In unanimous vote, Maryland House censures delegate for using racial slur

Maryland’s House of Delegates unanimously voted 136-0 Thursday to censure Del. Mary Ann Lisanti for using a racial slur.

Lisanti, a Democrat who represents Harford County, was disciplined by her colleagues days after it was reported that she referred to a legislative district in Prince George’s County as “a n— district.”

Censure typically means that a lawmaker may not serve on a committee, but that they may vote on the floor.

In remarks before the vote Thursday evening, the House’s majority leader, Del. Kathleen Dumais, said Lisanti’s words merited a serious response.

“With this vote, we are saying as a body that racial slurs and racially charged language cannot and will not be tolerated by this house,” she said.

“It is incumbent upon us not just speak for our own hurt and disappointment at the use of this language, but speak for every one of our constituents, the district in question and every district and every county in Maryland to say that this is not acceptable,” Dumais said.

In a statement after the censure vote, Lisanti said she understands that words matter and accepts the House’s action.

But she said some people had “rushed to judgment without information and freely jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation, likely for political expediency.”

Lisanti also said she has no plans to resign. “Quitting is easy but not the road to redemption,” she said. “Quitting this body would be the easy way out. I could walk out of this chamber back into my private life … but that is not the right thing to do.”

In terms of disciplinary measures by House leadership, censure falls between a public reprimand and expulsion. Previous disciplinary measures in the body include:

  • Del. Tony McConkey’s 2013 reprimand for working language into a bill that would have directly benefited his real estate business.
  • State Sen. Ulysses Currie’s 2012 censure for failing to report work for a grocery store chain. He was acquitted of federal charges, but an ethics committee found violations.
  • State Sen. Larry Young 1998 expulsion for using his office for personal gain.

The 51-year-old, who is in her second term, admitted Monday to using the slur in January when she was speaking to another colleague at an Annapolis cigar bar.

The Washington Post had first reported she used the slur. When asked about it by the news outlet, she reportedly said, “I don’t recall that … I don’t recall much of that evening.” When asked by the Post whether she had ever used the slur, it reported that she said, “I’m sure I have … I’m sure everyone has used it.”

Lisanti later issued an apology to the Legislative Black Caucus in private on Monday night.

On Tuesday, she did the same before the House Democratic caucus, and then issued a public statement, saying she had used “a word not in my vocabulary” and wrote that “it does not represent my belief system, my life’s work, or what is in my heart.”

In her statement Thursday before she was censured, Lisanti questioned the circumstances in which she used the slur and said she believes colleagues who heard “or thought they overheard an inappropriate word and attributed it to me” should have filed a complaint under the House’s  harassment policy and not gone to the media.

Still, calls for Lisanti’s resignation piled up quickly over the course of the week, with members of the Legislative Black Caucus, the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan calling for Lisanti to step down.

She had already been stripped of two leadership assignments.

Zelphia Smith, chair of the Harford County chapter of the NAACP, said Tuesday that she was hurt and angry over Lisanti’s use of the word. Smith also pointed out she had known Lisanti’s mother, and said she “would be appalled.”

Smith added that Lisanti had been supported over the years by the African-American community in her district, and that she owed her constituents an explanation and apology.

In a statement Thursday night, House Speaker Michael Busch said Lisanti “has a lot of work to do to rebuild her relationships with her colleagues, her constituents and the people of Maryland.”

“I hope she is ready and prepared to put in the effort for the long road ahead,” he said.

In her statement Thursday, Lisanti said: “Staying and accepting responsibility is the hard work. Rolling up your sleeves and attacking political and racial divisiveness that is tearing at the fiber of our nation and our state is the hard work. I am up for the challenge.”

Lisanti said she is reorganizing her office and will hire a staffer specifically to help “reach out to diverse communities” in Harford County. She also said she wants to meet with Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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