RICHMOND — State Del. Joseph D. Morrissey will be allowed to campaign this weekend in his quest to become the first Virginia lawmaker serving in jail and the legislature. But the Democratic Party is trying to make it as difficult as possible for him to win the nominating contest set for Monday.
Late Thursday night, Henrico County Sheriff Michael Wade revoked Morrissey’s generous work-release agreement, saying the lawmaker had violated its terms. Then, on Friday, Virginia Democrats announced that voting Monday to choose a nominee would be limited to local committee members. In light of the brief campaign window, Wade said Friday that he will allow Morrissey out during the daytime until after the party concludes its “unassembled caucus,” also called a “firehouse primary.” He will be confined to his law office unless he receives permission to go elsewhere.
The lawmaker resigned from the legislature Thursday morning under pressure from both parties, only to stun and irritate his colleagues by immediately announcing his intention to run in the resulting special election. His resignation is effective Jan. 13, the same date as the special election and a day before the legislature reconvenes.
The circumstances stem from Morrissey’s conviction Dec. 12 on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The lawmaker and private attorney entered an Alford plea in the case, which allows him to maintain his innocence while avoiding a possible two-decade prison sentence.
The 57-year-old was instead given six months of active jail time for his relationship with a teenager working at his law firm, which prosecutors claim was sexual.
“It is the voters and not political pundits, and not partisan caucuses, that should decide who serves in office,” Morrissey said Thursday. Yet it will be a caucus of party leaders that will choose the Democratic nominee, a group that will likely be hostile to Morrissey’s bid to stay in office.
“This is blatantly illegal,” said Paul Goldman, Morrissey’s law partner. “They’re basically disenfranchising tens of thousands of African American Democrats,” he charged, referring to Morrissey’s district, in which the majority of residents are minorities. Goldman is assisting with a federal lawsuit set to be filed Monday to stop that evening’s caucus, on grounds that it would disenfranchise minority voters.
Morrissey has said he will seek the Democratic nomination, regardless of the process chosen. However, he could still file as an independent if he gathers 125 signatures by the afternoon of Dec. 23. Should he run in the Democratic caucus and lose, under party rules, he is not supposed to run in the general election.
Under work-release, Morrissey was allowed out of jail 12 hours a day, seven days a week, as long as he checked in with the sheriff’s office before traveling. He failed to do that on Thursday, said Wade, while alerting members of the media to his location for a news conference.
“All he has to do is call and say, ‘This is where I’m going to be,’ and he didn’t do it,” Wade said. A hearing will be held next week on whether to make permanent the revocation, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In temporarily letting Morrissey back out, Wade said he did not want to be accused of interfering with an election. “There is nothing political about this,” he said.
For Morrissey, the political, personal and criminal have become intertwined.
Accused of several felonies, including possession and distribution of child pornography, Morrissey has declared himself innocent on all charges. He insists that a lesbian ex-lover of his 17-year-old secretary planted incriminating text messages and photographs on both of their phones. In a memorable news conference this summer, Morrissey read aloud from a profane message he says the girl would never have written.
The woman, now 18, is pregnant, and a prosecutor said outside court last week that Morrissey was “perhaps” the father. Asked about the child by a CBS reporter Thursday, Morrissey said it would be “presumptuous” of him to speak on the subject — for now.
“Do you think for a moment, if that child is mine, I would run from that? Not gonna happen,” he added. He does not hide the fact that he has had three daughters by three different women.
In all things, Morrissey has prided himself on not shying from any controversy or fight. He loves sparring verbally with Republicans; last year, he waved an assault rifle on the House floor to make a point about gun control. As both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, he was repeatedly sanctioned, suspended, and jailed by judges, finally losing his law license for 10 years.
Morrissey pointed out Thursday that voters in his overwhelmingly Democratic district re-elected him after the charges were filed in this case, though before his conviction.
Several Democrats have already lined up to challenge Morrissey: Henrico County School Board member Lamont Bagby; David M. Lambert, son of former state Sen. Benjamin Lambert; former Del. Floyd H. Miles; and retired brewery worker Kevin Sullivan. Financially, at least, Morrissey has a head start, with $90,000 in his campaign chest as of July.
Even if he prevails, Morrissey may well face the expulsion proceeding he had hoped to avoid by demonstrating popular support in his district. By a two-thirds vote, the House could force him out of the legislature for good. Or at least until he runs again.
Weiner reported from Washington.
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A lawmaker by day and a jailbird by night? You’ve got to be kidding.
Expulsion of Va. lawmaker would be first since Reconstruction