The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously Thursday night to censure one of its own, Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford), who had uttered a racial epithet in front of colleagues and lobbyists in an Annapolis cigar bar last month.
In quick fashion, the House voted 137-0 on a resolution that condemned Lisanti for using “a racist and hurtful term” and for bringing “dishonor to the entire General Assembly of Maryland.”
Lisanti was excused from voting Thursday night and two members had excused absences. Del. Richard K. Impallaria (R-Baltimore County), who was in the House chamber, did not vote.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who introduced the censure measure, has stripped Lisanti of her seat on the powerful House Economic Matters Committee after previously taking away her subcommittee chairmanship and ordering her to undergo sensitivity training. She will be allowed to vote during floor sessions for the remainder of the General Assembly session but will no longer serve on any committee – weakening her ability to influence the legislative process.
Despite multiple calls to resign – including from numerous colleagues publicly, and members of House leadership privately – Lisanti, in her first public statements since The Washington Post reported on her use of the N-word earlier this week, said she planned to remain in office.
“To those who have called for my resignation, I say quitting is easy, but not the road to redemption,” Lisanti told reporters. “Quitting this body would in fact be an easy way out. I could walk out of this chamber back into my private life, lifted by the burden of society’s woes. But that is not the right thing to do. Staying here, accepting responsibility, is hard work. Looking in the eyes of people I may have hurt is tough. Rolling up your sleeves and attacking political and racial diversity that is tearing the fiber of our nation and our state is hard work. But I am up for the challenge. And that is why I am staying.”
The entire proceeding in the House took less than seven minutes, and House Majority Leader Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) was the only member to speak on the floor.
“This is a serious situation and it warrants a serious response from this body,” Dumais told her colleagues, adding that it’s “a sad day for the House of Delegates when we have to censure one of our own.”
Lisanti rose to speak, but was not recognized by Busch, who called a quick roll call vote. The chamber adjourned seconds later.
More than a dozen cameras and reporters then followed Lisanti to a corner of the marbled State House lobby, where she spoke softly about her resolve to remain in office – and her disappointment that she wasn’t allowed to address her colleagues during the floor session.
Lisanti would not admit to uttering the offensive language.
“While the proceedings of this evening are necessary in the eyes of some, it is most unfortunate that we are here,” she told reporters. “The end of a regular 17-hour workday concluded by accepting a ride from a committee dinner to a local cigar smoking lounge, a place I do not frequent.
“It is apparent that some in attendance heard, or thought they overheard an inappropriate word. And in lieu of reporting the incident in accordance with our newly adopted harassment policy, chose to instead contact a member of the media, thus igniting the firestorm that brings us all here tonight.”
The Post reported Monday that Lisanti “told a white colleague, during an after-hours gathering at an Annapolis cigar bar, that when he campaigned in Prince George’s [County] on behalf of a candidate last fall he was door-knocking in a “n—– district.’”
Lisanti insisted she did not have too much to drink that night. She said she has 1,000 conversations a day, and does not remember them all. “It was the end of a very long day.”
Other than continuing to exert pressure on Lisanti to resign, House members appear to have exhausted their official options over an incident that has shaken and outraged lawmakers and key Democratic constituencies.
The Maryland State Conference of the NAACP and associated groups have scheduled a news conference for Friday morning in Annapolis to reiterate their call for Lisanti’s resignation.
Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, which has demanded Lisanti’s resignation and has held several tense meetings with the lawmaker and with House leaders over the past several days, declined to weigh in after the censure vote, deferring comment to Del. Edith J. Patterson (D-Charles), the caucus’ first vice chair.
Asked whether the censure vote was a sufficient step, Patterson replied that Busch had “gone as far as he can go” within the bounds of his authority.
“Certainly we [in the caucus] were listened to,” she told Maryland Matters. “You saw the vote — it was unanimous. And that speaks for itself.”
Busch told reporters immediately after the vote: “I think my job was to make sure that everything could be done to protect the integrity of the Maryland House of Delegates.”
‘I have no idea what the right thing is to say’
A censure is the second-highest formal reprimand in the Legislature. Typically, censure resolutions come to the floor from the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. It is unclear whether a speaker of the House has ever brought a censure of a member directly to the floor as Busch did Thursday night.
While legislative chambers in Maryland can vote to expel a member, lawmakers and aides said Lisanti’s use of racist language, while outrageous and upsetting, did not violate specific laws or ethics rules.
Lisanti, who previously served on the Harford County Council, was reelected to a second term in November and is in the first few months of a four-year term. If she resigns, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) would name her replacement based on a recommendation from the Harford County Democratic Central Committee. But as a practical matter, even if she resigned in the next few days, it would almost certainly be too late to fill her seat before the end of the legislative session on April 8.
Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, said that as long as Lisanti remains in the legislature, her seat on his panel will remain vacant, because all of the other committees have full complements and it’s too late in the session to shift people around. Davis said he would take on the role of chair of the Unemployment Insurance subcommittee that Lisanti had helmed for the remainder of this session.
Asked for his reaction to the House vote, Davis hesitated.
“I have no idea what the right thing is to say right now,” he said.
Lisanti said she plans to reorganize her office and is hiring “an individual that will help me reach out to diverse communities in my county so that may lead a way to better understanding and more opportunities.”
“Healing begins tomorrow,” she said.
The lawmaker said she will focus the rest of this session on her bills to fund an extension of the Harford Community College and phase 2 of development for new community facilities at the Havre de Grace Historic Colored School complex, a project she has also supported in past legislative session.
After session, Lisanti said she plans to accept an invitation from Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) to visit her county, and hopes members of the Prince George’s legislative delegation will go with her.
Lisanti said she was grateful to everyone in her county who reached out and encouraged her to stay in Annapolis. “Together, all of us will mend these woes.”
In a statement released after the House vote – and after Lisanti delivered her comments in the State House lobby – Busch admonished, “Delegate 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.”