PETERSBURG, Va. — Rosalyn R. Dance is a black state senator facing a tough Democratic primary challenge in one of the most heavily African American districts in Virginia. And she is getting help from an unlikely source: Gov. Ralph Northam, the white Democrat spurned by his party over a racist yearbook photo and blackface incident from his past.
He toured a hospital with Dance, went to her church one Sunday morning and joined her for breakfast at a bakery. She appeared with him at a civil rights memorial.
The unusual public pairing is only made stranger by the man trying to unseat Dance: former lawmaker and lawbreaker Joe Morrissey, who is white and once won an election from jail but has rock-star status among many African American voters in the district.
At a time in Virginia when issues of race are especially raw, the fight between Dance and Morrissey is a spectacle that upends expectations. It creates headaches for Democrats, who would like to move past scandal and try to take control of the legislature in November.
But it also highlights important truths about at least one slice of the African American electorate. In Virginia’s 16th Senate District, which includes Petersburg and parts of Richmond, many black voters say they do not care as much about past transgressions as future progress.
“I got a past — we all got a past,” said Petersburg resident Solomon Tate, an African American cook and landscaper sitting on his porch on a hot afternoon. Tate said it does not matter whether his candidate is black or white, saint or sinner. He just wants to elect somebody who will make his life better — get the roads fixed, bring back the local economy, convince teachers to stay in Petersburg. “Somebody,” he said, “who really cares.”
Dance, 71, got out of her black Audi on a street in Western Hills, a Petersburg subdivision of small ranchers where many residents — all African American — were at home on a Friday morning. Voter list on her phone, Dance and a young aide worked one side of the street while a lifelong friend worked the other, canvassing for the June 11 primary.
A former mayor of Petersburg, Dance grew up in the city and has been a political fixture for nearly three decades after a career in nursing. All three women wore blue “Team Dance” T-shirts as they trudged up to one front door after another.
Morrissey had gotten here first. His signs peppered the neighborhood, promising he would be a “fighter for the people.”
So far, no Republican has filed to run in the 16th Senate District. It is strongly Democratic — about 57 percent African American — so the primary is the race that counts.
With all 140 seats in the legislature on the ballot this fall, Democrats have had high hopes of breaking the two-seat majority Republicans hold in each chamber. Northam’s fall from grace kicked off a cascade of events in February that made that goal seem much tougher.
A photo came to light from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in Klan robes. The governor first took responsibility, then disavowed it — but admitted to wearing blackface for a dance contest that same year.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, of which Dance is a member, quickly and repeatedly called for Northam to resign. He refused. Then Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) faced accusations of sexual assault from two women in separate incidents in the early 2000s, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark S. Herring (D) confessed to his own youthful blackface incident.
Now that the primary season is in full swing, many Democrats have kept Northam at arm’s length. Republicans branded him “Governor Blackface.” His fundraising is a trickle. Other Democratic leaders, such as former governor Terry McAuliffe and the state’s congressional delegation, have stepped in to help candidates.
But Dance has conspicuously bucked the trend. At a recent luncheon for donors to the United Negro College Fund, Dance was the only lawmaker who attended along with Northam. The two posed for photos with the attendees, most of whom were black business leaders who barely gave the governor time to eat between hugs and handshakes.
As she canvassed for votes that Friday morning, Dance tried to set herself apart from Morrissey, emphasizing that she has status in Richmond. She is one of only two black members of the Senate Finance Committee. She worked to get funding to replace the dilapidated Central State Hospital, the mental health facility that Northam toured with her several weeks ago.
Her connection with Northam seemed to be a plus. “With every piece of knowledge that she gets [from the governor], she’s going to bring it to the table with us, and we’re going to learn more,” said Sherrie Lee Stith, who let Dance put a sign in her yard. “Everyone makes mistakes in life but the object is to learn from our mistakes. . . . He’s trying to make an improvement, he’s trying to be better with things.”
Most voters had more immediate concerns: Potholes in the street. Crime. Vacant houses.
“How about sidewalks?” said one woman who had a Morrissey sign in her yard.
“That’s not my duty as a senator,” Dance told her. “That’s handled by the mayor, the city manager and the city council.”
Walking away from the house, Dance complained that Morrissey is confusing voters by emphasizing those issues in his fliers. “He’s talking as though he’s still running for mayor of Richmond,” she said — which is something Morrissey did in 2016, finishing third in a crowded field.
