Lawmakers and civil rights leaders on Tuesday condemned Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti’s use of a racial slur during an after-hours gathering at an Annapolis bar — and House Speaker Michael Busch stripped her of two leadership assignments.
Lisanti, a Democrat in her second term from Havre de Grace, apologized Tuesday morning to the House Democratic Caucus for using the slur and released a statement asking for forgiveness.
“I deeply apologize to the citizens of my district, people of Maryland, all of my colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly and everyone reading this for my word choice several weeks ago,” Lisanti said. “I am sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth. It does not represent my belief system, my life’s work or what is in my heart.”
Lisanti reportedly told a white colleague in late January at Annapolis Cigar that when he campaigned last fall in House District 26 in Prince George’s County on behalf of a candidate, he was knocking on doors in a “n----- district.”
As a result, Busch stripped Lisanti of her posts as chairwoman of a House subcommittee on unemployment insurance and as House chairwoman of a joint committee on unemployment insurance.
“While I believe her apology was heartfelt, the damage among her colleagues and the public has been done,” Busch said in a statement Tuesday. “I met with her this morning and expressed my extreme disappointment and concern over her irresponsible and hurtful actions.”
But others said tougher punishment is needed. The African American Democratic Clubs of Maryland, including the Harford County chapter, called in a statement for Lisanti’s resignation.
“Delegate Lisanti’s choice of language as it pertains to our community is utterly unacceptable,” said James Sweeting, director of the clubs. “There is never an appropriate, time, place or circumstance for elected officials and particularly members of the Maryland state House of Delegates, no matter whom their constituency, to refer to communities of color as n----- communities.”
Zilpha Smith, president of the Harford County branch of the NAACP, said she was furious.
“We as an African-American community here in Harford County have supported her overwhelmingly to be elected as a delegate to the General Assembly in Annapolis,” Smith said. “This is just appalling. I’m mad. I’m really mad. You never know what people feel in their hearts.”
Busch said Lisanti agreed to undergo “sensitivity training.”
“I hope that through the sensitivity training that Delegate Lisanti has agreed to and the help of her colleagues, she will develop a greater understanding of the impact that she has had on her fellow legislators and the entire House of Delegates,” Busch said. “Like anyone who has made a mistake, she has the opportunity for redemption — but it is her responsibility to do so and earn back the trust of her colleagues.”
Lisanti pledged in her statement to “do everything I can to help heal that pain and regain the trust of my colleagues and constituents. I pray for forgiveness.”
The situation, first reported by The Washington Post, arose during a legislative season in which the Virginia state government has been rocked by the disclosures that that state’s Democratic governor and attorney general had worn blackface.
Lisanti, 51, is a former Harford County Council member and Havre de Grace city manager.
The Post reported Lisanti also apologized Monday night to the leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, although she also told them she did not recall saying the word on that occasion.
Del. Darryl Barnes, who is chairman of the caucus, wrote in a letter Tuesday to Busch that Lisanti’s apology was “woefully inadequate.”
“It is clear that Delegate Lisanti is unsuited to continue in a position of leadership in the Maryland General Assembly,” Barnes wrote. “We have been receiving calls for her resignation, removal of subcommittee chairmanship, and to be censured on the house floor. We are asking the speaker to move swiftly in reprimanding her in a disciplinary manner.”
Del. Jazz Lewis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, thanked the caucus for addressing the issue.
Questioned by the Post earlier this month about what happened, Lisanti said: “I don’t recall that. ... I don’t recall much of that evening.”
Asked whether she has ever used the slur, she told the paper: “I’m sure I have. ... I’m sure everyone has used it. I’ve used the f-word. I used the Lord’s name in vain.”
Smith said the Harford County NAACP has had a good relationship with Lisanti over the years and worked with her to fight for things members wanted.
Smith intends to meet with NAACP members next week, prior to a black history event, and said Lisanti’s comment will be discussed.
“It’s going to leave this community feeling a different way about Mary Ann Lisanti. It will cause an issue with a community who thought very well of her,” Smith said. “It’s going to change a lot of minds about her. I think it will come to a point where we’ll be asking her to step down, we need someone else to take [her] place.”
The NAACP leader also said she struggled to understand why someone would talk that way about people in another community while representing Harford.
“What right do you have to make that statement about a place you don’t live in? We need to take a stand and all of us in Harford County need to [tell] Mary Ann Lisanti, ‘We need to have a conversation with you, we need to understand why you made that statement,’” Smith said. “We have enough issues going on. We would think people of her status — you can talk like you want around the dinner table — when you’re representing all of us, as citizens of Harford County, I would think you would not have used that kind of language with anybody, white or black."
District 26 in Prince George’s County, which Lisanti was referring to, is 79 percent African-American. Lisanti’s District 34 in Harford County is 65 percent white.
County Executive Barry Glassman has known Lisanti a long time, he said, and is disappointed.
“Those comments are not reflective of the modern Harford County I’m building,” said Glassman, a Republican who has been county executive since December 2014.
Harford County Councilman Andre Johnson, one of two African-Americans on the council, said he’s been trying to reach Lisanti to discuss the allegations made against her. He was unsuccessful as of Tuesday afternoon.
“If everything is true, I find it very disappointing and she’s definitely going to have to answer questions on that and on her views,” said Johnson, who represents the Edgewood and Joppatowne areas and is in Lisanti’s legislative district.
He spent about a year with Lisanti on the campaign trail.
"I would have never suspected that kind of language to come out of Delegate Lisanti's mouth,” Johnson said.
The councilman said he didn’t want to say too much without talking to Lisanti, but he also wants to "make it perfectly clear that she has some explaining to do to me personally.”