As if Virginia Democrats are not awash in enough drama, a scandal-tarred former state lawmaker who has earned the enmity of party leaders is plotting another political comeback.
Joe Morrissey, who lost Richmond’s 2016 mayoral race after serving as a state delegate, is exploring a primary challenge against state Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, a fellow Democrat whose district includes a portion of Richmond and the surrounding suburbs.
“The folks are, I believe, wildly supportive,” Morrissey, 61, said in a phone interview, sounding like a candidate as he canvassed voters on Valentine’s Day. “I do not think it will be close.”
Morrissey pleaded guilty in 2014 to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, after prosecutors accused him of having sex with Myrna Warren, then a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm. They later married, and are raising three children of their own and a fourth from a relationship that Morrissey had with another woman.
If he runs, Morrissey would bring another load of political baggage to a party already bearing the weight of scandals engulfing Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, each of whom have ignored demands that they resign.
Northam is trying to recover from the emergence of a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook and his admission that he wore blackface to dress as Michael Jackson for a dance contest when he was 25. Herring has acknowledged that he, too, wore blackface when he dressed as a rapper at a college party when he was 19. And Fairfax is pushing back against allegations that he sexually assaulted two women in the early 2000s.
Morrissey, who has called on Northam and Herring to resign, suggested in the interview that he may focus on the scandals besetting the trio. But he has refrained from criticizing Fairfax, and he branded Democratic leaders as “cowards” for demanding that lieutenant governor step down without an investigation into the allegations of sexual assault.
“All of them are lining up like sheep, saying he should resign without giving him due process,” Morrissey said. “It’s an incestuous group with their own problems. I’m not courting their support. I’m running as a man of the people. They know Joe.”
Morrissey, who is known as “Fightin’ Joe” for his combative ways, was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2007. He said he has spent the past two weeks knocking on voters’ doors in Dance’s district and handing out “Joe Morrissey for State Senate” fliers that include a photo of him and his wife.
In 2014, Morrissey entered an Alford plea after prosecutors alleged that he had sex with the underage Warren and texted a nude photograph of her to a friend. An Alford plea allows the accused to maintain innocence while acknowledging that enough evidence exists for a conviction.
Responding to Morrissey’s criticism of Democratic leaders, Jake Rubenstein, a state party spokesman, said that the organization “couldn’t be more proud” of issues that Democrats have tackled in recent years, including expanding Medicaid and restoring felons’ voting rights.
“We’re sorry if Joe has been too busy dealing with his various legal issues and attempted political comebacks to notice,” Rubenstein said. At the same time, Rubenstein also said that the party does not take sides in primaries.
Dance, who was elected to the Senate in 2014 after serving nine years in the House, said in a statement that she has “not had an opportunity to focus on potential opponents.”
Morrissey, who is white, is popular in Richmond’s working-class black neighborhoods, where he is known for his relentless campaigning and for his work as a criminal defense lawyer. Dance is African American.
Morrissey served three months in jail in 2015 as a result of his Alford plea. From behind bars, he won a special election to the House of Delegates, a seat he gave up soon after to challenge Dance, then a first-term state senator.
He eventually aborted that campaign, citing health issues. He was leading Richmond’s 2016 mayoral race until a law client accused him of exposing himself to her, a charge he denied even as he acknowledged that the two had exchanged lewd text messages.
At the time of his texts with the client, Morrissey was engaged to the woman who now is his wife.
Until the recent scandals involving the state’s top three Democrats, the party was confident that it would capture majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly in the fall elections, a “confidence that has now been shattered,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor.
The specter of a Morrissey candidacy, and the expected replaying of his past missteps, “is probably the last thing any Democrat in the General Assembly wants right now,” Holsworth said. “They thought they had exorcised him from the party, but here he is again. I guess he’s watching these people and saying, ‘Clearly, there’s no shame. I’m going on.’ ”
As a challenger, Morrissey could benefit if Northam, Fairfax and Herring — hampered by scandal — are unable to raise money for incumbents such as Dance, said John Fredericks, the conservative radio host whose network also features a show hosted by Morrissey. (His theme music is the soundtrack from “Rocky.”)
“He’s one of the biggest winners in this Virginia Democratic debacle,” Fredericks said. “You have three lame leaders who can’t raise money. They have bigger problems than Roz Dance. Roz Dance is on her own.”
On Monday, Sens. Mark R. Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) sought to reassure Democratic lawmakers in Richmond that they would step up to help with fundraising now that Northam, Fairfax and Herring may be political liabilities.
Morrissey’s history of scandals and outrageous moments could provide more than enough fodder for Dance to make the case for her own reelection. His lowlights include two fistfights that resulted in jail time, and the day he alarmed legislative colleagues by brandishing an unloaded AK-47 during a gun-control debate in the House of Delegates.
For eight years, the Virginia State Bar kept Morrissey from practicing law in the commonwealth because of unethical and unprofessional conduct. He regained his law license in 2011, but it was revoked last year, in part because of his conduct with a minor.
Morrissey is appealing the Virginia State Bar’s ruling.
Among Morrissey’s more infamous moments was when he publicized a photo of himself and Myrna, who is black, dressed in antebellum costumes. His adversaries contended that the photo suggested a master posing with his slave.
Yet, what others may describe as “baggage,” Morrissey said he considers “luggage.”
“My biggest asset with my constituents is my wife and our children,” he said. “I could care less about those naysayers who want to criticize Myrna and myself.”
Referring to the antebellum photo, Morrissey said it’s “blown up front and center in our living room.”
“If I decide to run, I will put it in a brochure,” he said. “I don’t care what other people say. I embrace it.”