RICHMOND — As he listened to two African American teenagers complain about their decaying high school, the front-runner in this city’s race for mayor pointed to a photo of his wife and children in his campaign brochure.
“These are my kids,” Joe Morrissey said, his finger on the image of the two babies as he greeted voters outside a supermarket. “I don’t want them going to a school with mold and no AC. That’s why I’m running.”
Morrissey pointed to his wife, seated next to him in the photo, their then-2-month-old girl on her lap.
“You recognize Myrna, don’t you?” Morrissey asked.
Everyone in Richmond knows about Joe and Myrna Morrissey, as do many across Virginia and as far away as Europe, having feasted on a gush of salacious stories three years ago about the then-55-year-old state lawmaker who went to jail for cavorting with his 17-year-old receptionist.
That he is white and she is black only added another level of intrigue to the saga.
Myrna Warren is now Morrissey’s 20-year-old wife — the couple married in June — and she has become a centerpiece of his unlikely quest to become Richmond’s next mayor, a seat once held by no less than Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee.
At a time when American politics is dominated by two presidential candidates with mountains of personal baggage, Morrissey, now 59, is starring on his own stage with enough proverbial Samsonite to fill a fleet of cargo planes.
Yet, in the same way that Donald Trump defies the gravity of his many indelible missteps, polls show Morrissey, a Democrat, with an imposing lead over six opponents, a field that includes a well-funded protege to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). One candidate dropped out Tuesday, citing concern that the size of the field would split the vote and ensure Morrissey’s victory.
Morrissey’s strength is rooted in his support among working-class African American voters who have viewed him as their defender in his varying roles over the years — Richmond’s chief prosecutor, Virginia state delegate and defense attorney. His one endorsement is from the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a 60-year-old organization that promotes black participation in city politics.
Long before his relationship with Warren, Morrissey’s career was punctuated by more than a few headline-spewing debacles, including an eight-year disbarment that prevented him from practicing law until 2011; two fistfights that resulted in jail time; brandishing an unloaded AK-47 to the alarm of legislative colleagues during a gun debate in the House of Delegates.
But Morrissey’s supporters admire his resilience, celebrate his periodic comebacks and eschew any concern about whom he chose to marry. They remember that he has lobbied for the restoration of felons’ voting rights — an important issue in the black community — defended their brothers, sisters and cousins in myriad court cases and shown up at their churches and neighborhood block parties.
“We can relate to having troubles in your life and having to overcome them and still coming out on top,” said Cory Taylor, 46, an African American cybersecurity specialist, after meeting Morrissey one recent night. “That’s our story.”
The city’s ever-genteel establishment blanches at the prospect that Richmond’s next leader could be a man whose “Fightin’ Joe” nickname became “Sextin’ Joe” after prosecutors accused him of texting nude photos of the underage Warren to a friend and boasting about having sex with her.
Although he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Morrissey insisted that the texts were planted by a hacker and that he and Warren did not have sex when she was underage. Investigators for the Virginia State Bar recently claimed in a court filing that Morrissey lied during that defense.
In professional circles, among blacks and whites, Morrissey is nothing less than an embarrassment, his cringe-worthy moments including the photo he once distributed of himself and Warren and their newborn son dressed in antebellum costumes seemingly out of “Gone With the Wind.”
In addition to his 6-month-old daughter and 18-month-old son with Myrna, Morrissey is the father of three more children with three different women, none of whom he married. His oldest child is 29.
“Many people would be mortified if Joe Morrissey is elected,” said former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, who once served as the city’s mayor and who is not endorsing any candidate.
The forces aligning against Morrissey include a political action committee started solely to oppose his candidacy. He’s “fundamentally unfit to be mayor,” said Albert Pollard, the PAC’s founder and a former House delegate who lives 70 miles east of Richmond.
Yet many civic leaders are reticent about denigrating Morrissey publicly, afraid they will fire up his supporters. Even as he served a three-month sentence resulting from his relationship with Warren, Morrissey won a 2015 special election to Virginia’s House of Delegates — from his jail cell. He resigned a couple of months later, after House Democrats shunned him, and ran for the state Senate, a campaign he halted last September after citing health problems. Six months later, he announced he was running for mayor.
“It’s almost like people are drawn to him because of his whole bad-boy image,” said the Rev. Tyrone Nelson, a Richmond minister who is backing Levar Stoney, McAuliffe’s former secretary of the commonwealth.
Morrissey, in an interview, appeared to brighten at the suggestion that his campaign is roiling Richmond’s establishment, which he portrays as wholly concerned with protecting its own interests.
“I’m not in there to make them feel comfortable,” he said. “I’m in there to win, baby.”
His enthusiasm was palpable as he stood outside the supermarket on a recent Monday, shaking hands with African American voters. Many shouted “Joe!” and grabbed his hand as he promised to cut wasteful spending, repair schools, fill potholes and narrow the divide separating the city’s rich and poor.
“I just got married in June — did you see the video?” Morrissey asked one woman, referring to the five-minute wedding montage on his Facebook page. For another woman, whose smile revealed a damaged tooth, he wrote down the number of a free dental clinic.
A few feet away, Maurice Long, 56, a retired laundry worker, said Morrissey’s marriage — no matter the 38-year age difference — is the fulfillment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope for racial harmony.
“Joe is part of the dream,” he said.
