By Hannah GaskillJosh Kurtz

January 28, 2022

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Harford County’s District 34 Senate race will be one to watch this year, as both the Republican and Democratic nominations are contested following the decision by Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D) to seek the seat.

“I’ve been thinking about it since I was a page in the Maryland Senate in high school,” she said during a phone interview Friday. “With there being an open seat this time, I thought it was time for me to try to reach my goal.”

Lisanti, who was censured by her House colleagues in 2019 after being accused of uttering a racial epithet, is facing off against former Del. Mary-Dulany James for the Democratic nomination. The District 34 Senate seat is being vacated by Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford), who is running for Harford County executive.

James, the daughter of the late Senate President William S. James (D), served four terms as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. She filed for her third bid for the District 34 Senate seat Thursday.

James was not immediately available for comment Friday.

Lisanti, who is finishing her second term in the Maryland House of Delegates, filed to join the race for Cassilly’s seat Friday morning.

The former Harford County councilmember and Havre de Grace city manager said she has spent the past year talking to her constituents and is running with “a groundswell of support” from her community.

“If you look at my voting record, I have stood with my community’s values against my party,” she said Friday.

Lisanti, a rare Democrat representing a conservative district, often breaks from House Democrats on key votes. She pointed to her opposition of the sweeping police reform package passed during the 2021 session as an example.

Lisanti voted in opposition to four of the five bills in the package, only supporting a bill that would create a mechanism to restore local control of the Baltimore Police Department to the city.

She said that individual voices tend to get lost in the House chamber and things tend to become “partisan.” Her campaign platform for her Senate bid is “getting back to basics”

“There’s a lot of people who vote in fear of their next election. I vote in fear of what could be in the future – of unintended consequences,” said Lisanti. “My entire campaign is about restoring trust and healing wounds so we can focus on the things that are important.”

Lisanti’s time in the House has not been without controversy.

In 2019, Lisanti was unanimously censured by the House of Delegates after colleagues reported that she used a racial slur in a conversation with lawmakers at an Annapolis cigar bar. Lisanti resigned from her leadership position, was stripped of her assignment on the Economic Matters Committee and read an apology on the House floor, but did not admit saying the slur. She was reassigned to the Ways and Means Committee in 2020.

“I was accused of saying something that nobody to this day has ever put their name to saying, ‘Oh, I heard that,’” Lisanti said Friday.

Although the Legislative Black Caucus and some community leaders demanded her resignation, Lisanti chose to remain in the House, and said she doesn’t believe that the censure will harm her Senate bid.

“At the end of the day, your deeds are much more important and when you look at my legislative history, my work in the community — people of all walks of life have encouraged me to run” including the Black community, she said.

Lisanti reported $9,849 in her campaign account on Jan. 12 after raising $11,011 in the previous year. Her campaign was also carrying $56,536 in debts.

James had zero balance in her campaign account after no financial activity over the past year. But she was carrying a debt of $101,453 from loans she made to her campaign during the 2014 election cycle.

In 2018, a good year for Democrats, Cassilly defeated James 50.1% to 49.7%, a far closer race than in 2014, a Republican year, when he won 57.2% to 42.7%. In 2018, James came off the campaign trail in mid-October after her daughter died of a drug overdose.

Republican candidates ramping up campaigns

The Republicans have a competitive primary for the Senate seat already underway, between former state Del. Christian J. Miele and businessman Walter “Butch” Tilley III.

Miele represented District 8 in Baltimore County in the House for one term before unsuccessfully challenging state Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D) in 2018. Miele was a highly-touted GOP recruit for the District 8 Senate race — Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) headlined a fundraiser that turned into a gender reveal party for Miele’s in utero son — but wound up losing the general election by 2.3 points in what turned out to be a good year for Democrats.

Miele took a job in the Hogan administration as deputy secretary at the Department of Disabilities and then moved to Harford County, where his wife is from and where his in-laws own a business.

Tilley sought the single House of Delegates seat in District 34B in 2018, finishing just 59 votes behind long-serving Del. Susan W. McComas in a four-way GOP primary. Tilley owns an insurance company in Harford County and has been active in several civic endeavors, including as president of the Harford County Sheriffs Foundation and as chair of the Harford County Liquor Control Board.

One Maryland Republican consultant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the internecine warfare, said Tilley’s superior name recognition in the district should prove to be an advantage in the primary.

“I think it’s hard to helicopter in,” the GOP strategist said.

Some Republicans are likely to point out that Tilley was once a Democrat — Harford County had lots of conservative Democrats in the not-too-distant past — and has made contributions to Democratic candidates. But Tilley’s campaign website features a picture of him shaking President Trump’s hand and describes him as “a homegrown conservative leader.”

Miele reported $63,212 in his campaign account on Jan. 12 after raising $65,339 over the past year. That figure included $17,501 in contributions from his own pocket and $5,851 in donations from other individuals named Miele. The campaign carried over $21,717 in debt from Miele’s 2018 Senate bid.

Tilley had $43,663 in his campaign war chest on Jan. 12 after raising $40,120 over the past year. His campaign carried a $100,000 debt from the 2018 election.