Eric Costello has spent the past year and a half working to prove he deserves to keep his seat on Baltimore's City Council, a job he secured amid complaints that he was hand-picked by the council president.
A former auditor for the federal government, Costello pointed to his work to block cuts to the Charm City Circulator's South Baltimore route and his constituent service during last spring's rioting and January's historic snowfall as proof of his worthiness.
But his controversial appointment to the council in September 2014 helped to draw four Democratic competitors into Tuesday's primary, making the race for District 11 one of the city's most vibrant contests.
The sprawling district stretches from the affluent South Baltimore peninsula to struggling neighborhoods on the west side, looping in the Inner Harbor, the downtown business district and Port Covington, where a government-subsidized development project is proposed.
Costello's challengers are transportation policy analyst Curtis Johnson of Marble Hill, schoolteacher Harry Preston V of Upton, government efficiency consultant Greg Sileo of Locust Point and hospital administrator Dea Thomas of Otterbein. No Republicans or third-party challengers are running.
Darroll Cribb, who leads a neighborhood group in Upton, said he would support the candidate most suited to guide a district with disparate needs.
"We need a person who can bring all of the communities together," Cribb said. "Whatever affects one, affects the other."
Costello, former president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, was appointed to fill the seat vacated when William H. Cole IV was appointed director of Baltimore Development Corp.
Many criticized the process to seat Costello, saying it lacked genuine community involvement. Some accused City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young of railroading Costello through the nomination process and disregarding other qualified applicants. Young denied the charges.
Sileo, Preston and Cribb were among 15 who applied to fill the vacancy.
Costello's supporters said his experience as an auditor with the U.S. Government Accountability Office would be a boon to taxpayers. A fight over a proposed beer garden in Federal Hill, however, earned Costello lasting opponents. On that issue — and others — some felt he sided with business owners and influential city figures instead of the community.
Costello, 35, rejects the suggestion he sided with any one group. He said he has fought to solve many complex problems by negotiating with residents, community groups and businesses.
He pointed to his responsiveness to residents' concerns about inaccurate water bills, drug dealing, potholes and burned-out street lights, calling constituent service "the crux of this job."
If elected, Costello said he wants to expand the Circulator and improve public transit, as well as advocate for a "livable wage" that would allow residents to support their families, small businesses to be successful and the city to remain competitive.
"It's the most dynamic district in the city, and it's the most diverse district in the city," Costello said. "Every single day I am working hard to meet the needs of everyone."
Costello, a full-time councilman who does not have another job, grew up in upstate New York and earned a master's degree in information management from Syracuse University.
He has the backing of multiple council members, state lawmakers and labor groups. He also has a significant fundraising lead over his competition with $76,000 in the bank, according to his most recent campaign finance report.
Thomas reported $33,400 on hand, Sileo had $16,100, Johnson had $9,300 and Preston had $7,200.
Thomas, 32, has been endorsed by unions and other advocacy groups, such as Maryland Working Families. She was formerly a Service Employees International Union worker and an aide to Sen. Ben Cardin. She works at Johns Hopkins Home Care Group.
A daughter of two nurses, Thomas grew up in South Baltimore and earned a master's degree from the University of Baltimore in health systems management.
Thomas said her career in the public and private sector has trained her in providing constituent services. She said she wants to focus on building coalitions and advocating for residents.
Thomas bills herself as a progressive, and said she is concerned with providing more opportunities for youths and wants to improve schools.
"If West Baltimore is doing well, then the entire city does well," Thomas said. "Baltimore is ready for a change."
Sileo, 32, said he has a solid foundation in anti-poverty work and wants to bring that experience to the council. Before becoming a consultant, he ran a statewide program to help low-income families with their energy needs, ran resource centers in Baltimore and guided the city's homeless outreach efforts.
Sileo, who is president of the Locust Point Civic Association, grew up in northeast New Jersey before earning a master's degree in public policy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
He said his "breadth of experience" gives him the ability to address the diverse needs across the city, as well as navigate city and state government. He said he wants to combat the education and public safety challenges that permeate the district to varying extremes.
"The residents of the 11th District did not have an opportunity to elect a councilman," he said. "This is an opportunity for their voices to be heard."
Johnson, 37, said he has worked to convey to voters the influence a council member can have on their everyday life by giving them examples of how he would effect change.
He wants the Police Department to reassign dozens of officers on administrative duty to foot patrols and revitalize the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to North Avenue.
He grew up in Chicago, earned a master's degree in public policy from American University and works as a senior bike and pedestrian policy analyst for the state Department of Transportation.
Johnson said the futures of his 2-year-old son and unborn child, due in July, are tied to the city's future.
"There are politicians who are contributing to the status quo, and things being business as usual, and there are people who are being hurt and lives being affected," Johnson said. "I see it firsthand every day."
Preston, 34, said a councilman's first job is about building community, and he said he has tried to do that as he has campaigned. He said he has introduced neighbors to one another and visited community group meetings.
He is an engineering teacher at Edmondson-Westside High School and earned a master's degree in urban education from the Johns Hopkins University. He's also a board member on the University of Maryland, Baltimore's CURE Scholars Program, which works to prepare students for careers. Preston has two young children.
He said his focus, if elected, would be to end the "disparity between people who have opportunity and access, and those who don't. "The economic divide is very strong between different parts of the district."
Michael Brassert, who owns a media company and lives in the district, said he is searching for an independent thinker. He bemoaned the powerful one-party system in Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1. The city has not elected a Republican in more than 50 years.
He said Sileo offers "the best vision for Baltimore," but is intrigued by Johnson. He thinks Costello has been polarizing.
"I would really love to see some shake-ups" across the city, Brassert said.