January 23, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


Prodigal Joe 

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Richmond's streets are bleak in the pre-dawn hours of mid-January. The crisp air smells of impending snow showers. The quiet, cobbled streets of Shockoe Bottom, still empty of rush-hour traffic at 5:30 a.m., recall a grimy Victorian-era industrial-age chill.

Inside the downtown Omni Richmond Hotel, at the corner of 10th and Cary streets, is a very different story. Salty sweat ripens the third-floor YMCA gymnasium. And keeping a very modern rhythm with the constant whir of treadmills and stationary bikes, freshman Delegate Joseph Morrissey is just warming up.

Morrissey is hardly a character from Dickens -- he'd more likely haunt the pages of a Reagan-era Tom Wolfe novel. Until last June's state primaries, he seemed pretty well written out of Richmond's political saga.

The former top Richmond prosecutor lost his last bid for office, his re-election in the 1993 primary election, amid scandal and a suspended law license, leaving him to pick up the pieces shilling as a defense attorney. Morrissey's final, all-too-public chapter seemed written after his jailing and disbarment for contempt of court after a notorious and legendary incident in which he hammered on a carpenter at Morrissey's Varina home.

Self-imposed exile in Ireland and then Australia followed, interrupted only when his seemingly assured ascent to the top of Australia's legal circles — he was a mentor to Australia's 100 Crown prosecutors until spring 2006 — was shot down by very public revelations of his disbarment here.

All this makes his return to Richmond's political narrative that much more an unexpected plot twist. To hear Morrissey tell it, his return is no epilogue. And don't call it a comeback, either, for the still slim, youthful-looking 50-year-old.

"Since I was 13 years old, if something happens to me, I'm going to get back up off the mat and move forward," says Morrissey, attired in faded black sweat pants and an inside-out gray T-shirt, mounted on a stationary bike. "I think I have a singular ability to not to get bogged down in the past and move forward. People in my district love that."

Though he seemed to have disappeared from the Richmond scene for a while, Morrissey says he never stopped moving forward.

"Let me just talk about that slump for a second," he says, pausing now between repetitions on a weight machine to slash the air with his finger. "That's part of the valleys that people go through. I have never quit."

Just barely a week into the 2008 session of the Virginia General Assembly, "Fightin' Joe" Morrissey has staked out his turf as an independent-minded Democrat, ready to cross the aisle on issues where he believes practical idealism is lost to turf-guarding ideology.

Already his stances have rankled a few lobbyists hoping for a politically vulnerable freshman. Instead they've discovered the same Joe whose "He'll fight for you" slogan from his defense attorney days still resonates — especially among voters in the majority black 74th District, who chose him over four established black politicians.

Surprisingly, his fellow legislators, both freshmen and veterans, seem to have quickly adjusted to the presence of a man known as much for a flaring temper and flying fists as his sharp legal mind. In the days following his primary victory, some local legislators and their aides quietly — and anonymously — voiced concern about a known hothead taking his seat among them.

"People are kind of scratching their heads, saying, 'What have the voters wrought?'" intimated one General Assembly insider.

But the Morrissey charm has quickly overcome preconceptions, winning him seats on two committees likely to do high-profile work this session: the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee and the Education Committee. A third committee assignment, Privileges and Elections, will gain importance during next year's redistricting.

To all observers, he's working well with his colleagues. Walking the hall with House Democratic Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, Morrissey strategizes over how best to win support for a bill to mandate vaccination against human papillomavirus for school-age girls. Armstrong tells Morrissey he wants the freshman delegate to take a leadership role during the floor debate.

One lobbyist, when asked her opinion, admits she's too young to know much of Morrissey's earlier incarnations as a prosecutor and defense attorney. She says she's not all that interested in his past and calls him "a sweetie," who's easy to work with.

Chris Freund, a lobbyist with the conservative, religious Family Foundation, says he's been impressed with what he's heard of Morrissey, who has voiced support for an abortion regulation bill that runs in opposition to the Democratic leadership.

"It certainly doesn't seem he's going to toe the party line," says Freund, happy to allow Morrissey to start with a clean slate: "Why not?"

