Justin Costa, 40, at his home in Portland’s Oakdale neighborhood. Costa is one of five candidates in the Nov. 7 Portland mayoral election. Photo by Mary Gelman

The first of five profiles on Portland’s mayoral candidates.

Justin Costa has a scale in the middle of his dining room table.

“Not for the usual reason,” he says as, bag of coffee beans in hand, he weaves his way between a box of to-be-donated clothes and a rack of sippy cups drying on his kitchen counter in Oakdale.

It takes about 20 minutes for the Portland mayoral candidate to meticulously weigh the beans, spread the grounds evenly in a filter and gradually saturate them with hot water. On this rainy Monday morning in September, he wants to take his time, making the best coffee he can. He says he would approach being mayor the same way.

Costa, who is 40, was born in Boston to first-generation college graduates. He describes them with a quiet pride. His father, Mark Costa, who runs a small software company, grew up on Long Island, New York, in one of the only Puerto Rican families in his neighborhood. His mother, Margaret Lawnsdale, a psychotherapist, moved all over the world because of her father’s job in the Navy before her family settled in Brunswick when she was in high school.

Costa’s family moved from Boston to Brunswick when he was 3. His parents still live in the house on Jordan Avenue where he and his younger siblings, Kate and Brendan, were raised.


Their Latino heritage was unusual in the largely white town. Kids at school asked why he ate so many Goya beans. He always felt hyper-aware that his mixed-race family was different but says that helped him realize his family also was exceptional.

“We placed a lot of value on education,” said Costa.

He says he always was an excellent student and he saw friends who didn’t have the same support at home struggling at school.

“I was more disciplined and worked harder than most people that I knew,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I also knew that wasn’t the whole story. … Even if I had started to screw up, my dad would have kicked my butt back on track.”

By the time Costa reached high school, he was volunteering at Big Brothers Big Sisters and coaching youth basketball. He went to Wesleyan University and spent his college summers interning for Americans for Democratic Action and U.S. Action, liberal nonprofits in Washington, D.C.

Costa said he fell in love during those summers with the ins and outs of public policy, but he felt frustrated by the politicization of every corner of government.


“Politics could invade stuff even when there wasn’t necessarily disagreement,” he said. “It was frustrating because even when there was bipartisan support for some tactical bill, politics would get in the way of it passing.”

In Washington, he met young people who were running for public office.

“At some point I thought, ‘I don’t think they’re doing anything I can’t learn to do,’” he said.

After graduating from college in 2006, Costa was accepted into the Yes We Can program, designed to give young people of color political experience and prepare them to run for office. The program was led by Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois. Costa is still giddy about having worked with a man who later became president.

He got his first job out of college with the Maine Democratic Party, moved back to Brunswick and worked grueling 90-hour weeks. He was a field director working on the campaigns of Gov. John Baldacci and state representatives Tom Allen and Mike Michaud.

But after less than a year, he said, he felt certain that he wanted to be a candidate himself – but not one that took campaign shortcuts.


“It can be compromising. You sort of shade the truth; you simplify things that really are complex,” he said.

That is one thing that Costa can’t stand.


His wife, Zoe, describes him as honest, almost to a fault. “Even lying by omission to him is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.

For all his political training and experience, Costa seldom omits anything when discussing an issue. Nothing rankles him more than the oversimplification of the city’s problems.

“We owe it to ourselves to treat theses issues seriously,” he said. “We can’t act like every time someone says something that we think is anathema that it means that they don’t care about people or they don’t care about renters or they don’t care about the homeless.”


He never uses platitudes and rarely speaks in simple terms. Perhaps because he believes few things are simple.

“He never gives a one-sentence answer,” said Erika Tepler, Costa’s best friend since high school. “If you want to talk about housing, he’ll get into this whole complex zoning issue and the history behind it. And as hard as it can be to understand, of course, it’s more honest because these things are complex.”

The Costas met in 2017 on an online dating site, and there was nothing simple about their first date either.

“We immediately spent hours fiercely debating education policy,” said Zoe Costa. “We both left, and I thought, ‘Wow, I had a great time but he’s never gonna want to see me again.’”

