The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters in working-class Richmond can relate to jailed Del. Joseph Morrissey

Joseph D. Morrissey prepares for business to begin as lawmakers return to Richmond to kick off the 2015 General Assembly on Jan. 14. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

When Joseph D. Morrissey won election to the House of Delegates literally from his jail cell last week, many wondered how voters in his district could have supported a man with his history of bad behavior.

But interviews with voters across a working-class swath of suburban Richmond reveal how attached many of them are to the pugnacious lawmaker and his populist message. Even his stint behind bars has endeared him to some of them, who say their own struggles have left them rooting for him.

“This is a district of individuals who have made mistakes, who have fallen, who are struggling to get back up,” said Leonidas B. Young, a Morrissey constituent who is the pastor at New Kingdom Christian Ministries and a former mayor of Richmond. “One of the reasons they relate to him is they see themselves in him. They are willing to give him a second chance. He can even represent them better now. A large number of individuals in the district have had run-ins with the law.”

Morrissey also deftly navigated the political crisis he faced when he accepted a plea deal last month on a misdemeanor charge of taking indecent liberties with a then-17-year-old receptionist in his law office.

Authorized under a work-
release program to leave jail for 12 hours each day, Morrissey sprang into action to win the special election that was called when he resigned in the wake of his conviction. In a district of about 50,000 voters, Morrissey spent day after day on the phone targeting the most active ones — and it worked. On Tuesday, he won a three-way race as an independent with 42 percent of the vote.

All of which has left many of Morrissey’s House colleagues in a bind. Outraged by his conviction, disgusted that he ran again and flummoxed that he won, many of them want nothing more than to expel him from the legislative body where Thomas Jefferson once served. They are also considering lesser sanctions, such as blocking him from speaking on the House floor.

Others say that such actions would thwart the will of the electorate. Even his detractors worry that harsh sanctions could inadvertently elevate Morrissey to the status of folk hero.

Young said negating the election results would betray the voters. Having served two years in prison on federal charges, Young remembers the first time he voted following the restoration of his rights as a “sanctified moment.”

“For you to dare take that from me, it feels like rape,” he said. “Censure him if you want, but don’t slap us in the face and tell us that our vote doesn’t matter.”

Morrissey, 57, is popular with voters for doing the simple things that any effective politician masters: He listens, and he responds. He regularly brings students to the Capitol. He holds an annual cookout at his farm in Varina. He obsessively follows up on complaints about road conditions. A constituent’s birthday? It’s celebrated with a letter marking events from that day in history.

“He’s so personable, it’s unbelievable. It’s like talking to your neighbor,” said Keith Hicks, a mortgage banker from Henrico. “I bet I could call him right now — well, he’s locked up now — but normally you call his office and he’ll call you back before the end of the day.”

In a black-majority district with twice the unemployment rate of the state overall and a median household income of just $46,388, Morrissey also has a sense of which policies resonate. Among his legislative priorities over the years: restoring voting rights to ex-felons, banning pay-day lending, reviving the one-a-month limit on handgun purchases, expanding Medicaid, increasing the threshold for grand larceny and raising the minimum wage.

“People voted on the issues,” Hicks said. “What he did personally, it might have been wrong, but the justice system dealt with that. He was judged on his voting record, not his morality record.”

But some voters cannot ignore Morrissey’s pattern of legal trouble.

The son of a cardiologist, he went to Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington County and then the University of Virginia. In 1981, while at Georgetown University Law School, he lost a race for the House as a Republican. Eight years later, after becoming a Democrat, he was elected Richmond’s prosecutor.

During a heroin trial, Morrissey punched a defense attorney in the face and served five days in jail. A reelection bid was derailed when he was indicted on bribery and perjury charges related to his handling of a rape case. A jury later acquitted him of the ­charges, but his law license was suspended for six months.

His rap sheet grew with two additional jail sentences of 90 days each, one for trying to fake the number of community-service hours he served related to a separate skirmish. He was disbarred, and he went to live in Ireland and Australia for a time. He returned to Virginia and was elected to the House in 2007. Four years later, the Virginia State Bar rejected his request to practice law again, but the state Supreme Court reinstated him.

Morrissey's public persona mixes the everyday with the outlandish. He has brought his
2-year-old daughter, Kennedy, whom he calls "the little bundle of joy of my life," to the Capitol. (Morrissey is not married, and he has two other daughters, ages 29 and 27.) On another occasion, he brandished an AK-47 assault rifle in the House chamber as he argued for a weapons ban.

“It’s all about him, it’s not about the people he’s leading,” said James Farkas of IBEW Local 666, which broke with Morrissey for the first time this year to support his Democratic opponent. “If he wanted to lead properly, he would do so. In my opinion, all he wants is his face on TV now. I’m embarrassed I live in the district.”

The deepest anger emanates from the House of Delegates, where Morrissey’s colleagues are increasingly resigned to the view that they must let him stay.

There has been a racial undercurrent to some of the arguments made among Democrats in private meetings. Some contend that Morrissey's crime cannot be overlooked because he is a white man convicted of preying on a black teenage girl. Others believe it would be paternalistic for the mostly white legislature to usurp the will of Morrissey's mostly black district.

There is also bitterness that he outsmarted them.

Morrissey’s latest troubles began in June, when a grand jury in Henrico County handed up a five-count indictment alleging a sexual relationship between him and the receptionist; he also was accused of possessing nude photos of her. Morrissey and the young woman, now 18 and pregnant with a child prosecutors say is “perhaps” his, have denied that they had a sexual relationship and blamed her ex-girlfriend for hacking into their phones to frame them.

After his plea last month — in which he admitted no guilt but avoided conviction on more serious felony charges — Morrissey resigned. His law partner, Paul Goldman, asked House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to schedule a special election swiftly so the district would not be left without representation. Morrissey then announced that his resignation would coincide with the date Howell picked, Jan. 13.

Goldman didn’t tell Howell that Morrissey was planning to run. The timing of all of it, House leaders now say, was designed to position Morrissey with the advantage in a fast-paced election cycle.

Howell called Morrissey’s decision to run “deceitful, selfish and disrespectful to this institution and the people he supposedly desires to serve. This is a despicable, arrogant political stunt that should disgust each and every citizen of Virginia.”

Goldman said he did nothing wrong.

"Anyone who says I misled them is untrue," he said. "Joe had a perfect right to run and he decided to run. The point is, everything was done above board."

But Goldman was quick to point out — in a memo to reporters the morning after the election — that the date was key to Morrissey's win.

Also key was Democrats’ miscalculation of Morrissey’s popularity in a district that spans eastern Henrico County and small swaths of Charles City County and Richmond.

The party nominated Kevin Sullivan, a retired brewery worker and Teamster who runs an alpaca farm with his wife in Charles City County. Republicans nominated high school teacher Matt Walton.

When Morrissey decided to run as an independent, Sullivan’s campaign printed mailers with handcuffs and Morrissey’s mugshot. Democrats brought in some star power: U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (Henrico) appeared at a rally in Charles City the Sunday before the election.

None of it worked, and it may even have backfired among voters who identified more with Morrissey than his detractors.

Marlon Haskell, a local pastor and president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Richmond and Vicinity, put it this way: “He said he was a fighter, and look at him. It was David and Goliath, and David won.”

Morrissey's troubles may not be over. On the eve of the election, police executed a search warrant for a suspected forged document that is part of a second related investigation.

Laura Vozzella and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.