It seems nothing can stop Joe Morrissey from winning in politics.
Not getting caught sleeping with his teenage secretary in 2013 and serving a three-month jail sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Not recent allegations that he sexually harassed one of his clients. Not the fact that Virginia State Bar is trying to disbar him, or that the Democratic Party of Virginia and the Richmond City Democratic Committee have sued him.
Morrissey, 59, is still likely to become the next mayor of Richmond, Virginia. Polls show him with a 3-point lead in what is now a six-way race. (A seventh candidate dropped out on Wednesday in an attempt to prevent Morrissey from winning.)
The brash charm of “Fightin’ Joe” has resonated with many of Richmond’s working-class voters of color. Morrissey seems to be popular in the city not in spite of his flaws, but because of them.
Morrissey’s campaign did not make him available for an interview. But his biography is widely known ― and reads like a saucy supermarket tabloid. He was in his third term as a state delegate when he began a relationship with a 17-year-old receptionist in his law office, Myrna Pride. A relative of Pride’s found sexually explicit text messages between her and Morrissey on the teen’s phone in August 2013. Family members sent Henrico County police officers to Morrissey’s home, where they found Pride.
A grand jury later indicted Morrissey on felony charges including indecent liberties with a minor and possession and distribution of child pornography. Prosecutors said Morrissey and Pride had an ongoing sexual relationship and he possessed nude and semi-nude photos of Pride, at least one of which he allegedly sent to a friend. Morrissey denied the charges, even after prosecutors released more than 80 text messages ― including some in which he boasted to a longtime friend about sleeping with Pride. Morrissey and his lawyers disputed the messages’ authenticity, claiming his phone had been hacked and that it was all a plot by Pride’s “jilted lesbian lover.” Pride also denied that Morrissey had broken any laws and told investigators she lied about her age on her job application.
Morrissey eventually took a plea deal for one misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a six-month jail sentence. And while he’d resigned his delegate seat shortly after his conviction, he promptly ran as an independent in the special election to fill the seat. He got accepted into a work release program that allowed him to continue practicing law and campaigning for office, and was re-elected to the House of Delegates in January 2015, defeating his closest rival by 9 points.
Since regaining his seat, Morrissey has attempted to reinvent himself as a family man. In May 2015 he shared a photo showing him, Pride and their 9-week-old son, Chase, dressed in what can only be described as plantation-style clothing. He publicly acknowledged his paternity of the child several days later. He married the now 20-year-old Pride in June, and the couple now have a 7-month-old daughter, Bella, in addition to 19-month-old Chase. It’s the first marriage for Morrissey, who has three other children with three different women.
His former receptionist, now called Myrna Morrissey, has adopted the role of the devoted and highly visible political spouse. She is frequently by his side at campaign events, and defended their relationship in a letter to the media in September. “Joe’s enemies have used me without my permission. Using me to attack him, talking about me like I’m a victim, talking about our relationship like it’s not real,” she wrote.
“Black women across Richmond know what it’s like to have their dignity taken from them,” she continued. “We know what it’s like for a largely white establishment and press to assume that your decisions and choices are not your own. But that doesn’t make it right.”
In a Facebook post last month, Morrissey said his “haters” need to move on from focusing on his relationship with Myrna. “It’s no ‘secret’ how Myrna and I got to where we are today and she and I couldn’t be happier,” he wrote. “This Myrna/Joe ‘saga’ has continued for 3 years now. Everyone knows the story and guess what ...Myrna and I are happily married with two very wonderful children. Daily, people tell us how happy they are for us.”
Richmond residents see Morrissey in one of two ways ― a charismatic, diligent leader, or a disgraced, dishonest man.
Even before his office relationship, Morrissey’s past was filled with episodes that read like a movie plot. He’d been in several fist fights, including one with an opposing lawyer outside the courtroom. He threatened a judge, was found in contempt of court 10 times, been forcibly detained for misconduct five times and, in 2003, had his law license suspended for eight years over his disciplinary record.
And still, plenty of voters love him.
Morrissey announced his plans to run for mayor in March, and has held a steady lead in a packed field of candidates. In a racially and economically divided city of 200,000, Morrissey has led the polls with working-class blacks. His first endorsement came from the Richmond Crusade for Voters, the city’s oldest and largest African American political organization.
