It was the day before Joe Morrissey released the photo of himself, his teenage girlfriend and their baby boy, the slightly icky dress-up portrait that quickly made its way to Twitter and then launched all those hashtags, and he was doing what he does almost every evening. He was out campaigning.
He drove his Jaguar to a neighborhood in south Petersburg that is sandwiched between Crater Road and Interstate 95. Most of the modest houses were built in the early 196os, and either in anticipatory defiance or unintended and ironic shortsightedness, the streets of the once all-white and now overwhelmingly black neighborhood were named after the forts and generals of the Confederacy.
Morrissey, who is 57, stepped out of the car holding a clipboard with a list of the registered voters he hoped to visit that night. His method was simple. He knocked on a door, and when a person answered, he told them he is running in Virginia’s 16th Senate District. “I would be honored to earn your vote,” he said almost each and every time. Not receive. Not get. But earn.
After each successful encounter, he made a little notation, jotting down a snippet of the conversation, such as someone’s job or favorite team. Later that night, he would write a short note to each person, work in that tidbit and ask for their vote. Each letter will be mailed just before the general election on Nov. 3. His goal is to make 50 or so contacts a night — touches, he calls them — and ultimately mail about 10,000 letters.
I followed along, sometimes nearly trotting to keep up with Morrissey’s quick gait. He rarely needed an introduction. Near the corner of Beauregard Avenue and Walton Street, we ran into a retiree named Thomas Edmonds, who integrated the neighborhood nearly 40 years ago. He appeared appreciative that a politician had come calling and nodded with approval when Morrissey talked about the need to expand Medicaid and to make it easier for Virginians to have their civil rights restored after serving their time for felony convictions.
Edmonds was familiar with what can be charitably described as Morrissey’s troubles, a career filled with offenses and transgressions that would have spelled doom for almost any other politician. But they didn’t bother him. “He’s had his ups and downs, but people forgive him,” Edmonds explained later. As he saw it, on one side was the status quo, and on the other side was Morrissey.
“He won’t give up,” Edmonds said. “You can’t give up. Life is like that.”
There are many people who would like Joe Morrissey to just give up and go away. To them, he is part of Virginia’s sad political descent from the birthplace of presidents to its present swirl of corruption and self-serving politicians — like Florida, but with four true seasons and lousier theme parks. But these people have not been on the business end of Morrissey’s handshake. When out hustling for votes, he is utterly charming and seemingly irresistible.
Morrissey said he thought about giving up on politics earlier this year and just serving out his term in the House of Delegates after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor — a young woman named Myrna Pride, who in March gave birth to his son. But then his fellow Democrats, led by Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), the caucus chairman, tried to force him out. Surovell admires Morrissey’s passion for social justice and his debating abilities but said he has had enough. “To me, Joe is kind of a tragic personality,” he said. “He’s got some incredible skills, but he’s also got some demons that he just can’t seem to shake.”
Rather than face a possible expulsion, Morrissey resigned and timed his resignation to coincide with the setting of a quickly held special election, which he won handily despite the army of heavy-hitters who campaigned for one of his opponents. He was not welcomed back — i.e., shunted into worse office space and stripped of committee assignments — so he left the House in March to run for the Senate. Unable to qualify for the June Democratic primary because too many of his ballot petitions were deemed invalid, he is now running as an independent in the general election. His opponent is incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance, a well-financed if not particularly well-loved Democratic legislator, and a political enemy of his. “I’m not going to let people push me up against the wall and dictate my fate,” Morrissey said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now.”
And yet, there is something more taking place than simply Joe Morrissey’s impression of Lazarus and the finger he is jabbing in the eye of Virginia’s political establishment. Yes, he is clever in finding ways to win, even if the prize is a part-time job that pays less than $20,000 a year. And, yes, he has used his near-constant scrapes with authority to create a reasonable facsimile of street cred, a commodity that is invaluable in life and in elections. But his resilience also points out that the message voters deliver on Election Day is not always what the people in power want to hear.
The voters in the 74th House District who have been so loyal to Morrissey live in a scruffy patch of suburban and rural sprawl that also includes a few precincts on the north and east sides of Richmond. Like the district he is running in now, the 74th is what is known as a majority-minority district. These districts aren’t designed to expressly elect minority candidates, although that’s what typically happens. Rather, they’re designed to allow minority voters to elect candidates of their own choice. And if through five elections in eight years, the voters of the 74th chose a white guy in a suit who, among other things, has been disbarred, convicted of assault and fathered four children out of wedlock including with Pride, who was 17 when they met, then maybe it’s the rest of us, and not Joe Morrissey, who need to move on.
Morrissey likes to win. Or perhaps he hates to lose. He admitted to being called out for gloating after beating a friend’s 7-year-old son in H-O-R-S-E.
