Central and South Baltimore’s 11th District is home to this primary’s most expensive council race between an incumbent and a challenger. Councilman Eric Costello, the powerful chair of the budget committee who is consistently among the council’s highest fundraisers, faces Zac Blanchard, a political newcomer who is running through public financing.

Costello and Blanchard both live in Federal Hill. Blanchard serves as the neighborhood association’s president, a role that Costello once held. Both say they are committed to delivering stellar constituent services.

Costello is pitching voters on his experience in office. He leads the council through budget season, during which he oversees the process of moving money around the mayor’s proposed budget. He’s helped tens of thousands of constituents with service requests: “We are in the business of customer service.”

Blanchard argues he’d introduce more bills while continuing to honor constituent service requests.

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“Eric is driven by politics, I’m driven by actual goals,” he said on an early spring morning at the Bun Shop. He points to Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who has made housing her signature policy issue: “She testifies in Annapolis, she pushes a transformative agenda, and she also fulfills the constituent services that taxpayers expect.”

Zac Blanchard smiles for a portrait.
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 is the vice president of economic development for the Midtown Benefits District. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran is originally from Louisiana, and first moved to Maryland to earn a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy. He also received a master’s degree in African studies from the University of Cambridge. Blanchard moved to Baltimore as his wife Alexa began to pursue a joint medical and doctorate degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. They welcomed their first child in 2023.

Costello has represented the 11th District since 2014, when the council chose him to fill a vacancy. He won election in 2016 and ran unopposed in 2020. His partner is state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who represents Anne Arundel County in the General Assembly and is running for Congress. Costello polled citywide voters last year, testing his name recognition for a possible mayoral bid and raising eyebrows. He instead filed to run for reelection.

While sipping a venti mocha Frappuccino at the Light Street Starbucks, Costello said he’s known for constituent service work because he’s helped residents across the city “when they’ve encountered problems with city, state and even federal governments.” That doesn’t mean he’s not policy-oriented, he said, pointing to his seven years of leading the council’s budgeting process, his authorship of the city’s short-term rental rules, and multiple tax credits he introduced.

“I prioritize constituent services and being responsive. That’s a reputation I’m proud of,” Costello said.

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The councilman is not known to be warm and fuzzy. He speaks quietly but forcefully, the same way he operates behind the scenes. In the last election cycle, he transferred more than $120,000 to allies, candidate slates and political action committees. This spring, he donated the maximum of $6,000 to Margo Bruner-Settles, who is running to unseat Councilman Ryan Dorsey, Costello’s longtime adversary.

Costello kicked off 2024 with about $500,000 on hand. He’s spent more than $250,000 since. Over several weeks in April, his campaign spent $145,000, including a $26,000 poll that he declined to share.

Blanchard had never asked for a political donation before this race. He chose to run through the city’s public financing program, which requires participants to eschew donations greater than $150 and all money from corporate, union and PAC contributions. In return, the city uses a formula to match the small dollar donations.

Through the program, the veteran’s campaign turned about $30,000 from more than 450 donors into more than $160,000, which helped fund a total of eight mailed ads, many of which slam Costello for his campaign funders. Blanchard has whittled most of that money down as the race nears its end. Teams of volunteers have spent the spring canvassing the district.

Blanchard is a football coach at Digital Harbor High School and has the energetic and focused demeanor of someone who wrangles teenage boys through drills after school. For years, some district residents have sought to recruit a progressive challenger to Costello, citing his developer and business donors. At first, Blanchard was hesitant to be that person. But after a proposal to build an on-site football field for Digital Harbor was shot down and the city implemented its Fair Election Fund, he launched his campaign.

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His legislative priorities include introducing a property tax on vacant buildings that amounts to 11.25% of a property’s assessed value. He also seeks to build mentorship programming between youths and adults throughout the district.

“I know from coaching that when our kids thrive, the whole neighborhood thrives,” he said.

Blanchard has received endorsements from several local progressive organizations, including Bikemore, Jews United for Justice, and Progressive Maryland.

Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello listens as Council President Nick Mosby speaks during a budget hearing on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

This cycle, Costello became the only city official to get a formal endorsement from the governor. City firefighters unions and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Maryland Council 3 endorsed Costello, as did City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, Comptroller Bill Henry, Sheriff Sam Cogen and former Mayor Jack Young. His advertisements tout his politically moderate allyships and record of constituent services.

Last fall, the councilman endorsed former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Last week, her Rice Consulting fundraisers registered a new campaign slate benefitting Costello and Dixon. It has not reported any donations or spending.

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Blanchard said Costello threw his weight behind Dixon so that she’d make him city administrator if elected mayor.

“Eric doesn’t want to be our councilman,” he said. “He tried running citywide, but his poll numbers were bad. He tried getting a job in the Moore administration. And if given the chance, he’ll become administrator.”

Both Costello and Dixon denied Blanchard’s claim. In a statement, Dixon said Costello’s “exceptional constituent services, thorough understanding of city government operations, and passion for bettering the city” solidified their partnership, not a deal for potential positions in her administration.

Though Costello is spending heavily on campaigning, he thinks the things that Blanchard’s supporters ding him for — his priority for constituent services and his network — are the things that will propel voters to reelect him.

“People know that if they reach out to me with a problem, I’m going to work on their problem until I get them a solution,” he said. “And if I don’t know the answer, I have the right relationships with people in government to get them the answer.”

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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