RICHMOND — Candidates are in a frenzied sprint for a House of Delegates seat recently held by Joseph D. Morrissey, the Virginia Democrat serving a six-month jail term for a conviction stemming from his relationship with a 17-year-old girl.
Democrats mounted a full-throttle campaign for Kevin Sullivan, the candidate they want to replace Morrissey, complete with incendiary radio ads and a rally featuring Sen. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia. Meanwhile, voters’ warm reception for Morrissey, who is permitted to leave jail for work and campaign obligations, at a forum Sunday afternoon showed he still has a base of support. Although the Richmond-area district is overwhelmingly Democratic, a Republican, Matt Walton, is running too, and attended the forum.
Tuesday’s special election, resulting from Morrissey’s resignation after his conviction, has become something of a spectacle. Adding to the drama, Morrissey declared his candidacy for the seat immediately upon resigning, saying that voters should decide whether he remains fit for office. Democrats quickly closed ranks and nominated Sullivan in an effort to bar Morrissey from retaining his seat. Their actions Sunday suggested that a Morrissey defeat is not at all assured.
On Sunday, Kaine, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and state Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) rallied in Charles City County for Sullivan, a Teamster and retired brewery worker. Morrissey, who held the seat for seven years, is running as an independent.
Protesters, including two sisters of the former receptionist with whom Morrissey is alleged to have had the relationship, interrupted Sunday’s forum before they were told to leave.
The forum started calmly with Walton, a 29-year-old high school teacher dressed in a suit, seated at a table next to two empty chairs. Morrissey, wearing jeans, walked in 20 minutes late and immediately began touting what he said was his fight for the underdog.
The protesters and some of the audience members soon began arguing. “He’s here on work release. He took a plea deal so the evidence would not come out. He is an inmate,” said a woman who identified herself as a sister of the alleged victim.
The group was led out, shouting, “Joe must go!”
Sullivan has distributed mailers showing handcuffs behind Morrissey’s mug shot.
During the forum, Morrissey said he supports raising the hourly minimum wage to $15, strengthening gun laws and imposing a statewide public defender system. He also criticized those opposing his candidacy.
“I’ve have never ever in the 7
Marlon Haskell, a pastor and president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Richmond and Vicinity, said he liked what Morrissey had to say.
“We want the best person in there who’s going to represent the entire community, and let the judicial process take care of everything else outside of representation inside the General Assembly,” he said of the conviction.
The moderator did not ask about Morrissey’s criminal conviction, his past tangles with the law or ethics reform — and Walton did not raise the issue.
“I’m focusing solely on talking about education and jobs and talking about issues that matter to the folks of the 74th District,” Walton said afterward.
Walton said the state’s current gun laws are sufficient. He supports raising the minimum wage but wouldn’t say by how much. He said he would review the current public defender system.
Sullivan did not attend the forum, but his campaign released a statement:
“While he was sorry to miss the forum, he thought it was more important to be in the district, with voters, with these elected officials who were kind enough to come out in support of his candidacy. He also felt this was a special opportunity to give Charles City County the attention they deserve. ”
Morrissey, 57, pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in a case in which prosecutors accused him of having sex with and sharing a naked photograph of a girl who worked in his law office.
Morrissey’s plea allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.