As lawmakers in Annapolis prepared to to censure Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, the impact of her use of a racial slur in conversation with a colleague has reverberated in her home county.
Community leaders and elected officials in Harford County, Prince George’s County, state leaders such as Gov. Larry Hogan and the heads of the state Democratic and Republican parties, and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, have called for Lisanti’s resignation.
The House of Delegates voted Thursday evening to publicly censure Lisanti, a Democrat who was re-elected in 2018 to a second four-year term representing Legislative Subdistrict 34A.
In an evening session convened for the sole purpose of disciplining Lisanti, delegates voted 136-0, with Lisanti excused from voting, to approve a resolution of censure of the Democratic delegate.
Censure is the second-highest form of discipline that can be imposed upon a state legislator, other than expulsion.
Harford NAACP President Zilpha Smith held an emergency meeting of the organization Wednesday night.
“All of us have gotten together and all of us are asking for her to step down,” Smith said Thursday. “It is our recommendation that she resign.”
If Lisanti does not resign, it’s up to the House of Delegates leadership to remove her, Smith said. Allowing her to remain in her position is “a slap on the wrist.”
“Just removing her from the committees, she’s still there representing me. My answer is no. No, I don’t think so. I don’t want her representing me anymore,” she said.
Lisanti needs to face the consequences of her words, said Smith, who will forgive Lisanti because she’s Christian, but she won’t forget.
Smith said the remainder of the term to which Lisanti was elected in November must be filled by someonethe African-American community can trust, who will listen to what the community has to say and move them on.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a former state delegate and senator, was in Annapolis Tuesday and Wednesday, testifying on various bills that affect local governments in his capacity as president of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Glassman, who issued a call for Lisanti’s resignation on Twitter Wednesday, said that often the first question he has been asked since Tuesday is related to Lisanti’s remark, not local governments’ priorities.
“It has just shed a very poor light on the county as a whole,” said Glassman, a Republican. “It’s not a good reflection on Harford County, and I just wanted to be on record opposing that kind of language and what it stands for, because we’re a lot better than that in Harford County.”
He said he thinks Lisanti’s situation “is going to impede her ability to represent [Harford] County in the future,” as so many political organizations in Maryland call for her to resign.
“It’s unfortunate but it’s the consequences of that kind of hate language,” Glassman said.
The Harford County Caucus of African-American Leaders is also demanding Lisanti’s resignation.
"The HCCAAL recognizes that all people have vices, and that the consumption of alcohol may diminish inhibitions or loosen tongues,” Jim Thornton, president of the leaders group, said in a statement. "But in this case, we believe that Ms. Lisanti has revealed her inner beliefs and attitude, and we find them, as well as her words and behavior, appalling and unacceptable.”
The language Lisanti used is "an example of the worst racist and demeaning thinking,” Thornton said.
"It is unforgivable, no matter what the circumstances surrounding its utterance,” he said. "But perhaps worse, the thoughts and opinions behind the statement uttered reveal Ms. Lisanti to be brutally insensitive and lacking in awareness — characteristics we must not permit any elected official to hold.”
Lisanti must resign and not get a free pass, he wrote.
"During this time of national discord, heightened ethnic tensions and increased hate crimes, the Caucus cannot afford to be complacent in any acceptance of racial slurs from elected officials,” Thornton said.
An elected official’s job is to represent their district, he said.
“And in this case, no one who harbors and holds sentiments so opposed to common decency, so ignorant of an understanding of the electoral process and so hardened against the true and deserving desires of the people of her district and of Prince George’s County, can represent a district in this county and this state,” Thornton said.
Political parties seek resignation
The heads of the Democratic and Republican party committees in Harford County have also called for Lisanti to resign.
Denise Perry, chair of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, called for Lisanti’s resignation in a statement Wednesday night. Perry noted 64 percent of Harford County’s African-American population lives in District 34A and said Lisanti’s “use of a racial slur is not only disturbing, she let down the very people who put her in office.”
That district, represented by Lisanti and freshman Democratic Del. Steve Johnson, is along Route 40 and includes Aberdeen Proving Ground, Abingdon, Edgewood, Aberdeen, Perryman and Havre de Grace. Perry called the district “the most diverse area in Harford County.”
Lisanti served on the Harford County Council from 2006 to 2014, representing District F, which includes some communities in her legislative district, such as Havre de Grace, Abingdon and Perryman.
Slightly more than 14 percent of Harford County’s population of 252,160, as of 2018, is African-American, according to U.S. Census data.
