RICHMOND — The House Democratic caucus is deeply divided over what to do with Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, the jailed Democrat-turned-independent who comes to the legislature by day on work release.
Just a few weeks ago, after Morrissey was convicted in a sex scandal involving an underage receptionist, Democrats were united in the belief that he should be expelled, according to three members who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive internal matter. But some Democrats have changed their minds since Morrissey won reelection to his seat Tuesday.
His win has convinced some Democrats that ousting the freshly reelected delegate would undermine the will of voters. Others say that the nature of his criminal offense demands expulsion.
Three people who attended a contentious caucus meeting Tuesday, the day before the opening of the 2015 legislative session, say Democrats splintered into pro-expulsion and anti-expulsion camps.
There was a racial undercurrent to some of the arguments made at the meeting, the participants said, given that Morrissey and a majority of the General Assembly are white, and the 17-year-old at the heart of his conviction is black, as is a majority of his Richmond-area legislative district. Most of the 33-member Democratic caucus attended the meeting.
But the divide did not fall neatly along regional or racial lines, the participants said. Each camp included legislators from the Richmond region that Morrissey represents, and each included black and white legislators. Among those who said his crime cannot be overlooked, some contended that was especially true because he is a white man convicted of preying on a black girl. Among those who think ousting Morrissey would disenfranchise voters, there were some who said it would be especially paternalistic for the mostly white legislature to usurp the will of Morrissey’s mostly black district.
Del. Daun Sessoms Hester (D-Norfolk) put herself in the latter camp. “The voters put him back,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Because expulsion is unprecedented in modern times, “the lawyers who have been looking at this are somewhat torn and divided,” said Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax).
For his part, Keam wants to see Morrissey expelled.
“He’s using the facade of, ‘Oh, voters chose me, I’m expunged,’ ” he said. “That has nothing to with the fact that the House sets our own standard for acceptable behavior. Now you have a sitting convicted . . . criminal who is spending the nights in jail and serving in Thomas Jefferson’s House in the daytime. That brings a different level of damage to our reputation.”
There are also splits along strategic lines. Some who say Morrissey should be booted to preserve the dignity of the House also fear that expulsion hearings would amplify the circus atmosphere that has surrounded his return. Democrats have discussed whether it would be better for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to refuse to recognize Morrissey on the floor. But even that has risks, since the pugnacious Morrissey seems likely to call news conferences to denounce his treatment.
“Then he becomes more and more a folk hero,” said one of the three members.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the caucus needs more time to decide on a course.
“I think what people are trying to determine is what is the appropriate sanction in light of his election and in terms of preserving the integrity of the body,” he said. “We’ve been thinking about expulsion, we’ve been thinking about censure. I think the no-sanction option is not an option. We are going to do something as a body.”
Toscano noted that because Morrissey, after losing the Democratic nomination, ran as an independent, the disgraced legislator is not the Democrats’ problem alone. Toscano is working with Howell to determine what to do. Howell spokesman Matthew Moran said the speaker is still considering all options, from expulsion to censure. On Wednesday, the first day of session, Howell stripped Morrissey of all committee assignments. Morrissey was also assigned a new office and desk based on his status as the least senior member of the chamber.
Voters were apparently not bothered by Morrissey’s plea last month on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Prosecutors said that in addition to the affair, which they claimed was documented in salacious text messages, Morrissey texted a naked photograph of the young woman while she was underage.
The 57-year-old lawmaker has maintained his innocence — accusing someone he described as the receptionist’s lesbian ex-lover of hacking their phones — but he entered a guilty plea to avoid a possible conviction on felony charges. He also resigned from office but immediately declared that he would run again.
Morrissey was sentenced to six months in jail. He was accepted into a work-release program, allowing him to leave jail for up to 12 hours a day for campaign activity or to work at his law practice.
The process to expel or censure a delegate would begin with the filing of a resolution, which would be referred to one of several committees or a select committee created for this purpose. The committee would hold hearings before sending its recommendation to the full body. The votes of two-thirds of delegates are needed to expel; a simple majority is required to censure.
If Morrissey is expelled, yet another special election could be called — and he could run again if he chooses. In the case of a censure, lawmakers could keep him from serving on boards and commissions or suspend his floor privileges.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.