In a late August poll, half of black voters said they would vote for Morrissey, compared to just 4 percent of white voters. Morrissey polled better with black voters than the black candidates for mayor. White residents of Richmond overwhelmingly favored candidate Jack Berry, the former administrator of Hanover County ― one of the three counties encompassing greater Richmond.
The Rev. Owen Cardwell of the New Canaan International Church in Richmond tried to explain Morrissey’s appeal. “I think Joe is more in touch with the people who suffer from the impact of poverty,” Cardwell told The Huffington Post. “He has demonstrated over the years that he is willing to go to bat for [the poor]. Those that are in the daily fight are the kind to support a Joe Morrissey candidacy, because they’re in the trenches, and they feel like he gets in the trenches with them.”
“Particularly in the intersection between the Christian community and the African-American community, people are more inclined to forgive [Morrissey’s] indiscretions,” Cardwell continued. “He does seem to be in a stable relationship and that’s important. The people I pastor are happy he made his relationship real by marrying Myrna.”
Other residents said they remember connecting with Morrissey in the early days of his political career and wouldn’t consider voting for any of the other candidates.
“He came to my house one time like seven years ago and it floored me,” Nichole Richardson, a 46-year-old insurance agent, told HuffPost. “When he came to my house he took the time to conversate with me and didn’t just ask for my vote. I loved that.”
“He stands out because he doesn’t rule from a hilltop like most political people do; he comes down and mingles amongst the people,” she said.
In addition to working-class black voters, former felons may also boost Morrissey’s numbers on Election Day. Morrissey has long advocated for restoring voting rights for former felons. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently did that for 67,000 people via an executive order.
Morrissey is a veritable celebrity around Richmond. Recent profiles in the Toronto Star and the Washington Post depicted fans swarming him for pictures and autographs. (The Star piece compared him to Toronto’s famously flawed late mayor, Rob Ford.) His Facebook page documents his stops around the community ― a hot dog stand, a block party, outside of churches.
But Morrissey also has his detractors, including fellow mayoral candidate and current Richmond City Council President Michelle Mosby, who ran radio ads last month saying that he “has been a delegate in the General Assembly for eight years with no laws passed to help our black community with education or workforce.”
Another is Myrna Morrissey’s estranged father, Coleman Pride. Pride regularly shows up at the candidate’s campaign events and press conferences and shouts “Liar!” into the crowd. He also started a website opposing Morrissey, sayno2joe.com. Pride told HuffPost that he feels his daughter has been “brainwashed.”
“The daughter I know and raised is a strong, intelligent and independent woman that has always had a voice and mind of her own,” he said. His website argues that Morrissey “preyed upon” his young daughter and “can not be trusted in public office.”
And while the legal trouble related to his now-wife is behind him, Morrissey currently faces another sex scandal.
Kanika Shani Morris, one of Morrissey’s former clients, told The Richmond Times Dispatch last week that Morrissey exposed himself to her in his law office last year and sent her lewd texts messages. She claims that after she refused his advances, Morrissey gave her case to another attorney, who forced her to plead guilty to theft. A judge allowed Morris to withdraw her plea last week.
Morris provided a record of her explicit texts from Morrissey to the Times Dispatch, which included a request that she shave her genitals and “wear fresh panties” to their meeting to discuss her case. Morrissey hasn’t denied sending her those texts, which he described as “flirtatious,” but he says he never did anything inappropriate with her. The Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney has said her office and local police are investigating the allegations.
Morrissey argues that his legal drama has only helped him. Prosecutors, he told the Toronto Star last month, “spent a fortune” to put him in jail ― “$2 million, two years, coming after me.” But most voters don’t care about that stuff, he argued: “When I knock on the door, all the African Americans, they go: ‘How’s Bella? How’s Chase?’”
His stridency could still hurt him. In an unusual move, one of Morrissey’s opponents in the mayor’s race dropped out less than a week before the election, for the explicit purpose of trying to stop Morrissey from winning.
“While there are other candidates who can ably fill the mayor’s job duties, there is one who simply cannot,” wrote ex-candidate Jon Baliles, a city councilman, in a Facebook post. “That is the controversial and divisive candidate who has received national and international negative attention. …I can no longer risk splitting votes with other candidates if it means electing someone who so plainly cares only about himself. If there ever was a time we need collaborative people in city hall to address our city’s problems, now is that time.”