On the banks of the James River, Richmond is in the throes of a renaissance, with rising real estate values and a flourishing restaurant scene. In a predominantly black city, whites now account for 45 percent of Richmond’s population of 220,000, which is growing as millennials move to gentrifying neighborhoods after years of decline.
For all the progress, the city government has run up $800 million in debt, failed to maintain public schools and repair streets. “Downtown is starting to bustle, the city is winning all these accolades, but there’s the sense that one thing is missing,” said Robert Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political-science professor. “You have a government that doesn’t work.”
For decades, Richmond’s mayors were chosen by the city council, which is how Kaine got the job. But voters in a 2003 referendum chose to switch to a popular, nonpartisan election for mayor.
No election has drawn as much interest as the current contest, the intensity growing after a Christopher Newport University poll last month showed Morrissey leading by 12 points. Several other polls have shown him ahead.
Richmond’s electoral rules require the winner to capture majorities in five of the city’s nine council districts, or a runoff between the two top contenders ensues. Morrissey commands huge leads in three districts, the university’s poll found, and is ahead in two more by smaller margins.
The poll suggested that Democrat Jack Berry, 62 — the former leader of Venture Richmond, a promoter of economic development, who has the support of many business leaders — was gaining traction in affluent neighborhoods.
It also showed that Stoney, 35, McAuliffe’s appointee and former deputy campaign manager, had minimal support, despite having raised a record $610,000, much of it from the governor’s donors. Morrissey, for his part, has raised $142,000, nearly half of it in-kind contributions.
McAuliffe has hosted a fundraiser for Stoney, together with his wife contributed $5,250 and had his political action committee donate $10,000. On a recent Saturday, the governor accompanied Stoney as he knocked on doors.
Stoney likes to cast himself as a candidate of “new ideas” who understands the city’s poor because he was raised in poverty by a single father. He often reminds audiences that he is the former executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party and served as the state’s first black secretary of the commonwealth, a job that required him to fill state boards and commissions with gubernatorial appointees.
“People don’t know who I am yet,” Stoney said in an interview, explaining his weak showing in the poll. “All it takes is me introducing myself.” His campaign has aired one television ad and has the money for many more.
Referring to Morrissey, Stoney said, “We should have a mayor who doesn’t embarrass us.”
Stoney repeated that attack during a subsequent debate, but Morrissey punched back. Listing the qualifications of his other opponents, a group that includes two council members, two architects and a former budget director, Morrissey portrayed Stoney as a political operative who is unprepared for the mayoralty.
“You’ve never cast a vote. You’ve never developed a budget,” Morrissey said. “Do you not believe you need a body of experience?”
Afterward, Tina Smith, a black accounting student, said it is Morrissey who is unqualified, because he “was involved with an underage girl. Who wants someone as mayor doing that?”
Eric Bradley, 58, an African American development consultant, said Morrissey has “earned the loyalty from the black community — if it’s a black issue, you can go to Joe.”
Yet Bradley said he is concerned about the way Morrissey will be perceived by the rest of the political establishment and his ability to work cooperatively with other leaders.
“What resistance will he face?” Bradley asked. “The region may not want to deal with him. If he’s mayor, will he be able to do the work?”
Behind his desk at his law office one afternoon, Morrissey, when asked during an interview, said he would never want his daughter — if she were 20 years old — to marry a man his age.
“Because I will die in another 25 years, plus or minus,” he said. “My wife will be 45 or 50, and I think there’s something to be said for both growing old together.”
Morrissey acknowledged his share of regrets in his life, but he said they do not include the photo he distributed of him and Myrna dressed in plantation-style garb.
“Not at all!” he said, pointing to a bookshelf where the picture rested in a frame alongside thick volumes of “The Annotated Code of Virginia.”
In some quarters, the photo suggests images of a white master and his young female slave.
Not to Morrissey.
“It evokes husband, wife and baby,” he said. “I might do another one this year. We love it.”
He attributed negative judgments about his relationship with Myrna to “old vestiges in Richmond that are uncomfortable” with interracial couples.
“But you want to know something?” he asked, leaning forward on his desk. “As much as they may not like me, when little Johnny gets popped for possession of coke, guess where their parents come? Right here. And if little Mary gets tagged for DUI or vehicular manslaughter, Joe’s the go-to guy. Not so embarrassed then.”
“There’s always going to be folks going after you,” he said. “I don’t dwell on it. I move forward.”
Myrna had wanted her husband to withdraw from politics and adopt the routines of a 9-to-5 lawyer. But he insisted on running for mayor, and she is supportive, throwing herself into the fray last week to chide those who “throw my name at my husband like it’s a weapon.”
“Black women across Richmond know what it’s like to have their dignity taken from them,” she wrote in a statement. “We know what it’s like for a largely white establishment and press to assume that your decisions and choices are not your own. But that doesn’t make it right.”
“I love my husband and support him,” she said.
Myrna was with her husband on a recent afternoon as he spoke before an audience of several dozen senior citizens, including Guy Kinman, 98, a gay activist who asked how the candidate would deal with people “who feel it’s horrible you have a chance.”
“How are you going to govern with people who say, ‘Never Joe’?” Kinman asked.
“To the extent that some folk have some difficulty with Myrna and me — get over it,” Morrissey said.
He predicted that Richmond’s brand would benefit with the Morrisseys as the city’s face. “People are going to look at that and say, ‘What a cool city,’ ” he said. “People are going to flock to this city.”