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Maryland delegate who used racial slur returns after censure: 'I’m going to go to work like I always do'

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)

Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti returned to the floor of the Maryland House of Delegates to do her job after putting "some physical distance" between herself and her colleagues after she used a racial slur and they voted to censure her.

The Democrat missed more than a dozen votes Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

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“Clearly, the last few days have been extremely intense in an unprecedented, adversarial media environment,” Lisanti said in a phone interview Tuesday, her first extended interview about what happened. “After really thinking about it, I really thought it was best for everyone involved to put some physical distance and give not only myself, but members of the legislature and the advocates there working on bills some distance to what has occurred and what is the best step going forward.”

The House voted Thursday night to censure her for calling a legislative district in Prince George’s County a “n---- district.” Lisanti made the remark in January in front of other legislators at an Annapolis bar. She was confronted Feb. 25 by leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus and apologized.

Despite a deluge of calls for her to resign, including from the black caucus, the state Democratic and Republican parties, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and some of her constituents, she has declined to do so.

“Let me be clear, I’m not in any way belittling what has occurred,” Lisanti said. “I realize I have a lot of relationships to mend. I think I can, absolutely. I think redemption is possible.”

But some African-American residents of Harford have said Lisanti’s use of the slur cut too deep: They are not ready for healing to begin and wonder if she sees them, too, as she viewed black residents of Prince George’s.

House Speaker Michael Busch, as part of disciplining her, stripped Lisanti of her seat on the House Economic Matters Committee.

Lisanti failed to attend a Harford County delegation meeting, hasn’t been seen in the halls of the State House and her office has been closed — with the door locked — each time a reporter checked it Friday, Monday and Tuesday. Another delegate, Democrat Cheryl Glenn of Baltimore, has taken over shepherding a Clean Energy Jobs Act for which Lisanti had been a chief sponsor.

“I don’t understand why she’s not showing up if she’s not going to step down,” said Denise Perry, chairwoman of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, which also called for Lisanti to resign. “Not showing up means you’re not doing your job. She is of no benefit to us.”

Comptroller Peter Franchot called Wednesday for the House of Delegates to expel Lisanti. He opened a Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis by accusing legislative leaders of covering up for her.

"The attempts to sweep Delegate Lisanti’s actions under the rug show shed a spotlight on a culture of secrecy that has long been associated with this town," Franchot said. "It is quite literally a smoke-filled backroom in Annapolis. ... The fact that no one wanted to speak up about this publicly is a damning indictment on the institution where I served 20 years."

House leaders have called for Lisanti to resign, but stopped short of pressing for expulsion, noting she hasn’t been accused of a crime or an ethics violation.

Lisanti said she left Annapolis on Friday for her home in Havre de Grace, but returned Tuesday and worked from her office. She said she prepared for a hearing Wednesday on a bill regarding death benefits for military families.

“I have some Gold Star families coming tomorrow for the bill, so I was prepping them on what to say, how to testify, what to do,” Lisanti said.

Lisanti said that she spent a lot of time on the phone over the weekend.

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“There were a lot of people back home that I wanted to see, a lot of people who wanted to see me, talk to me,” Lisanti said. "My focus — I’m a district representative — and I wanted to spend the time with people here in the community."

She said there’s no doubt in her mind she still can serve her constituents.

“There’s a public reaction and a private reaction from people, and I’ve had a lot of support from members of the legislature,” Lisanti said. “Obviously, with any type of situation like this, there’s a healing process, no question about that. Who knows how long it takes?”

She said she believes she will be able to effect change and that her presence will make a difference.

“My bills are alive. They’re not going anywhere,” she said. “They’re really very important and they’ll still be debated on their merit. Tomorrow, I’m going to go to work like I always do and fight for my bills.”

Lisanti had one full-time staff member who has left her employment since the uproar began. It was a mutual decision, she said. She still has one contractual employee. Lisanti receives about $45,000 to run an office and she is paid an annual salary of $55,330.

Lisanti said she remains committed to doing the work she was elected to do and said again she will not resign.

“You know, I don’t walk away from a challenge. It would be very easy to walk away,” said Lisanti, echoing a statement she read Thursday after the censure vote. “I’m not looking backward. I’m looking forward. And I’ve got a big legislative agenda that’s in front of me. I have a lot work still to do in Annapolis and that’s where my focus is.”

She said she has taken responsibility for her actions and will try to earn back the trust of her colleagues and constituents.

To earn back that trust, she said, you have to “show up every day, do your work, say what you mean, do what you say you’re going to do, and be there for people when they need you. You give a voice to people that don’t have a voice. You fight for injustice. You give power to the powerless. You help people solve problems.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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