Home | BaltimoreBrew.com

Campaign 2024

Politicsby Fern Shen1:00 pmApr 26, 20240

An intense City Council race breaks out in northeast Baltimore

Embracing the hot button issue of bike lanes and funded primarily by donors from outside the district, newcomer Margo Bruner-Settles challenges incumbent Ryan Dorsey

Above: Baltimore’s 3rd District is dotted with signs for incumbent councilman Ryan Dorsey and opponent Margo Bruner-Settles. (Fern Shen)

In a city where Council incumbents generally cruise to victory with minimal drama, Baltimore’s 3rd District primary race is generating a lot of heat, angst and even some mystery.

Campaign signs are not only proliferating for Ryan Dorsey, who is seeking reelection after two terms, but also for a challenger, Margo Bruner-Settles, who moved to the district about a year ago and has never held elected office.

Ahead of the May 14 primary, aspects of Bruner-Settles’ campaign have drawn scrutiny among some in this northeast part of the city.

For example, the vast majority of the roughly $69,000 she has so far raised, according to state Elections Board records, came from outside the district – including from some high-profile sources.

Howard E. Friedman – a member of the board of directors of conservative Hunt Valley-based broadcast chain Sinclair Inc., whose chairman, David D. Smith, just bought the Baltimore Sun – gave $150.

Other donations, ranging from $1,000 to $6,000, came from prominent developers and other movers and shakers, while more than $48,000 was raised from a group of people affiliated with a network of religious organizations and entities based in Florida and Maryland, one of which Bruner-Settles is involved with.

A central feature of Bruner-Settles’ campaign is the touchy topic of bike lanes – a strategy that, depending on who you ask, is either a reasoned response to community sentiment or a well-funded outsider’s wedge issue to unseat Dorsey.

In one of the few areas where her campaign language gets specific, Bruner-Settles says she’ll get rid of the bike lanes that Dorsey ushered in on Harford Road and Walther Avenue as well as the bus lanes that were added to the Harford Road Bridge.

“She has put together a campaign that amounts to Bike Lanes Bad/Ryan Bad, and I think that resonates with a lot of people,” said Andy Ellis, a district resident and former Maryland Green Party co-chair who likes the traffic-calming effect the Walther Avenue bike lane has had on his neighborhood.

Asked if his opponent’s strategy is a way for political enemies to knock him out of office, Dorsey says, “Yes, it’s clear that’s what they’re doing.”

But he says he’s not worried they will succeed.

“People here do not vote on this one issue alone,” he told The Brew in a brief interview this week.

“They understand, once you talk to them, it’s about not getting rid of bike lanes, but eliminating back-ups,” Dorsey asserted. “They get that traffic signal re-timing is going to make a difference with that.”

The traffic-calming changes since Complete Streets advocate Dorsey came into office have been highly polarizing. They are praised by some for improving safety and enhancing walk-ability and denounced by others, who say they have needlessly snarled traffic and turned the streets onto a thicket of ugly flexposts.

With less than three weeks to go before the election, the incumbent says he’d prefer to highlight other priorities of his, such as to promote fair housing and to push for improvements to the Harford Senior Center and North Harford Park, including anew  skatepark there.

Independent and at times prickly, Dorsey is arguably the most progressive member of the City Council.

He was the lone vote against the City Hall-backed Harborplace legislation. Critiquing a charter amendment to shrink the size of the Council, he pronounced Sinclair’s Smith, who bankrolled it, “a right-wing nut.

Asked about his campaign funders (the latest filing shows $63,475.89 cash on hand) Dorsey said they are primarily small-dollar donors and noted that, in the campaign’s previous report, “only 47% came from outside the district.”

Third District City Council candidates Margo Bruner-Settles, Marques Dent and incumbent Ryan Dorsey.

Third District City Council candidates Margo Bruner-Settles, Marques Dent and incumbent Ryan Dorsey.

The Challengers

Asked about his opponents, a long-shot third candidate in the race, 39-year-old technology director Marques Dent, said, “I’m staying out of it.”

Like the other two Democrats, Dent stresses his years of community work with district youth and adults as he makes a second try for a council seat. (No Republicans have filed to run in the primary.)

“Bike lanes is all anyone wants to hear about when I knock on doors,” says Dent, whose basic take on them is “they belong in the park, not on city streets.”

The Brew has not been able to connect with Bruner-Settles, despite repeated attempts to talk with her.

But her campaign website and other sources provide some information.

The 42-year-old social worker is the chief of the city’s Employee Assistance Program. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of South Florida.

Last year she completed the Emerge Maryland course, a candidacy training program that equips democratic women for public office. She’s currently enrolled in a doctoral program in public administration at the University of Baltimore.

Asked why she is running for office by the Baltimore Sun for its Voters Guide, she began her answer this way:

“I tell the constituents that ‘we are running for office because it’s our voice,’” she wrote.

