On the Line 

Working the phones and running as an independent, Delegate Joe Morrissey fights to keep his seat in most unusual circumstances.

click to enlarge news01_morrissey.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Delegate Joe Morrissey arrives at his law office in a Jaguar wearing loafers, a cable-knit sweater and corduroys. It’s just after 8 on Saturday morning and he looks more like a man on his way to a country club brunch than someone who’s serving a six-month jail sentence.

Under the terms of Morrissey’s work-release agreement, his office in Highland Springs is the only place he’s allowed to travel other than the General Assembly, unless he gets approval from the Henrico Sheriff’s Office, which tracks his whereabouts with a GPS ankle bracelet.

Inside, he pours himself a bowl of Raisin Bran, mixes in some fresh fruit and heads to his desk. Between spoonfuls, he lays out the day ahead: Readying a campaign news release, sending out a debate challenge to his two opponents and making phone calls — dozens and dozens of phone calls to constituents.

The phone is his only outlet for voter outreach. Morrissey says voters rarely ask him to address his legal troubles despite the circumstances, which resulted from him entering an Alford plea last month to a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Instead, the calls — like the rest of his campaign — follow a well-worn patter.

“Hi, Mrs. Taylor, it’s Joe Morrissey calling,” he says. “I’m doing great, how about yourself? … How was your New Year’s Day? Did you have family and friends over?”

He concludes cheerfully: “I just wanted to thank you for your support and I look forward to seeing you at the polls on Jan. 13.”

Morrissey is optimistic about his chances in the special election, when voters in the 74th House District will decide whether he should continue in office or be replaced.

“I’m hearing the same thing every call,” Morrissey says. “‘Joe, we’ve got your back.’ ‘Joe, we know what’s really going on.’”

Democrats and Republicans alike, including Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have issued calls for his resignation.

A Democrat in his fourth term, Morrissey is banking that voters in his district don’t really care about the charges against him, which stem from allegations that he was sexually involved with a receptionist in his law office when she was 17.

By resigning from his seat and then running in the special election he triggered, Morrissey hopes to make it difficult for lawmakers to expel him later — though that’s still a possibility should he win.

Morrissey says nothing illegal happened and that he plans to file a lawsuit against the girl’s father and older sister. The woman, now 18, has denied having sex with Morrissey.

Morrissey says evidence to the contrary was planted by the woman’s jealous ex-girlfriend. Asked for more details about the alleged cell phone hacking, which prosecutors said they found no evidence of, he pulls a folder from a cardboard box of files next to his desk, producing a letter from one of three private detectives he says he hired. In the letter, the detective says he found evidence that the ex-girlfriend logged into the woman’s iCloud account, allowing her to send text messages in the alleged victim’s name.

In a news conference following Morrissey’s plea, prosecutor William Neely said the alleged victim was pregnant and suggested that it could be Morrissey’s child. Morrissey declines to address the paternity issue. Likewise, he bristles at questions about whether he’s had sex with the woman.

“I haven’t discussed it and I’m not making any comments about it now,” Morrissey says. “There was no sexual relationship that took place that was illegal. It’s that simple.

“These detractors can go on and on and on about my sexually titillating cloud hanging over things. Let’s be clear about it. The woman claimed that she was 22, was almost 18. The woman herself, her mother and her grandmother all said no sexual relationship took place.”

Morrissey promises that all the details will come out in the lawsuit, which he plans to file this spring. He says he presumes it will be well-covered by local media outlets.

Morrissey’s office is a shrine to his past fights. In the corner of a conference room he keeps a display case of signed boxing gloves, a nod to his “Fighting Joe” moniker. Among the framed headlines behind his desk is one that dates to his time in the early ’90s as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney: “An Embattled DA Prepares for Trial — His Own.” Morrissey served five days in jail for his role in a courthouse fistfight with an opposing lawyer.

Chuck Walker, a campaign volunteer who’s been making phone calls on Morrissey’s behalf, says he finds the candidate inspiring. “He shows that no matter where you are in life you can always do better,” Walker says. “If you get knocked down once you can get back up.”

Volunteer Meme Thompson says the conviction hasn’t affected her opinion of the delegate. “I’m still judging him based on all the good he’s done for the community,” she says. “I don’t listen to gossip.”

Morrissey’s opponents in the House race aren’t so forgiving.

Kevin Sullivan, a political coordinator for the Teamsters union, won the Democratic nomination in a firehouse primary with 24 votes. Morrissey dropped out of contention, calling the process a sham and saying he would run as an independent.

“I’m the only candidate that’s in this election who has consistently called for Joe Morrissey to resign,” says Sullivan, of Charles City County. “He finally did, but it’s pretty ridiculous what he’s doing. We just have to roll with the punches.”

From the right is Matt Walton, 29, a high-school teacher running as a Republican. He was unreachable for comment Monday, but has focused his platform on education and jobs.

Sullivan touts his ability to go door-to-door in his effort to reach voters, saying he’s knocking on 80 doors a day.

Confined to his office, Morrissey says he doesn’t feel disadvantaged by his court-ordered limitations. “Nobody has perfected the art of going door-to-door like me,” Morrissey says, adding that this election is too short to make it an effective tactic. “But listen, whatever campaign apparatus he thinks will work for him — good on him.”

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