“We’re looking forward to having him in our caucus,” state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) proclaimed.
The show of love capped weeks of wooing by Democrats — and some Republicans — as Election Day draws closer and Morrissey’s political rebirth seems assured. Morrissey knocked out a fellow Democrat and establishment favorite, state Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance (Petersburg), in the June primary. He has no Republican challenger in next month’s election, making him a shoo-in.
Democrats feel achingly close to a majority in the Senate, where Republicans are defending a 20-to-19 edge, with one vacancy.
If Democrats manage to draw even or take a one-seat advantage, then the formerly shunned and famously mercurial Morrissey becomes crucial to a Democratic hold on the majority.
“Most powerful man in Virginia,” is how conservative radio host John Fredericks put it. A Trump supporter and self-proclaimed “Godzilla of the Truth,” Fredericks said his friend Morrissey will not be afraid to go his own way in the Senate. “He’s an independent thinker, not beholden to any party,” he said.
Morrissey’s mere presence in the Senate would have been unthinkable to Democrats in 2014, when they forced him to resign his seat in the House of Delegates after he pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Morrissey, then 56, had been accused of having sex with his 17-year-old receptionist, Myrna Warren.
A former prosecutor and defense lawyer, Morrissey has been jailed twice for punching someone, won an election from jail and has lost his law license in part because of the relationship with Warren. The two are now married and have three children together, and she introduced Saslaw at the fundraiser Wednesday.
Democrats had worked hard to keep Morrissey from being the nominee for this Senate seat, which represents a sliver of Richmond, parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties and the city of Petersburg. It is heavily African American, and Democrats put big resources behind Dance, a black former mayor of Petersburg. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned for Dance, while Morrissey refused to debate her as long as the state party insisted on running the event.
Morrissey is white but is something of a rock star in many low-income African American neighborhoods, where he has a long record of defending clients against criminal charges. He wound up defeating Dance by a huge margin. His only opponent now is a lightly funded independent.
Over the summer, Democrats began tiptoeing back to Morrissey. He had a beer with McAuliffe, as first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and kept in contact with Northam’s chief of staff and the head of Northam’s political action committee. Last week, Northam’s PAC gave Morrissey $5,000.
“I don’t want to be so arrogant to say they’re wooing me, other than to say they’ve been very, very supportive,” Morrissey said in an interview.
He drove up to Northern Virginia to chat with Saslaw, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate. “Let’s just say I was very candid,” Morrissey said. “I reviewed a few things that had occurred with me, how I felt I had been treated by the Democrats, and he listened very attentively. I would say he was very sincere.”
Other senators reached out, including Republicans, he said. Morrissey is antiabortion and has been coy about how he would approach abortion-related issues in the General Assembly. But he declined to specify what he discussed with Republicans.
“All I’ll say is there have not been any asks on either side, just sincere, supportive comments,” he said.
Party officials initially said Wednesday’s fundraiser and coming-out party would be closed to the media, but Morrissey said he wanted it open. “Why shouldn’t you hear what I say to folks that I’m trying to raise money from?” he said.
As McAuliffe arrived at Morrissey’s white-columned home in a comfortable Northside Richmond neighborhood, he said it was the 93rd political event he’s attended this year on behalf of Democrats. All 140 seats in the legislature are on the Nov. 5 ballot, and McAuliffe has thrown himself into fundraising and rallying party support after Northam was politically wounded by the blackface scandal earlier this year.
“Joe is going to be a Democratic senator,” McAuliffe said in an interview, explaining why he agreed to attend. “I already sat with Joe a couple of weeks ago — he agrees with me 100 percent.”
With the possibility of getting majorities in both the House and Senate in fall elections, Democrats can take major actions, he said. “We’ve got to raise the minimum wage, got to get common-sense gun restrictions here in the state of Virginia, and every vote is important.”
One area of possible friction: abortion restrictions. “I didn’t bring that up. I don’t think he agrees with me on that,” said McAuliffe, who touted his work on behalf of women’s health issues.
McAuliffe threatened to pull out of the fundraiser after Fredericks, the radio host and emcee of the event, announced that he was inviting antiabortion activist Victoria Cobb.
“I called and said ‘I’m not coming,’ ” McAuliffe said. “So she was disinvited.”
Morrissey was on his best behavior Wednesday, lavishly praising McAuliffe for his work restoring voting rights to felons and reminiscing about knocking on doors for Saslaw’s campaign when he was fresh out of college. He listed several legislative priorities, such as setting up a system of drug courts to help addicts avoid jail, restoring felon voting rights automatically and reestablishing a system of parole.
But he also named several Republican senators not in attendance whose bills he plans to support.
“There’s nobody in the General Assembly when I go in there that I’m not going to reach out to on the other side,” Morrissey told the poolside gathering on an unseasonably hot night. “It is not my first go-around in the General Assembly,” he added, and then referred to a quote from Northam: “We come first as Virginians, and then as Democrats and Republicans.”
Afterward, several people who said they ordinarily donate to Republican candidates praised Morrissey for cutting a unique path. “He always answers his phone, answers email — he’s not removed from the people,” said Mike Dickinson, who manages several strip clubs and said he is a “Trump Republican.” Morrissey is not judgmental of his occupation, he said. “He accepts us.”
As the crowd of lobbyists, party donors and friends from Morrissey’s long career began to disperse, one local politician smiled at the spectacle. “These are the same people who put PAC funds in his opponent,” said the politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
“And now they’re down here in Richmond supporting him,” the person said. “It’s just politics, man.”