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'Are we a n-word district, too?' Black community in Harford grapples with Del. Lisanti's racist remark as she promises healing

Gerald Stansbury, the president of the NAACP's Maryland State Conference, calls for Del. Lisanti's resignation. (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun video)

After the House of Delegates censured Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti Thursday evening for her use of a racial slur, the embattled Democrat doubled down on her refusal to resign.

"Healing begins tomorrow," she told a crowd of reporters.

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But to some in Harford County, the wounds are simply too deep.

Dea Galloway, a 46-year-old Aberdeen resident who voted to send Lisanti to Annapolis, said she feels betrayed by her representative. Lisanti's apologies come too late, she said, and represent too little.

Hearing that a politician used racist language feels "like we took a step backwards in time," said Galloway, who is black. "It's shocking."

Lisanti, 51, has been under fire since The Washington Post reported she used the racial slur during an after-hours gathering in January at an Annapolis cigar 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.

Even after she was censured Thursday — the second-strongest punishment in the General Assembly, exceeded only by expulsion — many continue to call for her resignation. Gov. Larry Hogan and the heads of the state Democratic and Republican parties are calling for her to step down, as are elected officials in Harford and Prince George's counties and the Harford NAACP chapter.

Her language forced some of her black constituents to question how their elected representative sees them. Lisanti's district is home to 64 percent of the county's African-American population.

"Are we a n-word district, too?" asked Sarahia Benn, who is black and ran against Lisanti in the primary election. "What am I?"

Residents also feel as if they've lost their voice in Annapolis, and the focus has shifted away from the issues facing their communities. Instead, a harsh spotlight shines on the Lisanti scandal. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said the first question he gets in Annapolis now is about Lisanti's remarks, rather than his government's priorities.

The House of Delegates publicly censured Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti 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. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

House leadership has stripped Lisanti of her committee positions. Having no committee assignment means Lisanti's sole responsibility is to attend floor sessions of the House of Delegates and vote on legislation. The chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland called Lisanti a "lame duck delegate."

Lisanti was absent from the House of Delegates Friday.

"What purpose does it serve for her to be there? She can't do anything," said Stephen Smith, chairman of the African-American History of Harford County organization. "I would want her to be able to take action — she has no ability to do that. She's ineffective."

Despite the condemnation and repeated calls for resignation, some in Harford County seem willing to move toward healing, like Lisanti says she plans to do.

During her remarks after the censure, Lisanti said she was immediately reorganizing her office and looking for "an individual that will help me reach out to diverse communities" in her district. She also said she would prioritize getting funding to develop the Historic Colored School complex in Havre de Grace.

She has been working for years with a foundation dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Havre de Grace Colored School, the first public high school for African-Americans in Harford County.

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Foundation chair Patricia Cole said members were shocked by Lisanti's comments, given "her record of working with and for people of color and her unwavering support of efforts like ours." Cole said the delegate is doing the right thing by recognizing the pain caused by her words and accepting responsibility.

"God didn't make us perfect, but he did give us the ability to atone for our mistakes," Cole wrote in an email. "She extended an apology to our organization and I accept her apology. We will continue to monitor the events as they unfold, but we hope that we can soon begin healing as a community."

Benn agreed that Lisanti needs to heal, but says she needs to do so "outside the legislature."

Galloway says she might have been able to forgive Lisanti more easily had she apologized sooner and more authentically.

"She needed to come to Harford County and ask for our forgiveness, not from the floor of the House," she said. "She should go door to door to let us know how sorry she is."

JoWanda Strickland-Lucas, president of African American Democratic Club of Harford County, said frustrations have been simmering even before news of the slur broke. She referenced a vote Lisanti made in 2015 against restoring voting rights to ex-felons. The bill, which ultimately became law, had been a priority for the NAACP and African-American residents in Harford.

"We don't have a representative we can trust," she said.

The back-and-forth manner in which Lisanti at first acknowledged racist remarks, then walked back her comments, have contributed to the already frayed sense of trust between some residents and their representative.

On Thursday night, Lisanti 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.

When The Post originally asked whether she has ever used the slur, she said: "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."

Del. Jay Walker, a Prince George's County Democrat who was with Lisanti during the gathering in the cigar bar the night of the incident, said he heard her use the racist slur.

"It wasn't alleged," Walker said Friday. "I was there."

Del. Darryl Barnes, a Prince George's County Democrat, said Lisanti admitted to the Legislative Black Caucus in a closed-door meeting that she had used the slur.

"To me that is another case of denial," Barnes said of Lisanti's most recent statement. "She said it once before that 'I did say it.' Now she's saying that I didn't say it."

"To me she sounds like Gov. Ralph Northam," Barnes said, referring to the Virginia governor. Northam at first admitted to appearing in a medical school yearbook photo featuring one person in blackface and another in a KKK robe. Then he denied it, but said he wore blackface on a separate occasion, when imitating Michael Jackson.

To some of Lisanti's constituents, the situation unfolding in Annapolis is reminiscent of what happened with Northam — but with at least one key difference.

"Thirty years ago is different from 30 days ago," Smith said. "She will go down."

If Lisanti were to resign, the Harford County Democratic Central Committee would be charged with nominating a replacement. Hogan could appoint that individual, or ask for another nomination.

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Lisanti did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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