One of Morrissey's political advisers during his race for House of Delegates, Paul Goldman, says his client's ability to connect with voters had much to do with his past, the streetwise prosecutor always willing and ready for a fight.

"The polls said they knew Joe and he had made mistakes," says Goldman, who orchestrated most of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's political successes and who did his own poll for Joe to see if he was a viable candidate. "In Joe's case, he made the mistake — maybe his emotions get away from him a little bit, maybe his advocacy got away from him a little bit — but it happens to the best of people.

"What I noticed was that the reason Joe was so well-known was because people had a connection with him. They really thought Joe was somebody who would get out there and fight for them, which is not what a lot of politicians do these days. I think that they wanted to give him another chance. People are desperate to find somebody who will fight for them."

Morrissey's fourth-floor window in the General Assembly office building at the north corner of Capitol Square looks directly onto the preserved home of venerable Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. It was Marshall who established judicial review of laws.

Out of the blue, Morrissey begins a history lecture: Marshall decided in favor of the interests of his cousin, President Thomas Jefferson, in not seating an 11th-hour judicial appointment of Jefferson's predecessor, John Adams. But by accepting the decision, Joe explains, Jefferson was forced to accept the court's authority.

The act firmly established the modern checks-and-balances system of our federal government. Morrissey, something of an amateur legal historian, tells the story — Marbury v. Madison — as a lesson that could have been instructive for Mayor L. Douglas Wilder in his battle with Richmond schools and City Council.

By giving City Council and schools officials what they wanted in terms of a new headquarters for schools, Wilder could have gained acknowledgment as the decision-maker on real estate issues, Morrissey says instructively: "Marbury v. Madison could have helped the mayor establish a stronger executive."

Morrissey likes lessons, and though some detractors might argue his own learning curve was 90 degrees steep, he says he's taken his own, often bitter, life lessons to heart.

"It's not so much that I'm a changed person from what I was before, but life experiences have made me a better person," he says, repeating his vow of transformation from his old, sometimes-pugilistic ways. "The proof is in the pudding. If you're passionate about what you do, that passion will stay with you in everything you do. I was passionate as a prosecutor. Equally passionate as a defense attorney."

That passion — now sans punches — won't go away, but "here you've got to compromise."

That's also apparently what he did early this fall in healing one of the final lingering bruises of his last public boxing match. Morrissey put an end to his ongoing dispute with Garien Wycoff, the former carpentry subcontractor he'd beaten bloody at his million-dollar Varina home.

As recently as June, Wycoff's nearly decade-old judgment for $1 million plus interest remained unpaid. "The matter was resolved and the terms are confidential," says Wycoff's attorney, Tom Roberts, who had once sought to relieve Morrissey of his assets, including the Varina home, valued at well over $1 million.

That same home, once mired in legal wrestling, now is a monument to the mellowed Morrissey. The house doubles as a therapeutic group home for a handful of mentally disabled clients, while Morrissey lives in a more modest house on Nine Mile Road that served as his headquarters during the campaign.

Establishing the group home likely did two things: It protected the asset from Wycoff's lawyer. And it pushed Morrissey even further into the disabled group-home business he'd established on his return from Australia. Caring for the mentally disabled is now a concern dear to Morrissey, the delegate.

So is education. Morrissey likes to reminisce about his brief time as a high school teacher and coach at a Washington, D.C.-area Catholic school, his alma mater.

As a delegate, education has become a focal point. One bill up for consideration this session would allow home-schooled students to participate on public school intramural sports teams in the districts where they live and their families, presumably, pay taxes. The issue is an old one, coming back year after year for extra innings, only to be held back by public school advocates.

Morrissey is not a patron of the bill, but heard the issue spelled out in detail during a committee hearing. He's now sitting in his office with a lobbyist from the Virginia Education Association, who is opposed to the bill. The old "Fightin' Joe" inhabits the dark-blue double-breasted suit behind the broad faux-cherry desk like a spirit from the past.

"My read on you is that you want to do what's right for the kids," says Robley S. Jones, the VEA's director of government relations, attempting a persuasive flank attack on Joe's emotions. It's a poor strategy. He's trying to make the point that the bill would allow dropouts the ability to play school-sponsored sports.

