes.

“In the very middle of the city, we now have two candidates who are going to be very active in the housing crisis, very focused on public safety from the perspective of creating opportunities for young people and engaging them,” said Blanchard, who added that he believes voters also entrusted him and labor leader Jermaine Jones with a mandate to expand services for young people in the neighboring 11th and 12th districts.

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The Smith family also contributed to Stokes, who fell to Jones, the former president of the Metropolitan Baltimore AFL-CIO unions. Neither Jones nor Parker made Smith family support a central issue, as Scott and Blanchard did. The district includes Broadway East, Greenmount West, Little Italy, Oldtown and South Clifton Park.

Jones said Stokes, while a regular presence in the community, had mixed success at looking at the 12th District through a more comprehensive lens. Leading up to the primary, Jones noted the enthusiasm his campaign had attracted after emphasizing the importance of creating more job opportunities, for example, and “aggressively” supporting the working class.

A photo of Mark Parker sitting on steps wearing a gray suit jacket, a light blue shirt, dark blue slacks, and brown shoes.
Mark Parker is a candidate for the Baltimore City Council in the 1st District. (Handout)

Parker said he rarely, if ever, used the term “progressive” on the campaign trail, deciding instead to talk broadly about his specific values. A Lutheran pastor who embraces queer and trans communities, Parker said voters connected more when provided with examples of his work with refugees, affordable housing and reproductive health care access.

“It wasn’t a useful shorthand for me,” he said. “We were consistent in describing what that means in terms of people.”

Ryan Dorsey, who willingly calls himself a progressive, also won reelection easily — despite a well-financed challenger who hammered him for his support of bike lanes. The soon-to-be third-term councilman for Northeast Baltimore’s 3rd District said this year’s outcome shows that voters are looking for more from their representatives than just responsiveness to their service needs.

They’re also looking for bold policy plans, he said, pointing to legislation his introduced to eliminate single family zoning, which has stalled under Mosby’s leadership.

To Jones, the voters who propelled him past Stokes weren’t necessarily looking for a progressive representative, but he added that candidates who run grassroots campaigns often end up pushing more progressive policy. A common theme across the races won by his incoming class was a focus on door-knocking and community-focused campaigning, not leaning on what he called “the big political machine.”

“It’s just the community making a call and you answering it,” he said.

Jermaine Jones, a candidate for Baltimore City Council’s 12th District, poses for a portrait outside the Baltimore City Board of Elections’ warehouse on Thursday, May 16. (Emily Sullivan/The Baltimore Banner)

Jones said he initially feared that the progressive policy he hoped to champion in City Hall might be stymied by more moderate colleagues. But with all votes counted, he said voters sent a clear message about their preferences this year. He’s excited that he and his freshmen class should have “a lot more opportunity” to get things done.

Even as a coalition of like-minded leaders may be assembling in City Hall, the sway of outside influencers still looms.

In 2022, Smith successfully financed a ballot measure imposing term limits on city offices. This November, city voters are likely to see another Smith-backed measure that would cut the council down from 14 districts to eight, which would dramatically reshape the legislative body if approved.

This incoming class will have to learn the ropes of City Hall quickly, said Hartley, the University of Baltimore dean.

And while there may be excitement about a more unified front in city government, Hartley said a deeper-blue council is still going to run into its differences. An East Baltimore labor leader and a Highlandtown pastor, for example, may not always see eye to eye. And hot-button issues like affordable housing or the city’s anti-gun violence strategy could sow division even between so-called progressive members.

“I bet we’ll see some unity,” but no one should make the mistake of thinking that all of these members will think alike, Hartley said. “Because they won’t.”