He was a state wrestling champion in his junior year at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, and the sport — its discipline, confrontational physicality and clear outcomes — has shaped his view of politics and of life. He claims boxer John Morrissey, a Tammany Hall politician and prizefighter from the mid-1800s, as a distant relative, and there is a display case of boxing gloves in the small house in Highland Springs that he uses for his law office.
The word that judges have used to describe Morrissey’s conduct is “contumacious,” which is a fancy synonym for being willfully disobedient. He is defiant and unapologetic and on occasion displays what might be called chutzpah to avoid punishment. For example, after Morrissey was found to have offered legal services to a nonprofit instead of performing his court-mandated community service, he argued (unsuccessfully, it turned out) that he could not be charged with violating conduct for members of the bar because his law license was already suspended.
Morrissey and his three brothers and two sisters grew up in a comfortable suburban home in Annandale. His father was a cardiologist and his mother was a homemaker, then an art historian at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington.
Joe Morrissey arrived in Richmond in 1983 with an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a law degree from Georgetown University. He went to work the next year as an assistant prosecutor and was elected commonwealth’s attorney for the city in 1989, vowing to aggressively try cases himself. During his single term as the city’s top prosecutor, he was sentenced to five days in jail for writing a threatening letter to a judge, reprimanded for fighting with a defense attorney in court and accused of mishandling a guilty plea in a rape case. In that last incident, Morrissey had his license suspended for six months and was also charged with bribery and brought to trial. He was acquitted, and several jurors wrote affidavits on Morrissey’s behalf, but the charges helped kill his reelection bid.
In private practice, Morrissey used his fighting image as a marketing tool, complete with T-shirts sporting a boxing glove. Although widely regarded as a top-flight litigator, he continued to run afoul of courtroom rules. He was jailed for 30 days for berating a judge, then had his law license suspended for three years beginning in December 1999 after violating a federal rule regarding pretrial publicity.
The suspension led to his eventual disbarment in April 2003. By then, Morrissey was living in Ireland, completing a master’s in law. He moved to Australia, where he helped mentor prosecutors and his application for the bar was rejected.
Morrissey returned to Virginia in 2006 and ran for the House of Delegates in 2007. Name recognition from his days as a prosecutor helped him — his slogan was “Joe’s Back” — and he won a crowded Democratic primary. In the legislature, he quickly became a favorite of then-Minority Leader Ward Armstrong.
In 2010, Morrissey began trying to get his law license back. At a hearing in April 2011 before the Virginia State Bar’s disciplinary board, a parade of character witnesses vouched for Morrissey’s reformation and good conduct. But the board unanimously recommended the Virginia Supreme Court not reinstate his license. A big reason, the board said, was that he showed no remorse.
That could have been the last word, but it wasn’t. Morrissey then drafted a blistering response and filed it with the court, despite there being no rule allowing such a filing. On Dec. 16, 2011, the court voted 4 to 3 to restore his license. Morrissey clearly still relishes the memory. “How good does that make my soul feel,” he said, “that I didn’t have to prostrate myself on the altar of the state bar?”
After that victory, there were occasional theatrics, such as a stunt in January 2013 when he brought an unloaded AK-47 onto the chamber floor during a debate on gun control. When not alienating his colleagues, he built a record of backing populist — and often losing — causes such as in-state tuition for Native Americans, restoring voting rights for felons and increasing the state minimum wage. But it’s possible that Morrissey could have simply settled back into the practice of law and the cosseted irrelevance of being an elected Democrat in a chamber where the Republicans now hold two-thirds of the votes.
That didn’t happen. In spring 2013, Morrissey met Pride, who was working in his podiatrist’s office, and hired her to work in his law firm. She had recently turned 17 and said on her job application that she was 22 and considering a law career, according to court records.
Much of what happened next remains in dispute. Police were called to Morrissey’s home the night of Aug. 23, 2013, by Pride’s father. They found Morrissey and Myrna Pride there. An investigation was opened and cellphone records were obtained, resulting in four felony charges and one misdemeanor charge being filed against Morrissey on June 30, 2014.
Morrissey pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor Dec. 12, 2014, entering what is known as an Alford plea. It allows a defendant to plead guilty without admitting guilt but acknowledging there is sufficient evidence to convict. Alford pleas are not unusual, but what was unusual was his insertion of a defense version of events in the court documents. In his account, there was no sex with a minor or distribution of pornographic material. He said their phones had been hacked and a former female lover of Pride’s had conspired with Pride’s sisters to ruin them both.