"Rob, do you really think there's a kid, 10th grade, playing football, hates math, hates English, hates everything — do you really think? Who goes to his parents and says, 'I want to drop out so I can play football'?" Morrissey says, voice raising in pitch as he crosses his legs and folds his arms tightly across his chest. "Do you really think the mentality of the parent is that they haven't done it before, but now they're going to take them out [of public school] and home-school them?"

Jones stresses the importance of public institutions educating children — painting with broad strokes a world where he delicately implies that home-schooled children are by and large the children of parents who have applied for religious exemptions to avoid the state's hand — and their watchful parental role in ensuring kids meet minimum standards in their education.

In reality, receiving a religious exemption is difficult at best. And home-schooled children, Morrissey points out, frequently score higher on the state benchmark tests than their public-school-enrolled counterparts. Morrissey cites his own review of numbers that he says show that often children with religious exemptions gain admission to better colleges and universities than their publicly educated peers.

"Would you agree that all home-schoolers are bad?" Morrissey asks rhetorically.

"I wouldn't agree that all home-schoolers are bad," Jones says, falling into the common debater's snare Morrissey is setting.

"Would you agree that 99 percent are good?" Morrissey asks.

Jones concedes, opening himself to Morrissey's evisceration of his argument. Cost to school districts to allow home-schoolers to participate? They still pay taxes. Home-schooled kids avoiding education to wander the streets? Statistics don't support the argument.

"You know what I think, Rob? I appreciate your representing the interests of your client — and you're talking to a former teacher here — but I think you have a firewall you're erecting around public schools," he says. "I think it's in the interest of the child to play sports. Allowing a child to win is the best thing you can do."

Kids, people with disabilities, the downtrodden are all Morrissey's people. On a recent Tuesday he takes a tour of a United Methodist Family Services group home facility in Richmond's near West End, where youth offenders — may of them sex offenders or victims of sexual offenders — receive rehab services.

He's dutiful in the attention he gives the home's administrators, listening to their concerns, asking questions and sharing his own frustrations as the owner of a handful of group home facilities. But Morrissey comes to life with the kids. Touring the facility's gym, he challenges one resident, Kevin, to a free-throw competition.

Kids gather around to watch as Morrissey discards his suit jacket and loosens his tie — and gets a mild drubbing from Kevin, who's also a mean three-point shooter.

Later, at a House Finance Committee hearing attended by advocates for disabled citizens, Morrissey flits through the room enduring cheek pinches and hugs from older women.

"He's young and I think you've got a fresh approach with him," says Joan Alexander, here in support of her group, RSVP, a rehabilitative services provider.

Back in his legislative office, Morrissey is most at ease when he's with constituents, not paid lobbyists. The Rev. Joe Ellison is a paid lobbyist with Pastors for Family Values, but today he's in Joe's office asking for help in the district combating a growing youth crime problem near the Essex Village apartment complex in Henrico County's East End.

"We do have a gang problem," Ellison says, asking Morrissey to intercede with county leaders to bring in a state anti-gang program sponsored by Attorney General Bob McDonnell. "I'm just not getting the support from the county, but the (Essex Village) residents are all for it.

"This is your area," Ellison pleads.

"I know every street," Morrissey responds enthusiastically, pledging support and instructing a legislative aide to set up a district meeting later in the week with county leaders.

He shakes Ellison's hand and sends him on his way.

Leaning back in his overstuffed office chair after Ellison is out of earshot, Morrissey is briefly reflective.

"Someone earlier said to us that this job is exactly what you make of it," he says, leaning back. Surrounded by memorabilia from his past as a prosecutor, as a defense attorney, as a first-year law student at Georgetown University campaigning in 1981 for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly, it's clear Morrissey doesn't need advice to know how to make the most of his position.

And now that he's back on track in Virginia, dusting off the remnants of his once-tarnished reputation, Morrissey has his sights on one final phoenix-from-the-ashes performance: restoration of his law license.

"Without going into too much detail, avenues that [one] might suggest I can't pursue anymore, I fully intend to pursue in the future," he says, determinedly. "I think the opportunity will present itself to practice law again, and I will pursue it vigorously."

Stranger things have been known to happen. S

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