Dance may be right. But Morrissey’s message has clearly struck a chord.
A 61-year-old former prosecutor and defense lawyer, Morrissey served in the House of Delegates for nearly seven years, representing a district in Henrico County that includes a sliver of Richmond. He resigned under pressure from fellow Democrats in 2014 after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for having sex with his 17-year-old receptionist.
The two are now married and have three children together, plus a fourth from a previous relationship of Morrissey’s. His combative reputation includes going to jail twice for punching someone. He lost his Virginia law license in 2003 for unethical and unprofessional conduct, won it back in 2011 and lost it again last year in part because of his relationship with his former receptionist. That is under appeal.
Morrissey poses a problem for Democrats. He has run before as an independent. He thumbed his nose at Dance’s demand that if they hold a debate, the state party should run it. On the radio show he hosts for ultraconservative commentator John Fredericks, Morrissey has criticized Democrats on issues such as late-term abortions. Also, he keeps the scandal narrative flowing.
But among black residents of the Heights, a low-income Petersburg neighborhood, he is a celebrity.
Parking his black Cadillac Escalade in front of a tiny home with a Zillow value of about $25,000, Morrissey stepped out in jeans and an untucked shirt. Wearing shades and a stud in his left ear, he slathered on sunscreen as two volunteers gathered fliers to hand out.
One was Fenton Bland Jr., a mortician who once served in the House of Delegates but resigned his seat after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
“I believe in his cause and what he stands for,” Bland said of Morrissey. “He’s for the people . . . ”
“You’ve got my vote, Joe!” interrupted Christie Brown, 47, shouting from the window of her passing car. She stopped and got out. Morrissey hustled over so she could take a selfie with him. Other motorists didn’t seem to mind. “You’ve got my vote!” a delivery driver yelled.
Morrissey’s controversies have made him locally famous. But his work as a defense lawyer — helping low-income African Americans fight the system — has made him a hero. It gives him an intimacy that counters the charge that Democrats care about black voters only at election time.
“His views on the inner city are what we need,” said Joseph Parham, 61, sitting on his front porch with his older brother, Stanley, as soul music poured from an open window. Asked if it matters that Morrissey is white, Joseph Parham frowned.
“For what?” he said. “Right now Petersburg is a broken city, and we need to do something to try and fix it. . . . It don’t make no difference about what color he is. It’s his point of view and if he can help.”
The scandals do not matter any more than skin color, he said. And the same goes for Northam.
“I think he is a good man,” Joseph Parham said of the governor. “Everybody deserves a chance.” The fact that Northam refused to resign “lets me know he ain’t no quitter. Nobody likes a quitter.”
Morrissey is relentlessly attuned to the complaints of local residents. At one house he put his hand on a woman’s forehead and pretended to guess her name, before admitting he had it on a voter list. Then he guessed her water bill. Though his estimate was a little high, it tapped a deep well of resentment. Petersburg water meters have been wildly out of whack in recent years.
Outside a carwash, Morrissey plopped down on the curb next to owner David Batts, 56. What, Batts wanted to know, did Morrissey think about Petersburg’s problem with derelict buildings?
That is another thing Morrissey promises he will fight to fix.
Morrissey’s aggressive push into Dance’s home turf — including billboards all over town and accusations that she doctored a photo of him in a flier — has been strategic. He already has strong support in Richmond, which is a bigger percentage of the district than Petersburg.
Dance likes to point out that her opponent got a head start. She was prohibited under state law from campaigning while the General Assembly was in session in January and February. She also has accused Morrissey of filing faulty campaign finance reports — he and his law firm contributed almost all of the $54,000 he has reported so far — and failing to account for spending on the billboards.
Robert Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Richmond, says Morrissey is a serious threat.
“Dance is really hoping that the Democratic Party organization can essentially overcome the grass-roots support that Morrissey has,” Holsworth said.
Northam seems happy to have the chance to help Dance, whose public embrace aids his own effort to mend his reputation with black Virginians. His political action committee, The Way Ahead, has given her $10,000.
“The Governor strongly supports Senator Dance for reelection,” Northam senior political adviser Mark Bergman said via email. “He believes we need her to stay in the Senate over the next four years to continue Virginia’s progress. They have had a good relationship before February, and they have had a strong relationship afterwards.”
Dance said she believes Northam is a good man who deserves a shot at redemption.
When it comes to fundraising, though, Dance is not taking any chances. She held a big event with McAuliffe at the end of May.