The House of Delegates censured Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti on Thursday for her use of a racial slur, which members said “brought dishonor to the entire General Assembly of Maryland.”
After the vote, the Democrat said she would not resign, despite calls for her to do so by House leaders, the governor, the Legislative Black Caucus and constituents.
She also said she did not believe she had used an offensive term to describe African-Americans, although she acknowledged earlier in the week that she had done so. A reporter asked if she had said it, and Lisanti responded: “I do not believe I did, but I am still accepting responsibility.”
Lisanti said resigning would be “an easy way out” and not the right thing to do.
“I recognize that some have rushed to judgment without information and freely jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation — likely for their own political expediency,” Lisanti told reporters.
Lisanti came under fire this week after The Washington Post reported she used the racial slur during an after-hours gathering in January at an Annapolis bar. Lisanti told a fellow lawmaker that when he helped a candidate in Prince George’s County, he was knocking on doors in a “n— — district,” according to the report.
In a Thursday evening session convened to discipline Lisanti, delegates voted to approve a resolution of censure that said she “publicly admitted to using a hateful and derogatory racial slur while describing a predominately African American legislative district in Prince George’s County.”
The vote was 137 for censure, with one delegate who did not vote, one delegate who was excused from voting (Lisanti) and two who were granted excused absences.
“This racist and hateful term has no place in anyone’s vocabulary, particularly an elected representative of the state of Maryland, serving on behalf of all of our constituents,” the resolution said.
After the vote, Lisanti read a statement to reporters outside the House chamber that she had prepared but did not deliver during the floor session.
“You, my colleagues, are considering what is appropriate sanction for the use of a word. While ever so vile and hurtful, a word. Not an action, behavior or course of conduct,” Lisanti said. “Words matter. They can inflict pain and, in this case, this word represents the most deplorable, and for that, I accept your action.”
Lisanti said she hoped to hire a staff member to help her reach out to “diverse communities” in Harford County.
“Healing begins tomorrow,” Lisanti said.
The resolution was drafted by House Speaker Michael Busch and Del. Kathleen Dumais, the majority leader for the Democrats, who was the only delegate to speak before the vote.
“This is a sad day for the House of Delegates when we have to act to censure one of our own. … With this vote, we are saying as a body that racial slurs and racially charged language cannot and will not be tolerated,” said Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat.
The resolution noted that African-Americans make up 30 percent of the state’s population and 57 of the 188 members of the General Assembly.
It concluded by saying, “This conduct has brought dishonor to the entire General Assembly of Maryland.”
The House took the step after Lisanti resisted pressure from leaders in face-to-face meetings Wednesday night and Thursday morning to resign, according to three sources with knowledge of the meetings.
Busch told reporters Thursday night that censure was necessary to “protect the integrity of the House.”
He also said it was a sad day for Lisanti and the other members of the House.“Regardless of what she said — she said a racial slur, which is not acceptable anywhere in society — she's still a human being,” Busch said. “There's some empathy that goes to Delegate Lisanti.”
The speaker said it was up to Lisanti whether she would step down. "Everybody in leadership has talked to her about the pros and cons of resigning,” Busch said. “It's her decision and her call to make."
Censure is the second-strongest punishment in the General Assembly, exceeded only by expulsion. It is a public expression of the House’s disapproval of a fellow lawmaker’s actions.
Busch stripped Lisanti on Thursday of her assignment to the House Economic Matters Committee, which reviews bills related to business regulation, such as increasing the minimum wage and banning tobacco use under the age of 21. Earlier in the week, Busch removed Lisanti from posts as a subcommittee chairwoman and as a co-chairwoman of a joint committee on unemployment insurance. Having no committee assignment means Lisanti’s sole responsibility is to attend floor sessions of the House of Delegates and vote on legislation.
Del. Darryl Barnes, chairman of the black caucus, said his membership still wants Lisanti to resign.
"My hope is that with the censure, she will look herself in the mirror and realize she must resign," said Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat. "She cannot be effective at all. She has no responsibilities and no committee and folks are continuing to call for her resignation."
Lisanti, 51, is in her second term in the House of Delegates. She previously served on the Harford County Council. Her legislative salary is $55,330 a year.
The censure capped several days’ of uncertainty over Lisanti’s future that began Monday, when she met behind closed doors with the black caucus and apologized. She also apologized to the House Democratic Caucus and later issued a public statement apologizing for her “word choice.”
“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 my heart,” Lisanti’s statement said.
But many said that was insufficient, and calls for her resignation continued.
Some have said that Maryland should not be like the neighboring state of Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, admitted this winter to using blackface decades ago — but have not been disciplined or resigned.
Those who have called for Lisanti’s resignation included Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the black caucus, the leaders of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties, the NAACP, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (a Democrat) and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (a Republican).
The governor stood by his call for Lisanti to resign, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said after the censure.
“He believes hateful and racist language has no place in the public discourse and any public official who engages in this conduct should do the right thing and step down,” Chasse said.
Denise Perry, chairwoman of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, also called for Lisanti to resign, noting that 64 percent of the county’s African-American population lives in Lisanti’s district.
“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.
If Lisanti were to resign, the central committee would be charged with nominating a replacement. Hogan could appoint that individual, or ask for another nomination.
A handful of senators and delegates in recent years have faced disciplinary action.
The state Senate censured Ulysses Currie of Prince George’s County in 2012, after he faced federal charges of extortion and bribery. He was acquitted of the criminal charges, but his colleagues found he violated the Senate’s ethics standards. He also lost his chairmanship of the Senate’s budget committee. When Currie was censured, he was present for the vote and made a speech apologizing to his colleagues.
The last member of the House of Delegates to be publicly disciplined was Dan Morhaim, who was reprimanded in 2017 for not disclosing his paid work for a medical marijuana company while he advocated for legislation affecting the industry.