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After Censure for Using Racial Slur, Maryland Delegate Refuses to Resign

The House of Delegates publicly censured Harford County Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti on Thursday night for her use of a racial slur, which members said "brought dishonor to the entire General Assembly of Maryland."

By Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood

The House of Delegates publicly censured Harford County Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti on Thursday night 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 blacks, although she had acknowledged earlier in the week that she had done so. A reporter asked Thursday night if she had said it, and Lisanti responded: "I do not believe I did, but I am still accepting responsibility."

Lisanti came under fire 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."

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.

In an evening session convened for the sole purpose of disciplining Lisanti, delegates voted to approve a resolution of censure that said Lisanti "has 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 not present.

"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 also chastised fellow lawmakers for not reporting her use of the slur through any legislature's process, but instead discussing it with a reporter, "thus igniting the firestorm that brings us all here tonight."

The resolution was drafted by House Speaker Michael Busch and introduced by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, the majority leader for the Democrats. 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.

Delegate 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," Barnes said. "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 beginning 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 have continued.

Lisanti attended a morning floor session Thursday of the House, which ended with an announcement that the House would reconvene at 5:45 p.m. No public explanation was given for the unusual evening session. Lisanti then met privately with Busch and other Democratic leaders, before the House Democratic and Republican caucuses met separately behind closed doors to discuss the censure vote.

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).

Zilpha Smith, president of Harford County's NAACP chapter, said Lisanti should step down.

"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."

Denise Perry, chairwoman of the county Democratic Central Committee, also called for Lisanti to resign, noting that 64 percent of the county's black 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 for Hogan to appoint.

The lowest level of discipline is a letter of education, followed by a reprimand, censure, and expulsion. A censure amounts to a public rebuke of a lawmaker and one source briefed on the planned action said Busch and other House leaders consider it appropriate as Lisanti isn't accused of a crime or an ethical violation.

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.

(Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Erika Butler contributed to this article.)

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