At the time, Justin Costa was nearing the end of his first term on the Portland City Council after six years on the school board.

Costa wanted a second date. “I’ve always loved a good debate,” he said, laughing.


Zoe Costa works for LearningWorks, an education nonprofit in South Portland. She is bubbly and teases her husband for his polished public persona, which she says masks a goofy sense of humor. He gives her a soft jab for falling asleep minutes into each movie they start.

“His sister always says our love language is bickering,” says Zoe Costa.

“It’s a free country, you’re allowed to be wrong,” he jokes – and she laughs.

The only thing simple for Costa is parenthood.

“Family is everything,” he says. He periodically checks his phone for updates from his son’s day care.

The Costas welcomed Ari, via surrogate, in 2021. He is the center of their world.


“You can’t imagine how many swim classes we’ve been to,” said Costa. Ari, he notes, is fearless around water, which is equal parts fun and terrifying for his parents. “As soon as he sees the pool he is rolling or crawling or running towards the water.”

Costa affectionately refers to Ari as “Stinkpot Jones.” When Zoe Costa moves Ari’s booster seat out of the way to sit by her husband at the dining room table, Justin Costa jokes that she’s “moving the throne.”

Both sets of grandparents live close by, so the Costas spend a lot of time with family members, all enthusiastic debaters.

On the rare night that it’s just the two of them, the Costas, who describe themselves as foodies, love to eat out. Zoe Costa’s brother’s restaurant, Regards, is a family favorite. They also frequent Blyth & Burrows and Eventide.

They have a lot of friends they’ve met through Birth Roots, a local nonprofit supporting new families. The families get together for apple picking or swimming on weekends.

When Tepler had a baby a few months ago, she told Costa she felt overwhelmed.


“How am I going to be a mom to this innocent child?” she said she asked him. “And he said, ‘All you have to do is teach her to accept love and to love in return.’ That was his only advice. That was it.”


Most of Costa’s adult life has orbited around his political ambitions. He moved back to Maine after Yes We Can because he thought he had the best  chance of holding public office in his home state. He lived in an apartment he didn’t love in the Back Cove for nearly a decade because he couldn’t move out of District 4 if he wanted to keep his council seat.

Since 2008, he has mounted campaigns for the Legislature, school board, City Council and mayor. Costa’s first allegiance is to legislating – something he believes himself to be exceptionally adept at – but he says he’s also loyal to Maine.

“There is just a sense of community here that’s hard to find in most places,” he said. “People really do care about each other.”

Over the summer, Zoe Costa had spinal surgery. For months she couldn’t pick up their son and needed extra help around the house.


“We had an insane number of people volunteering for food trains and to help out and to come over and just have extra play dates,” said Justin Costa. “And the thing is, it’s not actually that surprising. It’s moving, but it’s not surprising. That’s been my experience that people really do respond like that here.”

When Costa was finance chair of the school board, he was struck by the selflessness of his constituents.

“Some of the most common things I would get were people reaching out about other people’s kids – not just my kid needs this, my kid needs that – and to me that selflessness is very specific to Maine.”

After his time with the Maine Democratic Party, Costa and his Yes We Can cohort got together in Chicago to swap stories about their political jobs all over the country. His friends shared horror stories of corruption, harassment and other behavior that Costa found disheartening.

“It made me grateful that we just aren’t like that here,” he said.

Costa has been out of city politics since 2020, when he lost an at-large council seat to April Fournier by 4,700 votes.


“I regret running,” he said, explaining that it was an incredibly difficult year to work in government.

“The world turned upside down, and people were really hurt on a deep level,” he said. “When that happens, it’s hard to get people to engage on issues.”

Costa’s day job is in finance for Auto Europe, a car rental company. Though he says the hiatus from politics has been welcome, he always planned to throw his hat back in the ring.

“It’s so incredibly rewarding to know that you had an impact on people,” he said. “And there are things, whether anyone realizes it or not, that really happened because of me.”

Next up: Mark Dion

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