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Jail Cell To Statehouse: The Unbelievable Comeback Of Joe Morrissey

TPM Illustration/Getty Images
June 14, 2019 2:18 p.m.

On Tuesday, a piddling number of eligible voters in Virginia came out to vote in the Democratic primaries. But those who did propelled Joe Morrissey, a former inmate convicted for having a sexual relationship with a 17 year old, to a primary victory — and almost certainly the statehouse.

His significant victory over incumbent state Sen. Rosalyn Dance occurred despite the state Democratic machinery’s best efforts. Dance was joined by the likes of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on the trail, the arm of the state party draped around her at every turn.

Reading between the lines of the statement from Virginia Democratic party communications director Jake Rubenstein, party leaders may be less than pleased to be saddled with Morrissey’s baggage.

“All of our energy is focused on taking majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly,” Rubenstein told TPM when asked for a comment on Morrissey’s victory.

The Republicans were much less taciturn.

“Morrissey is just the cherry on top of the disorganized, scandal embroiled, disaster that is the Democratic Party of Virginia,” communications director Jake March said. “Voters are disgusted by the Democrats’ embrace of racism (Northam & Herring) and extreme left-wing policies.”

Morrissey’s senatorship is essentially a foregone conclusion — he has no Republican opposition — but the larger stakes for Democrats are high. The second half of 2019 will see a hotly contested election season in which all 140 seats in the Virginia state house are up for reelection.

Currently, Republicans have extremely slim majorities in both chambers and Democrats are well positioned to flip control for the first time in 24 years. Democrats nabbed 15 seats in the House of Delegates during the 2018 midterms, and federal judges handed down a redrawn map in January that makes some Republican districts bluer.

But, but, but.

Controversies have plagued Old Dominion Democrats, with Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) humiliating blackface scandal setting off a chain of other humiliating scandals, including a second blackface photo and credible accusations of sexual assault. Those tumultuous couple of weeks tarnished Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, the top three leaders of the state (and all Democrats). All three men held on to their posts.

The Republican party is leaning heavily on these scandals in their attempts to stave off a Democratic onslaught in 2020. And Morrissey’s story could fit neatly into that strategy.

Even before his liaison with his secretary, Morrissey had a penchant for scandal. With a background in law, Morrissey was held in contempt of court, was arrested and had his law license revoked — all multiple times.

To wit: he once punched a defense lawyer in the head during a drug use trial in 1991. He has since given himself the moniker “fightin’ Joe” and festooned his office in boxing gloves.

That self-branding, apparently, worked. He won election to the House of Delegates in 2007 and easily kept his seat for three subsequent elections.

The biggest headline he made in those years was written after he brandished an AK-47 on the House floor in a stunt to call for tougher gun control.

His real white whale came in 2014, when the father of his 17-year-old secretary Myrna Pride called the police in his search for her, urging them to check Morrissey’s home. Police found the teenager there with the 56-year-old lawmaker, and a grand jury investigation was empaneled.

In the course of the investigation, alleged details of the relationship came to light, including that Morrissey had several nude or partially nude pictures of Pride on his phone, some of which he shared with friends. The text accompanying one allegedly read: “Hey, buddy, I just fucked her on my conference table and again on the floor for good measure!”

Morrissey claimed at the time that Pride’s jealous ex-girlfriend had hacked his phone to plant the photos and sexually explicit texts.

A year later, the grand jury indicted Morrissey on charges of supervisory indecent liberties with a minor, electronic solicitation of a minor, possession of child pornography, distribution of child pornography and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

He eventually agreed to a deal where he pleaded guilty to one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor accompanied by a six month prison sentence. He resigned his seat in the House of Delegates.

But rather than walk away disgraced, tail between legs, fightin’ Joe put up his fists.

He almost immediately announced that he’d be running for his own vacant seat. When the Democratic party was having absolutely none of it, Morrissey shrugged and decided to run as an independent. He got an arrangement in prison where he was accepted into a work-release program that allowed him to leave his cell to campaign during the day, due back by a 7:30 p.m. curfew. The arrangement also cut his prison time in half.

He learned, from his prison cell, that he had won the special election, overcoming a Democrat and a Republican.

Despite the unbelievable victory, he ended up vacating his seat when he moved out of the district.

Around this time, in a misguided attempt to put the secretary scandal behind him, he gave a photo to a reporter that ricocheted across the internet. In it, he, Pride (who is black) and their child are dressed like plantation gentry in the antebellum south. Adorned with a top hat and cane, Morrissey has his hand on Pride’s bare shoulder. She beams up at him, cradling the baby. This was also Morrissey’s weird way of acknowledging paternity of his son after dodging the question for weeks. Controversy around the tone-deaf photograph, once again, ensued.

But no scandal was going to take the wind out of Morrissey’s sails. He moved into Virginia’s 16th district and lodged a state Senate bid, but ultimately dropped out due to health issues related to his diaphragm.

In 2016, he threw himself into a Richmond mayoral race as well, finishing third.

He kicked off his most recent state Senate bid in a crowded parking lot replete with free hot dogs to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger.” Pride, now his wife, introduced him, declaring that he fights for “any and everybody.”

Morrissey has punched his way to the top once again, bouncing back from a jail stint, a relationship with a minor and legal disgrace all the way to the statehouse. Democratic leadership probably wishes he’d just hang up his gloves.

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