“As a social worker, I have always advocated for those who I serve, their voice,” she continued. “Therefore, I am running for office because the communities priorities should be the leading voice of change.”

She promises advocacy for issues such as “a cleaner and greener community” and “more community partnerships.” As for the district’s most pressing issue?

“Complete streets,” her Voter’s Guide statement said, calling the policy “incomplete streets” and singling out “lack of community engagement” around bike lanes and “lack of responsiveness” by Dorsey.

Bruner-Settles’ responsiveness to community concerns is what has led former 3rd District City Councilman Jody Landers to support her, he says.

He and a group of other people “from here and other parts of the city” decided to embrace the newcomer after they approached her as a group not  just about the bike lanes, but other issues as well.

“We met with Margo, and she’s much more collaborative”  – Former Councilman Jody Landers.

Landers was most steamed about Dorsey’s Abundant Housing Act – legislation that, in certain areas, would end single-family zoning and allow homes to be converted to multi-family.

Dorsey and others who support it say such density-enhancing measures would have a positive effect on the city by “reversing the trend of manufacturing scarcity and codifying segregation, deciding where we can have housing and where we can’t have more housing.”

Landers and his group disagree.

“It would be an investors’ and speculators’ bonanza – they would cannibalize all the single family homes – families looking to own a home wouldn’t be able to compete,” said the Lauraville resident, who represented the 3rd from 1983 to 1991. “Home ownership increases stability, it helps build wealth.”

“Dorsey didn’t want to hear it from us,” Landers continued. “We met with Margo, and she has a different approach. She’s much more collaborative.”

High-profile Donors

But the amount of money the locals have raised for her is dwarfed by her funds from others.

Asked how Bruner-Settles came to attract financial support from some of the region’s most influential investors and developers, people like Lanx Management LLC’s Friedman, Landers said he doesn’t know.

“She has some people advising her,” he said. “I don’t know them.”

Bruner-Settles’ other high profile donors include Caves Valley Partners founder Steve Sibel ($6,000) and private equity investor Yehuda Neuberger ($1,000), who both sit on the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland.

Also contributing are Tide Realty Capital ($1,000), Quest Management’s Jason Reitberger ($1,000) and Blue Ocean Realty’s Jonathan Ehrenfeld ($500).

The house at 4900 Harford Road where Margo Bruner-Settles and Omar Settles said they would be starting the VETS IOU, a resource center for homeless veterans. (Facebook)

ABOVE: The house at 4900 Harford Road where Margo Bruner-Settles and Omar Settles said they would be starting VETS IOU, a resource center for homeless veterans. BELOW: More details on the project, which never got off the ground. (Facebook)

From the Facebook posting for VETS IOU.

An even bigger source of funds for Bruner-Settles are people affiliated with the D.L. Wells Whole Man Foundation – whose officers are listed in State of Florida records as Margo Settles, vice president, and her husband Omar Settles, president.

That foundation was the operator of a resource center for homeless veterans, VETS IOU, that the couple said they were opening in a house in the district.

That’s according to their Facebook posting for a November 2022 “grand opening” at the house where the program was to be run, 4900 Harford Road. (Photos from the gathering show a certificate of recognition for the endeavor, signed by City Council President Nick Mosby.)

VETS IOU apparently never got off the ground – the house was sold about a year later. But eyebrows were raised when campaign contributions from people and entities affiliated with the foundation turned up in Bruner-Settles’ campaign reports.

These included six donations at the $6,000 maximum level originating in Florida, as well as Dundalk and Waldorf, MD. The founder and pastor of  D.W. Wells Ministries are each listed as contributing $6,000.

On the D.L. Wells Ministries Facebook page, the couple can be seen in a February 2 posting, preaching and flashing a PAYPAL.ME/DLWELLSMIN link and a CashApp address for $RAWWWNATION on the screen. (RAWW Nation Ministries Inc., of Dundalk, is listed as a $6,000 donor to the campaign on October 13.)

“We’re just asking for a $10 offering of relief!” Settles says at one point in her rapid-fire oration.

Online Debate

Public postings about the campaign in recent weeks have ignited bitter controversy and harsh online exchanges on social media.

“It’s sad actually,” said Landers, calling the postings “conspiracy theories” and Bruner-Settles “a sincere person, a nice person.”

“She’s been involved with this church for years,” he said. “You get campaign funds from your networks – people you know. That’s how it works.”

Ellis sees it differently, saying some of the questions raised around the campaign are reasonable ones for voters to ask. He wondered, for instance, what the big donors from out of the district might expect in return. And he wondered about the church donations.

“I have no problem with how people worship, how churches raise money,” he said. “But this is about how churches or nonprofits could be directing money to a political campaign.”

Most Popular