Broadside Joe 

Go ahead, dismiss the disgraced, disbarred attorney. Joe Morrissey's big comeback has only just begun.

click to enlarge news25_morrissey_100.jpg

Last Tuesday morning, Joe Morrissey was a political outcast.

By evening he was the Man Who.

It's a strange place to find Morrissey, the former Richmond prosecutor whose frequently outrageous doings, both here and abroad, have for years made headlines that read more like the entertainment pages than the front page.

Before last Tuesday's Democratic primary, few serious politicians or public figures wanted to see their names mentioned in the same sentence as "Fightin' Joe" Morrissey. Now, fair-weather friends are creeping back.

For all intents and purposes, Morrissey is the 74th District's delegate-elect to the Virginia General Assembly. He faces the Rev. Brian Taylor, a write-in independent Green Party candidate, in the November general election. But barring an unlikely successful campaign by the unheard-of Taylor, Morrissey will take his seat during the next Assembly session as a man redeemed.

By Tuesday afternoon, the calls were rolling in on Morrissey's cell phone as he stood shaking hands and chatting up last-minute voters at Chamberlayne Elementary School. As victory seemed clearer later that evening, congratulatory calls came from the General Assembly's Democratic Party caucus chair, Brian Moran, and from the House minority whip, Ward Armstrong.

There were also calls from the people, Morrissey says, who stood by him even when he was at his lowest point.

"Hello, Oliver!" Morrissey coos, smiling, his voice raising a few decibels for the benefit of the hard-of-hearing well-wisher on the line. Fellow candidate and former City Councilwoman Jackie Jackson stands nearby and appears not to hear his warm greeting: "Yes, Mr. Hill. I will, Mr. Hill."

The call from the famed civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill may be the only call that would have come whether Morrissey had won or not. At 100, Hill is beyond the age where men stoop to fair-weather loyalty. Morrissey later confirms Hill has been a friend through all his trials — literal and figurative.

Just minutes before Hill's call, dark clouds descend over Chamberlayne Elementary, where Morrissey spends the latter half of the afternoon drumming up last-minute votes. Ominous, grumbling thunder precedes a heavy downpour.

Dark clouds have followed Morrissey for quite a few years now. After the sting of various stints in jail for contempt of court, the blow of his 2003 permanent disbarment, and the insult-to-injury of a million-dollar-plus judgment for taking out his aggressions on a hapless building subcontractor's face, Morrissey traveled first across the ocean and later to the other hemisphere in an attempt to start over.

Dark clouds have always rained out his plans.

Today, Morrissey seems waterproof.

"He performed his own resurrection," says Morrissey's friend and spokesman Jeff McKee, whose election-day adoration of Morrissey stretches so far as to compare his circumstances to the stuff of modern minstrel ballads. He quotes Bob Dylan: "'For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse …' That's Joe."

Of course, redemptions have their caveats. Garien Wycoff was abused and then accused Morrissey after his much publicized July 3, 1999, beating.

Wycoff's recent court filings indicated he also feels misused. Though the original $1 million judment was reduced significantly, Morrissey's failure to pay Wycoff has allowed the judgment to swell to more than $500,000. (See Street Talk, page 7.)

But such indiscretions don't keep the high-profile politicians at bay, including Gov. Tim Kaine, who calls Wednesday morning to wish Morrissey well.

A call to Style's offices from Antione Green, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, asks for a phone number for Morrissey "so I can call to offer him our continued support." Morrissey sought the Crusade's endorsement, but lost the support of the black voting coalition in a tiebreaker to Lloyd Jackson, who is black.

But he got the votes that counted. Morrissey fairly swept the primary, securing nearly 40 percent of the vote in a five-way race.

Morrissey's supporters say he won on his merits, and on a majority black electorate that saw an underdog "wronged by the Man."

In the Democratic primary, he was the only white candidate. He had fewer dollars to spend than the favored candidate, Floyd Miles, by nearly $20,000. He has a criminal record that remains fresh in institutional memory.

One dismissive headline called 40 percent a "razor-thin margin," even though Morrissey's nearest rival, Floyd Miles, received 27.4 percent of the vote.

Morrissey's strength — his secret weapon — was a flawless ground game.

Morrissey says he went door-to-door to about 8,000 homes, far more than the 5,431 voters who turned out and cast ballots in the district. For each home he visited, he says, he wrote personal thank-you letters to the owners of the hands he shook.

Amazingly, Morrissey appears to have spent the past 10 years frozen in time. He remains boyishly handsome with the same dark, curly hair only barely flecked with gray. He's thin and his relaxed lope hints at coiled energy. Morrissey is taller than the impression he left in earlier years, being led from court in handcuffs.

Morrissey says those days are behind him.

"The key is this — channeling your passion in a way that does not overlap and affect your persona," says Morrissey, providing instruction on how not to punch out fellow lawyers, defy and threaten judges or generally piss off authorities. "That temper solves things temporarily — not permanently."

It's a lesson he says he'll employ as a General Assembly delegate, and one he wishes he'd learned earlier in life.

"Will I go about it a different way this time? The answer is absolutely," he says. But in the next breath he defends some of those past acts that provided fuel for headlines and reason for contempt citations. Like when he held a press conference in defiance of a judge's order to defend disgraced Richmond politico Joel Harris.

"He was getting beaten up — the federal prosecutor was leaking information through the press that he was a drug user, a homosexual, a money launderer," Morrissey says, adding that he could have simply introduced a tape of a star prosecution witness recanting testimony and let the press do the dirty work for him.

But he didn't. This and other transgressions — including accusations that he created unnecessary litigation — eventually led to a three-year disbarment in 2002. It was the same year his former contractor-cum-punching-bag Wycoff won his court judgment.

In 2003, while living abroad in Australia, where he served as a mentor to that country's top prosecutors, his law license here was permanently revoked.

That stung plenty, but when his past was revealed to Australians in typical headline fashion, stymieing his attempts to gain a license to practice law there, Morrissey returned home to Richmond to lick his wounds and plot this latest return.

"So does he reboot?" asks McKee, a former DJ of XL-102 fame who used to host Morrissey on his radio show. "It's truly a remarkable situation. Here's a guy who languished in prison, went to the ends of the earth to try to [escape his past], came home, took a deep breath and said, 'I refuse to go quietly into the good night of nothingness.'"

McKee says the past decade has been a restless period for his friend, but that that period ended on election night.

"When the sun came up today," McKee says the day after the election, "it was the first time he didn't have to think about making a Herculean effort to redeem himself. Now he's got seven months to keep his mouth shut and behave."

Paul Goldman, the former political adviser to Mayor Doug Wilder who recently lost his own bid for Richmond City Council, helped on Morrissey's campaign. He says behaving isn't what won this election.

"People see Joe as having worked hard to try to do the right thing," says Goldman. "If he has flaws, they're correctable. If he slipped, that's OK. Joe is seen as somebody who works for people — who will work for the average citizen's rights."

And that's his mandate when he arrives next year at the Capitol, where state government circles are already abuzz with half-joking sentiments about Morrissey's punch-first reputation. There's also a bit of fear. Morrissey's return to the political ring is clearly making some Richmond politicians and business leaders a bit uneasy.

"I don't think people took it too seriously until Tuesday night," says one political strategist for a General Assembly caucus. "I have heard a number of people … the subject did come up about the potentially bizarre nature of the next General Assembly session. People are kind of scratching their heads, saying, 'What have the voters wrought?'" S

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