A year ago, Councilman Eric Costello was considering a citywide run after strong-arming a resignation announcement from the city’s police commissioner, managing City Council’s budget process and banking contributions from Baltimore’s biggest political donors. Seeking to add kingmaker to his resume, he endorsed Sheila Dixon’s mayoral bid and funded challenges against his City Council colleagues.

Tuesday he found himself leading by just 25 votes in a race too close to call on election night against Zac Blanchard, a political upstart that used public financing to run against him. Additional mail ballots counted Thursday reduced the lead to 17 votes.

Election officials resumed counting about 20,000 additional ballots on Thursday, but no matter who comes out on top the close margin is evidence of cracks in Costello’s influence and raising the eyebrows of politicos and residents.

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Costello declined to comment, pointing to a Wednesday social media post about the race. “There are still too many votes to count to declare victory in this race, but I remain confident and grateful,” he wrote on social media.

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Costello has represented the 11th District since 2014, when the City Council tapped him to fill a vacancy. Constituents elected him in 2016; he ran unopposed in 2020. He enjoyed endorsements from city unions, Comptroller Brooke Lierman, and was the only City Hall official to receive a bona fide endorsement from Gov. Wes Moore.

Blanchard is a political newcomer who is vice president of economic development for the Midtown Community Benefits District. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran is also president of the Federal Hill neighborhood association, a role once held by Costello.

Outside the city board of elections warehouse on Thursday, Blanchard said he got about 70 texts from avid supporters who couldn’t believe the race was so close.

“I was like, ‘Wait, what do you mean? I thought we were on the same page,’” he laughed. “But I get it, as someone who got into politics for the first time six months ago, running against someone who I think everyone thought was unbeatable.”

A bad night for Costello throughout the city

Costello became the first City Hall official to endorse Dixon in her primary run against Mayor Brandon Scott. The bold decision to support a nonincumbent could have paid political dividends, but Scott handily beat her on Tuesday night in a race that some political observers believed would take a few nights to call.

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City Council President Nick Mosby, an ally who appointed Costello to his role overseeing the budget, also lost his primary to Councilman Zeke Cohen. Liam Davis, Costello’s pick for Cohen’s vacant 1st District seat, lost as well.

Costello is unafraid to tap into his campaign account — among the very largest on the council — for his allies.

Costello welcomed 2024 with about $500,000 on hand. He’s spent more than a quarter-million dollars over the last five months. In the run-up to the primary, his campaign spent $145,000 over a few weeks in April, including $26,000 on a poll.

Among his donors are members of the Smith family and Baltimore County real estate magnate Jack Luetkemeyer. The donations were prominently featured in attack ads mailed to voters by Blanchard, who ran on a public program that matches small contributions by city residents.

In the last electoral cycle, Costello transferred more than $120,000. Dixon and Davis received maximum contributions from him this cycle.

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He also donated $6,000 to Margo Bruner-Settles, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Councilman Ryan Dorsey, with whom Costello frequently disagrees.

When former State’s Attorney candidate Robbie Leonard posted a screenshot on social media with the preliminary returns of his narrow race, Dorsey was quick to chime in.

“Probably shoulda spent that $6k a little differently,” he replied.

Council committee changes likely

For the past seven years, Costello has chaired City Council’s influential finance committee. He runs the council’s oversight of the mayor’s budget draft, grilling agency heads about their proposals before the council issues a final verdict on them.

Mosby’s loss means it’s likely Costello will lose that position.

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The role allows him to both advocate for changes to the budget, and exercise soft power over a strong-mayor system that has little authority reserved for council members. In 2023, clearly armed with a tip, he interrogated then-Police Commissioner Michael Harrison about whether he would stay in Baltimore. Days later, Harrison announced he would step down.

As council president, Mosby redesigned committees and appointed their membership and chairs. That included taking the education committee from Cohen, a former teacher who Mosby and Costello often spar with, and giving the position to ally Robert Stokes.

Even if Costello maintains his lead and holds onto his seat, Cohen is likely to make changes to City Council leadership. Cohen declined to comment for this story.

One race did go Costello’s way Tuesday. His partner, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, won the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District. She is favored to win in November. Costello lives in Federal Hill. Elfreth lives in Anne Arundel County.

Baltimore Banner reporter Adam Willis contributed to this article.

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This story has been updated to reflect that former State's Attorney candidate Robbie Leonard posted a screen shot with preliminary results of the election.