Lisanti Scandal: Black Leaders Say Busch Missed a Chance to Take Bold Action

Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks flanked by Del. Darryl Barnes (left), the Legislative Black Caucus chairman, and Del. Michael A. Jackson. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) missed an opportunity to exhibit greater leadership in the immediate aftermath of the controversy surrounding Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, African-American leaders of both parties told Maryland Matters.

Although the speaker stripped the Harford Democrat of her chairmanship of an unemployment insurance subcommittee following revelations that she used the N-word in an after-hours conversation with a colleague, Busch opted to send her to “sensitivity training” rather than join the bipartisan chorus demanding that she step down.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that Lisanti referred to a Prince George’s County legislative district as “a n – – – – district” during a late January gathering in an Annapolis nightspot.

This week Lisanti apologized in two closed-door settings — once during a House Democratic Caucus meeting and in a tense appearance before the Legislative Black Caucus, but she has yet to speak publicly about the controversy, nor has she been willing to talk to reporters.

On Wednesday, calls for Lisanti to step down intensified. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), County Executives Angela B. Alsobrooks (D) of Prince George’s and Barry Glassman (R) of Harford, and the heads of both state political parties said her language was unacceptable and that the only suitable option was for her to quit the legislature.

Busch, the long-serving House Speaker, issued a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday expressing “extreme disappointment and concern over [Lisanti’s] irresponsible and hurtful actions.” But he has yet to address the matter further, despite the calls for the lawmaker to resign and intensifying media scrutiny.

In both public and private conversations, political leaders from across the ideological spectrum said the speaker missed an opportunity to exhibit more leadership.

One African-American lawmaker, a member of the Black Caucus who wished not to be quoted by name, noted that U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) stripped fellow Republican Rep. Steve King (Iowa) of his committee assignments after he uttered racially sensitive remarks and suggested that Busch could have done likewise.

Del. Michael Jackson (D), chairman of the Prince George’s delegation, said lawmakers are feeling pressure from constituents to force Lisanti out.

“The information that we’re getting back from our districts is that she should resign, and that leadership should call for that resignation,” he said. “Our job as members here is to use the delegations that we’re a part of and the caucuses that we’re a part of to effectuate that.”

“I was sheriff of my county for eight years,” Jackson added. “No one with that kind of notion, that would utter something like that, would have remained in my agency. Period.”

Former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) said the use of the N-word “makes you ineligible to serve the people of Maryland, period.”

“At a minimum, you should lose your committee assignments and just be given a desk to sit at all day long and do nothing.”

Last February, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) removed Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-Baltimore City) from the Finance Committee on the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

The recommendation followed Oaks’ indictment in a  federal corruption case.

Steele, an MSNBC political analyst who once headed the Republican National Committee and the Maryland GOP, said Busch’s actions to date fail to send the public the message that “the leadership of this legislative body.. will not stand for this.”

“It’s absolutely a leadership opportunity that was missed. … On its face, it’s rather clear that you’ve got to take a serious approach to this and to send a message as the leader of the body.”

Gerald Stansbury, head of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, said, “The message the needs to be sent from our top legislators that this is not going to happen, in Maryland or any other state. They have to have the heart and they have to have the courage to get out there and just point-blank say, ‘This is not tolerated by anyone.’”

Leaders of the state NAACP hope to meet with Busch soon to air their concerns.

“When are you going to draw the line? The line should be drawn now. It’s so frustrating.” he said. “We buried the N-word. It needs to stop.”

While Busch’s office refused to respond to requests for comment from Maryland Matters on Wednesday, Steele said Lisanti should take the hint from fellow officeholders and resign.

“You can go do your sensitivity training. And you can do your apology tour around the state. But you do so not as a sitting member of the Maryland House of Delegates.”

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