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Maryland House censures Lisanti over racial slur; lawmaker vows to stay in office

The Maryland House of Delegates voted on Feb. 28 to censure Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford) for allegedly using a racial slur against African Americans. (Video: Arelis Hernandez/The Washington Post)

The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously Thursday to censure Del. Mary Ann Lisanti for referring to a Prince George’s County legislative district as a “n----- district,” a slur that Majority Leader Kathleen M. Dumais said “cannot and will not be tolerated.”

The House voted 137 to 0, with two excused absences, to impose its second-most-severe punishment on Lisanti (D-Harford), who used the racial slur in a conversation with other lawmakers at an after-hours gathering in late January.

Lisanti, who issued a public apology earlier this week, told The Washington Post after the incident that she did not recall making the remark. On Thursday, she said there was no “independent verification” that she had used the slur, even as she accepted responsibility for doing so.

Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s), whose district Lisanti was referring to, was present at the gathering and told The Post he heard the remark and addressed it with Lisanti privately. Other Democratic lawmakers, including some in leadership positions, say lawmakers who heard the remark told them about it as well.

The censure is the first imposed by the House in decades, staffers said. It comes as Lisanti, 51, is resisting calls from House leaders and others across the political spectrum to step down.

Mounting calls for Democratic Del. Mary Ann Lisanti to resign

“This is a serious situation and it warrants a serious response from this body,” said Dumais (D-Montgomery), her voice emotional. “Outside of elections, the power to discipline members is ours and ours alone.”

Lisanti, one of only a few elected Democrats in mostly white Harford County, told reporters after the vote that she plans to stay in office and work to regain the trust of her constituents and fellow lawmakers.

But she also struck a defiant tone, saying that her colleagues who “heard or thought they overhead an inappropriate word” should have filed an ethics complaint against her instead of speaking to reporters.

Lisanti — who in a statement Tuesday apologized “for my word choice several weeks ago” — said Thursday that some of her critics “rushed to judgment” and “jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation” for political expediency.

“Quitting is easy, but not the road to redemption,” she said. “Staying here, accepting responsibility, is hard work. . . . But I am up for the challenge. And that is why I am staying. Healing begins tomorrow.”

Asked by The Post in early February whether she had ever used the slur, she said: “I’m sure I have. . . . I’m sure everyone has used it. I’ve used the f-word. I used the Lord’s name in vain.”

Read Del. Mary Ann Lisanti’s statement of apology on Tuesday

The revelation of Lisanti’s remark has sparked outrage across the state and an uproar in the State House. It is the latest race-related embarrassment for Democratic politicians, who were already reeling from revelations in Virginia that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) decades ago wore blackface. Northam, too, has vowed to stay in office and make amends.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) stripped Lisanti of her leadership posts on Tuesday and took away her committee assignments Thursday, leaving her with little to do in the legislature other than testify on proposed legislation and cast votes on bills on the House floor.

Censuring Lisanti was necessary, Busch said, to “protect the integrity of the House.”

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Busch said, adding that he and other House leaders spoke to Lisanti about the pros and cons of resigning. “It’s a sad day for everybody.”

Resignation, he added, is “her decision — her call to make,” he said.

Before Thursday, the last Maryland lawmaker to be censured was then-Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George’s Democrat, in 2012, after his acquittal on federal bribery and corruption charges.

Del. Michael A. Jackson (D), who chairs the Prince George’s County legislative delegation, said Lisanti’s reluctance to leave office is a distraction that threatens to compromise the integrity of the legislative body and its work.

“You cannot serve effectively and have these biases,” Jackson said. “We are considering legislation that looks at housing conditions, educational equity, the criminal justice system . . . I don’t think she should be in this body.”

If Lisanti were to resign, the Harford County Democratic Central Committee would recommend a replacement for her to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who would be charged with appointing someone to fill the seat.

In the House on Thursday morning, two Republican colleagues patted Lisanti on the back and gave her a hug as they waited for House leaders to enter the chamber. The session started late, and people familiar with the situation attributed the delay to meetings among House leaders about what steps to take regarding Lisanti’s conduct.

Referring Lisanti’s case to the House Ethics committee did not seem like a good option, lawmakers said, because it was not clear she had violated any ethics law.

House leaders told the Democratic caucus in a closed-door meeting that they would vote for censure, which requires a simply majority to pass. A censure is one step short of expulsion — which would require referral to the ethics committee and a two-thirds vote from the entire chamber.

Rachel Chason contributed to this report.

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