ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates voted unanimously Thursday to censure Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Harford County Democrat who had acknowledged using a racial slur.
The vote was 137-0, with Lisanti abstaining. She rose to speak after the vote was taken but was not recognized.
“This is a serious situation and it warrants a serious response from this body,” said House Majority Leader Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, in calling on delegates to censure their colleague. “Outside of elections, the power to discipline members is ours and ours alone.”
Dumais choked up at one point.
“None of us wants to be here, this is a sad day for the House of Delegates,” said Dumais, her voice audibly shaky. “We have to act to censure one of our own. The House stands for inclusion, diversity and respect for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. The public expects and deserves legislators who hold themselves and each other to the highest standards.”
Dumais said the vote sends a message that “racial slurs and racially charged language cannot and will not be tolerated by this House.”
Lisanti, a two-term legislator from Harford County, has been under siege since Monday when The Washington Post reported that she referred to an area of Prince George’s County as a “n—– district” during an outing at a local cigar bar in January. She initially told the paper she could not remember using the slur on that occasion but acknowledged having said it in the past, comparing it to cursing or “taking the lord’s name in vain.”
Following the vote, Lisanti spoke to reporters, saying she accepted the responsibility for the comment attributed to her but did not acknowledge using the word.
Lisanti told reporters she accepted a ride from a colleague to a local cigar bar following a committee dinner and what she described as a 17-hour workday.
“It is apparent that someone 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,” said Lisanti, reading to reporters from a statement she had planned to read on the floor of the House of Delegates.
Lisanti said she did not use the word but added that she took the advice of trusted friends and “lacking independent verification, I took responsibility for the said action.”
Lisanti said the slur does not represent her “belief system” and rejected calls for her resignation.
House Speaker Michael Busch did not speak from the rostrum but instead issued a statement denouncing Lisanti’s use of the slur.
“Delegate Lisanti’s use of a racial slur to describe an entire community is inexcusable,” Busch said. “Her actions have caused hurt and disappointment among legislators and the general public. This behavior has become a distraction to the important work that these dedicated public servants do each and every day in the legislature.”
Lisanti met with Busch Tuesday and was told she would be removed as chairwoman of a House Economic Matters Subcommittee on Unemployment Insurance. She agreed to take sensitivity training. Two days later, Busch stripped her of her assignment on the Economic Matters Committee — the toughest punishment short of expelling a lawmaker.
“As speaker, I will not allow this House to be torn apart by hurtful and divisive slurs. I demand that every member treat each other with the respect and dignity that they deserve – and treat the citizens of Maryland that way,” Busch said.
Lisanti was not given an opportunity to speak during the floor session.
Following the vote, she spoke to reporters. Standing between the renovated historic Senate and House chambers, Lisanti read a statement she prepared and then took questions.
“So here we are this evening, you, my colleagues, are considering what is appropriate sanction for the use of a word,” said Lisanti. “While ever so vile and hurtful, a word. Not an action, behavior or course of conduct. Words matter. They can inflict pain and in this case this word represents the most deplorable and for that I accept (censure). I, too, denounce this word.”
In a statement earlier this week, Lisanti apologized for her “word choice.”
“I am sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth. It does not represent my belief system, my life’s work or what is my heart,” she said in a statement emailed to reporters.
It was the first public acknowledgement by Lisanti, 51, that she had used the slur in public.
The apology and the earlier sanctions had not satisfied many of her colleagues and others in Maryland politics. Gov. Larry Hogan and the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, are among those who have called on her to resign.
“To those I say: Quitting is easy and not the road to redemption,” said Lisanti. “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. Healing begins tomorrow.”
Lisanti presumably meant “divisiveness” when she used the word “diversity” in her statement.
The censure is part of a series of escalating punishments meted out to Lisanti since Monday.
House Democratic and Republican Caucuses had been told early Thursday to expect the resolution to censure Lisanti.
Lisanti’s censure is the first time the House has taken up such a punishment since 2017. That year Del. Dan Morhaim was censured for exercising poor judgment in working as a consultant for a company applying for a medical marijuana license and testifying before the state Medical Cannabis Commission as an expert.
A censure of Lisanti was made even more unusual by the fact that the resolution was not the result of an investigation of the Joint Committee on Ethics.
An ethics investigation, however, would have taken weeks if not months. Some lawmakers said there appear to be no clear violations with which to charge Lisanti. An ethics violation would likely be needed before an effort could be mounted to expel Lisanti.
An expulsion would require a two-thirds voted. It has not been done since Sen. Larry Young was expelled on ethics violations
A censure requires a simple majority vote.
Busch was somewhat limited in how he could discipline Lisanti.
Other options at his disposal included reassigning Lisanti to another committee or taking away all of her committee assignments.
As part of his punishment, Morhaim was removed from his leadership position and reassigned.
Former Del. Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, was stripped of committee assignments in 2014 following a second conviction for drunk driving, for which he was sentenced to 30 consecutive weekends in jail.
Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, D-Baltimore, had his committee assignments taken away last year after being charged in a federal corruption case for which he ultimately was sentenced to prison.
“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,” said Busch.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported the roll call vote as 136-0, the official vote on the General Assembly website. That count was later changed to 137-o after Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, reported a malfunction of his voting buttons and asked to be added manually.