RICHMOND — Richmond’s most infamous man about town — jailed in his late 50s for his relationship with a 17-year-old girl whom he later married — will have a seat in the Capitol’s august Senate chamber come January. And that has fellow Democrats worried.
Not because Joe Morrissey brings yet more scandal to their party, which has been trying to move past disgrace that enveloped the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general earlier this year.
They fear “Fightin’ Joe,” who regularly thumbs his nose at establishment leaders, might battle his own party as much as the GOP.
“I’m over all that. He married her. He’s got a family,” state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) said Wednesday, when asked about Morrissey’s past. “I’m much more concerned about how he would function as a senator, how well he’ll work with the caucus. That’s going to be my focus. And whether he will help us move forward with a progressive agenda.”
Republicans, who are trying to hold on to a two-seat majority in the upper chamber in November, already see an opportunity — particularly if the 40-seat Senate winds up split down the middle.
“If it’s 20-20 — I don’t remember anybody really being there for Joe [during the scandal] as his friend on the Democrat side,” said Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), who counts Morrissey as both a friend and a law client. “They made fun of him. They mocked him. That chicken may come home to roost. He’s going to make the best choice for his district and the people of Petersburg. I think what you’re going to see is a lot of people trying to make up to him on the D side. And on our side, we would definitely be willing to sit down and talk.”
A former state delegate, Morrissey unseated a veteran senator, Rosalyn R. Dance (D-Petersburg), in a primary Tuesday. He was able to damage Dance, a former mayor of Petersburg, by associating her with deep social and economic problems that plague her hometown.
A former defense lawyer who lost his license, Morrissey spent time in jail after he pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, his teenage receptionist. He was 56 at the time.
Now married to the former receptionist and fighting to get his law license back, Morrissey has deep support among some African American residents because of his legal work in the community.
No Republican has stepped forward to run for the seat in the heavily Democratic district, so his election is virtually assured.
On Tuesday night, surrounded by his wife and four small children at a Mexican restaurant in Petersburg, Morrissey was asked how he will operate in the chamber. He answered with a reference to their youngest, 17-month-old Maverick.
“You know what my younger son’s name is,” he said, beaming.
Morrissey was relishing his outsider position again Wednesday. Though he said he intends to caucus with the Democrats, he made it clear that he would not take his cues from Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) or anyone else.
“One of the things that has scared the Democrats the most is, I’m not one of those sheep who just follows the party line. . . . That has been my trademark since I was in the House of Delegates,” he said. “I have one of the most liberating feelings in the world. I don’t go there with any debt, any IOUs. I am not a Dick Saslaw sheep that would follow the herd.”
All 40 seats in the Senate and all 100 in the House of Delegates are on the ballot in November. Democrats had high hopes of flipping both chambers — each controlled by the GOP by two-seat margins — before a series of scandals unfolded in January. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) admitted to wearing blackface as young men, while two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexual assault — accusations he denies.
All three men remain in office, and the lingering controversy could dampen Democratic enthusiasm. Turnout in Tuesday’s elections was higher in Republican primaries than in Democratic contests, something Republicans took as sign of energy on their side.
“In House races, average Republican turnout was 22 percent higher than average Democratic turnout,” said Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights).
Morrissey’s win is not something that Democrats seemed eager to discuss Wednesday. Saslaw declined to comment, as did several other elected Democrats. One senior Democratic official said: “We have 140 races, and that is one of them.”
“It would be malpractice for Virginia Democrats to get distracted from the real goal, which is taking back the majorities,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank. “January’s a long time away. We have campaigning to do today.”
Morrissey hosted a radio show Wednesday, then spent the afternoon returning phone calls and planned to attend an event with one of his daughters. He didn’t have any community activities scheduled just yet. He was looking forward to his first weeknight dinner with his family in recent memory, after weeks of nonstop campaigning.
Morrissey said he favors what he calls core Democratic values: inclusivity, expanding the middle class, restricting gun use. “I am an environmentalist down to my core,” he said.
His position on abortion is more nuanced.
“I’ve always believed in the sanctity of life,” Morrissey said on election night. “Not just a child that’s been conceived but at the end of life, when somebody’s facing the death penalty.”
But in an interview Wednesday, he also said government should stay out of health-care decisions. “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I consider myself very much in the mold of [U.S. Sen.] Tim Kaine, where I do not believe government should be in the business of telling women what to do.”
He strongly opposed a measure, proposed by Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), that would have loosened restrictions on late-term abortions. Tran caused an uproar in January when she testified that the bill would allow the procedure up to the point of delivery.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Morrissey said. “That makes no sense. That is asinine.”
Morrissey supports charter schools, something opposed by most Democratic legislators in Virginia though embraced by the party elsewhere. And he supports the state’s laws that allow workers to opt out of labor unions, something seen as an anti-union by the party’s liberal wing.
Longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth sees a tricky situation: Democrats will not want to own Morrissey’s tainted reputation, and he won’t feel any charity toward party leaders who have shunned him. But if Democrats manage to tie with Republicans in the Senate or take a slight majority after November’s election, they’ll need Morrissey.
“So it’ll be a delicate balancing act,” Holsworth said.