Just before Morrissey was indicted, Pride, then 18, became pregnant. His explanation is that they had been only friends in the beginning but that their shared hardship during the investigation brought them together. Their son, Chase, was born March 14. Eight weeks later, on Mother’s Day, they traveled to Virginia Beach, where they posed for the now infamous photo: mom, dad and child resplendent in faux antebellum finery. Pride is seated, beaming as she looks up at Morrissey and holds Chase in her arms. He, in turn, has one hand on a cane and the other on her bare shoulder.
Pride told reporters a couple of weeks later that the photo was her idea, although it was Morrissey who gave it to a reporter who set it loose on the Internet. She and her family did costumed photos like that when she was younger, she said, and she thought it would be a fun souvenir.
Not everyone was amused.
“Morrissey’s hand on the mother suggests that she and the child are his personal property over which he has total dominion and control,” Sa’ad El-Amin, a political commentator and legal consultant in Richmond, wrote angrily of the photo in an e-mail he circulated to about 40 other local movers and shakers. “This photograph suggests to me that Morrissey views the African-American community as his personal playground and that he either lacks insight or simply does not care about his destructive and self-absorbed predations in and on our beloved community.”
Like Morrissey, El-Amin has walked his own path toward a version of redemption. He was a lawyer and member of Richmond’s city council, then spent 31 months in prison starting in 2003 for conspiracy to evade taxes and lost his law license. He said that he understands the importance of forgiveness but that Morrissey is asking for too much from people who have given plenty. “Does it make us look stupid?” El-Amin asked. “That’s a painful question. But it is there. Over the past 20 years, we’ve become the forgotten people. We’re orphans. At the end of the day, we’re starving for attention.”
Morrissey said, from a political standpoint, the age difference doesn’t matter to voters, and from a personal one, the gap is narrowed by his active lifestyle and what he calls Pride’s “old soul.”
He said he is proud of and loves all his children. Morrissey has two adult daughters, Angela and Lindsay, and more recently, a 2-year-old daughter named Kennedy born of a brief relationship with another African American woman, who declined to comment. He rejects the idea that he is undisciplined in his personal life. “If you think that there are a lot of girlfriends, now, you didn’t see me in my 20s and my 30s and 40s,” he said. “I don’t believe being single and dating a lot of women — which I’m not now — is undisciplined.”
The 16th Senate District where Morrissey is running begins in Richmond with a handful of precincts north of the James River, including the area in Shockoe Bottom where Morrissey and Pride moved in the spring. But most of its 200,000 residents live south of the James, in the long stretch from South Richmond to Petersburg. There are plenty of well-tended yards and carefully restored homes, but large swaths of the district appear left behind, waiting for a revitalization that shows little sign of happening soon.
Morrissey said he decided to run for the Senate because the lopsided political balance in the House meant there was little opportunity for Democrats to govern. The Virginia Senate, by contrast, is nearly split. Republicans hold a 21-19 edge, and Democrats could pull even or gain control. Should Morrissey win, Senate Democrats might need his vote to gain the upper hand. It’s a prospect that he relishes and that many in the party would rather not think about. As one Senate Democrat said privately, “It would put us in a horrible position and make it very hard for us to maintain our integrity and have him be part of our caucus.”
Morrissey could have run for the Senate without moving to the 16th, but he wanted to challenge Dance, a former delegate and mayor of Petersburg who is sometimes seen as too buddy-buddy with the Republicans. She and Morrissey fought bitterly two years ago, when Morrissey backed her opponent in a House primary. Dance, who did not return calls for comment, has held the seat for less than a year and never won the district in a regular general election.
One afternoon in May, Morrissey and I drove to King’s Market, which is in a struggling neighborhood just off Jefferson Davis Highway a few miles from the sprawling Marlboro factory that informally marks the southern boundary of Richmond. The store was a hive of activity as people came in after work to buy snacks, cigarettes and beer. Morrissey stood at the curb, handing out leaflets and talking to customers. He had told me ahead of time what I was likely to see, but the spectacle was still something to behold. He was at times nearly swarmed. People got out of their cars to take selfies with him. A woman yelled “Joe Morrissey, we got you and your sexy ass.” On and on it went.
Leonidas Young, a former mayor of Richmond, is a longtime supporter and friend of Morrissey’s. He said Morrissey has a talent for relating to voters and using his problems to establish his bona fides and build a bond.
“Here’s the oddity of it. I told Joe, ‘I don’t understand your popularity. But I would not have gone through what you went through,’ ” he said. “He told me, ‘Lee, the only way I would have gotten it is to go through these trials.’ ”
In truth, Young has had his own trials. He went to prison for two years after pleading guilty in 1999 for mail fraud and other charges and is now pastor of New Kingdom Christian Ministries in Richmond. He tried his own political comeback this spring, running for Morrissey’s delegate seat, and was trounced in the primary. Morrissey’s opponents viewed the result as a hopeful sign.