“Racism, bigotry and hateful comments have absolutely no place in our Democratic Party, and our current and future elected officials must be more effective and efficient at engaging with the diverse communities of Harford County,” Perry said.
She said Lisanti “cannot continue to fully and effectively represent District 34A,” adding that “her constituents deserve the best representation possible, which is why we are supporting calls for the immediate resignation of her position.”
Perry said Thursday that she believes it is “premature” to say who might succeed Lisanti, should she resign. When a vacancy happens in the state legislature, the political party’s local central committee makes a recommendation on a successor to the governor, who makes the final appointment.
“This is a new situation for our committee, so we will seek guidance before we act,” Perry said via text message.
Lisanti, while talking with a white colleague at an Annapolis bar in late January, said he had been working in a “n----- district” while campaigning for a candidate running the the 26th Legislative District in Prince George’s County last year.
Lisanti apologized this week to the House Democratic Caucus, and she released a statement of apology.
“I am sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth,” she stated. “It does not represent my belief system, my life’s work or what is in my heart.”
House Speaker Michael Busch, a Democrat, stripped Lisanti of her positions as chair of a House subcommittee on unemployment insurance and a joint committee on unemployment insurance, plus he ordered her to attend sensitivity training. The speaker alsoremoved her Thursday as a member of the House Economic Matters Committee.
“While we live in a society of second chances, and I believe everyone deserves a second chance,” Jeff McBride, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Harford County, said in a statement Thursday. “However, I feel the sum of Delegate Lisanti's actions show a lack of remorse and/or understanding of the issues involved.”
McBride noted Lisanti met with fellow legislators several weeks after she used the slur and initially told The Washington Post that she did not remember much of the evening and that she is sure “everyone has used” the racial slur. McBride said that is “highly offensive language to the vast majority of us who certainly have not and do not use this racial slur in private or publicly,” however.
“I feel Delegate Lisanti can no longer effectively provide representation to the diverse District 34A and for this reason I join with the Harford County Democratic Central Committee chair and call for the immediate resignation of her legislative seat,” McBride stated.
School board member offers support
Al Williamson, an appointed member of the Harford County Board of Education, actually expressed support for Lisanti.
“I do not defend what she said, but in defense of her service to the people, to minorities, to everybody in Harford County and in the state of Maryland, she deserves better,” Williamson, who is white, said Wednesday.
Williamson, who contacted a reporter to express his concerns, said he thinks Lisanti’s remarks are “a mistake that a lot of people can make and will make, and we should forgive her and help her and not throw her in the lion’s den.”
“I think we should hold them to a human standard,” he said when asked if public officials should be held to a higher standard for their comments.
Williamson is a Republican but said he has “the highest respect” for Lisanti, whom he has known for about 15 years and said “represents everybody.” He does not live in her district but resides in northern Harford County in Legislative District 7.
He said he began working with Lisanti when she was on the County Council, serving as a liaison to the board of directors for the Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center in Havre de Grace, of which Williamson was a member.
He said her actions and behavior during that time have been “stellar.”
“I think this is one of the greatest injustices, to ask her to resign,” he said. “That is in nobody’s best interest.”
School board President Joseph Voskuhl released a statement Thursday clarifying that Williamson was not speaking on behalf of the full 10-member board.
“As a board, we must ensure that all students and staff feel valued. In order to do that, we must be examples in our community,” Voskulhl stated. “Mr. Williamson’s remarks are not an example of how we as a board strive to educate and build understanding with one another. Harford County Public Schools reaffirms its commitment to an educational environment that is fully inclusive and values all students.”
Harford County Councilmember Andre Johnson, who had wanted to hear Lisanti explain in her own words what transpired, said he spoke to the delegate Wednesday. One of two African-American members of the County Council, he said she should resign.
“Because of the nature of the language, I think she’s going to have to step down from her position,” Johnson said.
When he spoke with Lisanti, she told her story and acknowledged she was wrong, but she doesn’t remember if she used the racial slur, he said.
“But if she did say it, she said she was deeply sorry and remorseful,” Johnson said.
Smith of the NAACP said Lisanti is representing all of Harford County; it doesn’t matter that she was elected in District 34A.
“We just cannot have anyone in that kind of leadership using those kinds of words,” Smith said. “She has the support of African-American citizens of Harford County, she has the support of Democrats, she has the support of Republicans, but we just will not be able to trust her, or trust what she might say at another time at another setting.”