The message from black lawmakers and activists in Maryland was clear on Friday: Del. Mary Ann Lisanti must go.
They said the Harford County Democrat’s public comments on Thursday — after she was censured by the House of Delegates for calling a Prince George’s County legislative district a “n----- district” — raised questions about her previous apologies and whether she fully recognizes the ugly history and impact of the racial epithet.
Lisanti was stripped of her leadership positions and committee assignment this week after apologizing for using the slur in a conversation with colleagues at an after-hours gathering in a cigar bar in Annapolis in late January.
“I deeply apologize . . . for my word choice several weeks ago,” she said in a statement. “I am sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth.”
But in a lengthy, sometimes contradictory statement to reporters Thursday, Lisanti said there was no “independent verification” she used the slur. She said she decided to take responsibility for the action after consulting with others and was determined to stay in office, despite calls from across the political spectrum for her to resign.
In response to a question, Lisanti said she did not think she used the racial epithet at the cigar bar. But she also said she would accept an invitation from Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) to visit the majority-black county, so she could “begin the healing process.”
On Friday, at a news conference hosted by the Maryland NAACP, lawmakers and advocates denounced Lisanti’s statements and renewed their calls for her to leave office.
“Why are you coming to Prince George’s if you say you didn’t say anything?” said Del. Jay Walker (D), who was at the evening gathering and represents the district that Lisanti referred to. “It wasn’t alleged. I was there. She needs to apologize to my district, to Prince George’s County and to the state.”
Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, said Lisanti “sounds like Governor Ralph Northam” of Virginia, who initially took responsibility for a photo on his yearbook page of people dressed in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan outfit before saying he was not in the picture.
“That is a problem,” Barnes said. “In essence, she is saying that the delegates that were in the room are all liars. That is unacceptable . . . It is my goal that when she comes in on Monday morning, she will be able to look herself in the mirror and say, ‘I must resign.’”
Lisanti told The Washington Post in a brief interview three weeks ago that she couldn’t recall whether she used the racial slur at the cigar bar, but was certain she had uttered it in the past.
Barnes said that when Lisanti addressed the executive committee of the Black Caucus Monday evening, she repeated those comments, again saying she thought she had used the word before and comparing it to cursing or using the Lord’s name in vain.
“She was not remorseful, and she had such a cavalier attitude,” said Barnes, who after the session on Monday had described Lisanti as contrite and apologetic.
He read aloud from Lisanti’s remarks Thursday, which said she was being censured for using “a word — not an action, behavior or course of conduct,” and said those comments make clear she does not understand the significance of using the racial slur.
“This is a code that is passed around to try to get us back on the plantation,” said Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s County NAACP. “We are not going there.”
Lisanti is one of two Democrats in the delegation from Harford, a largely white, Republican county. In her successful campaigns in 2014 and 2018, she drew substantial support from the black community, she and local African American leaders have said.
On Friday, JoWanda Strickland-Lucas, an African American resident who has supported Lisanti in the past, also called for the lawmaker to step down.
Strickland-Lucas, president of the African American Democratic Club of Harford County, called the incident at the cigar bar “an egregious act of racism.”
She asked how the delegate could use the slur to describe residents of Prince George’s “and still think she can represent me as an African American in Harford County.”
Lisanti was not in the House chamber for the legislative session on Friday, as lawmakers gave final passage to bills that would raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and create a hate-crime statute in state law.
Both pieces of legislation now head to the Senate, which is expected to consider additional changes to the minimum-wage bill, including a proposal to create a tiered system of wages for different regions of the state.
“Is this perfect? No. But it’s fair, it’s balanced and that’s the best we can do,” said House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s).