Perhaps because he is a lawyer, Morrissey likes to equate voters to jurors, an arrangement that in a sense makes the candidates the ones on trial. If you give the people enough information and present your case with passion, he said, they will almost always come to the right verdict. It’s hard to argue with that logic, and many of the politicians lined up against him struggled to find a path that proves him the exception to the rule without criticizing the wisdom of the voters who have kept him in office all these years.
Several times, Morrissey told me about what he believed to be the subtleties of black voters, that when they just said hello and shook his hand, it didn’t mean much, but if they told him that they had his back, then that meant something more significant. During our time campaigning together, lots of people told him that they had his back, and these remarks filled him with confidence.
But there’s an alternative view of what was taking place that several African American and female politicians explained to me, with varying levels of exasperation. This is what state Sen. Donald McEachin, a Dance supporter, said: “One of the things that’s missed by the white media and the political pundits and Joe is that the African American voter — especially in the South — is a warm and receptive person. They are going to be very hospitable when they meet a candidate. That should not be mistaken for approval of the candidate’s credentials.”
“To a certain extent, he has made a point of fighting for the little guy and for the have-nots, and they appreciate that,” said Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond). “But there’s something about this latest episode that makes them say enough is enough.” Her constituents, particularly women, have told her what they keep coming back to is the age difference between Morrissey and Pride. “They say, ‘It might not have been illegal, but it doesn’t seem right.’ ”
Morrissey is used to being judged, but Pride is still learning to cope with intense public scrutiny. The first time I met her was at Morrissey’s office in May. I’d never seen her photo, so I didn’t recognize the woman who greeted me while Morrissey was on the phone. Adding to the confusion, she introduced herself as Sam. She said later that she sometimes uses that name with strangers and people she doesn’t necessarily trust. “In the beginning,” Pride said, “I couldn’t say I knew what I signed up for. But very quickly I learned that I had signed up for this. I’m a big girl. I can handle it.”
Pride still works as a legal assistant at Morrissey’s office and helps with the campaign. Chase sometimes sleeps upstairs in a makeshift nursery during the day, and Pride joked that she worried her son’s first words would be “Let’s be clear,” which is what Morrissey often says just before he launches into a lengthy rebuttal of something he disagrees with. But Pride no longer wants to be a lawyer. Now she wants to be a child psychologist. “The past two years have turned me from wanting to step into a courtroom,” she said.
Among the fallouts from Morrissey’s plea this past December was that Pride’s mother, Deirdre Warren, was charged with forgery and related crimes as part of a scheme to bolster Morrissey’s defense. Pride’s sisters and her father testified for the prosecution, and the whole megillah has estranged Pride and Warren from the rest of their family. Warren was acquitted of one charge, and two others were dropped. Similar charges were filed against Morrissey, but they were dismissed by a judge, and he said these outcomes support his claim that he had been targeted by overzealous prosecutors and police. (Prosecutors appealed the dismissal of charges against Morrissey, and in June the Virginia Court of Appeals agreed to hear their argument.)
“There are lots of things I would do differently,” Morrissey said. “I would handle situations differently, but there’s a bull’s-eye on Joe’s back. That won’t end because somebody can go after Joe, and that’s not going to change. I’d like it to change.”
Because so much of Morrissey’s career has been built around counter-punching, I asked if he really did want it to change, to essentially be just an Average Joe.
He insisted he did, that he and Pride have talked about moving to Charleston, S.C., and starting over. But he said that was before his own party turned its back on him, and, in the process, challenged him to respond. Now, he had an election to win. As Pride once said, sounding like some version of a loyal spouse, “Don’t attack Joe, because he will come after you.”
In late May, I joined a couple of dozen reporters and photographers as we crammed into the conference room at Morrissey’s office to hear him publicly acknowledge his paternity of Chase. By then, it wasn’t news exactly. The old-timey photograph had been bouncing around the Internet for nearly a week.
I don’t think any of us in the media wanted to be there, but that really didn’t matter. We had all been sucked in by a salacious tractor beam of politics, race and, of course, sex.
At the news conference, which Morrissey convened by sending out a media alert with a copy of the photo, he was by turns contrite and defiant, straightforward and evasive, and it was clear he had thought about his answers more than we had thought about the questions.
He told us the news conference was necessary because so many hurtful and false things had been said about him and about Pride that he had to set the record straight. By his framing, he and his family were the victims, and all he wanted to do was to live his life with Pride and their son and be happy.
The whole event was anticlimactic, and Morrissey left shortly after the news conference ended. He had more hands to shake, and the reporters were already deep into the mad scramble of tweeting and posting, just in time for the evening news.
Ken Otterbourg is a freelance writer who lives in North Carolina. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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