By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Virginians vote on jailed lawmaker's bid to keep his seat
Placeholder Image

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The writers of TV's "Scandal" would be hard-pressed to invent a client more difficult than "Fighting Joe" Morrissey, who campaigned from jail for Tuesday's special election to fill the same seat he's resigning from in disgrace.

Through four elections, most voters have overlooked or even embraced flamboyant Virginia lawmaker Joseph D. Morrissey's history of fistfights, contempt of court citations and disbarment. The 57-year-old bachelor, who has fathered three children out of wedlock with three different women, repeatedly won at least 70 percent of the vote.

But would voters be OK with his conviction in a sex scandal involving his 17-year-old secretary, whose nude photo was found on his cellphone and allegedly shared with a friend? Would they mind that the young woman — who denies they had sex — is now pregnant?

Virginians were watching in suspense until polls closed Tuesday at 7 p.m., as up to 53,000 voters cast ballots in a three-way race for the seat Morrissey was supposed to be vacating.

Morrissey, who claimed his phone was hacked and denies any wrongdoing, has made a career of never backing down, hanging boxing gloves in his office and promising "Joe will fight for you" in campaign ads on city buses. At one point, the liberal Democrat waved an assault rifle inside the House chamber while arguing for gun control.

He resigned his seat — effective Tuesday, the day of this special election against Democrat Kevin Sullivan and Republican Matt Walton — after he was convicted last month of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. His agreement to serve six months in jail for the misdemeanor avoided a felony trial that could have barred him from office and put him in prison for years.

That might be enough punishment for most politicians, but Morrissey wouldn't give up, quitting his party to run as an independent to keep the Richmond-area House of Delegates seat.

Legislators from both parties denounced him as unfit to serve and began studying how to expel him if he wins.

House Clerk G. Paul Nardo said it takes two-thirds of the 100-member House to expel a member, which hasn't happened since 1876. The Virginia Constitution says a legislator can be kicked out for disorderly behavior, but does not define it.

"Mr. Morrissey's decision to run in this election is deceitful, selfish and disrespectful to this institution and the people he supposedly desires to serve," said House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican.

House Democratic Minority Leader David J. Toscano called it "both outrageous and sad."

But Morrissey says the people, not politicians, should decide who represents them.

And his staunchest defender is Myrna Pride, now 18, who went public this month with her side of the story.

The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sex crimes, but Myrna Pride's name has become well known in the district since she was named in Morrissey's criminal case. She denies they had sex — while declining to identify the father of her unborn baby — and she publicly defended Morrissey on Monday in a radio interview.

Richmond radio host Jack Gravely was interviewing Coleman Pride on WLEE about his daughter's relationship with Morrissey when the lawmaker called in to defend himself. Myrna Pride then showed up in person, accusing her father and others of manufacturing the entire scandal to get back at Morrissey for his help in a dispute over her father's child support.

Morrissey's role in the family's dispute reportedly prompted police to serve a search warrant of his office Monday afternoon, with only hours to go before the voting started, which Morrissey called a political dirty trick.

"The only person that has shown any respect or kindness, or been there for me, is Mr. Morrissey," Myrna Pride told a WTVR reporter on Monday. "Right now it's a friendship. I don't speak with him often. I call here and there to check on him. I want to see how his spirits are going."

Morrissey supported her in turn. "I think Myrna needs to stay away from the media, but I think she has handled herself in an exemplary fashion," he told the radio host. "She is a very smart young lady. She is kind, she is considerate. She will go on to do very well."

It was Coleman Pride who told authorities Morrissey was preying on his daughter when she worked at his law office in 2013 — allegations he repeated in campaign ads last week for Morrissey's Democratic opponent.

Morrissey first gained notoriety as Richmond's chief prosecutor in 1991, when his courthouse fistfight with a defense attorney became known as "the brawl in the hall."

He was cited for contempt of court and indicted for perjury and bribery — charges that were ultimately dismissed. Another fistfight, with a building contractor in 1999, put him in jail on a misdemeanor assault and battery conviction. The state bar suspended his law license in 2000, but he failed to tell his clients, which got his license revoked three years later.

Morrissey battled all the way to the state Supreme Court to get his license reinstated, and won.