RICHMOND, Va. – Voters who have long overlooked Virginia lawmaker Joseph D. Morrissey’s history of fistfights, contempt of court citations and disbarment have now given him a pass for a sex scandal that landed him in jail, choosing him over two decidedly less colorful candidates in a House of Delegates special election.
But a chilly reception awaits Morrissey when the General Assembly opens Wednesday. House leaders who pressured the Democrat to resign after his conviction, then fumed over his decision to run as an independent to reclaim the seat, were already researching the procedure for expelling him before Tuesday’s balloting.
“Mr. Morrissey’s election tonight does not change the fact that his actions fall grievously short of the standards of a public servant in the House of Delegates,” Republican House Speaker William J. Howell said in a statement, adding that he has a duty “to protect the honor and integrity of the House of Delegates as an institution.”
In a joint statement, House Democratic Minority Leader David J. Toscano and party caucus chairman Scott Surovell said Morrissey’s “conviction and actions over the past two months were reprehensible, and we will be exploring every avenue in regard to his status as a member of the House of Delegates.”
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It would take a two-thirds vote of the 100-member House to expel a member – something that hasn’t happened since 1876, according to House Clerk G. Paul Nardo.
Morrissey said the voters – not legislators – should be allowed to decide who represents them, and he pledged to wage a voting-rights battle if his colleagues try to kick him out.
As it now stands, Morrissey will tend to his legislative duties while on work release, wearing an electronic monitoring device during the day and returning to jail at night.
Last month, Morrissey was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after prosecutors accused him of having sex with a 17-year-old girl, whose nude photo was found on his cellphone and allegedly shared with a friend. The young woman, who denies they had sex, is now 18 and pregnant but has not identified the father.
Morrissey, a bachelor who has fathered three children out of wedlock with three different women, has denied wrongdoing but entered the misdemeanor plea to avoid felony charges punishable by years in prison and automatic loss of his legislative position.
After winning the special election, Morrissey said voters were not worried about the drama that landed him in jail.
“They’re interested in my body of work in the General Assembly,” Morrissey said. “Nobody works harder for their constituents than I do.”
He also said Democratic competitor Kevin J. Sullivan’s ads focusing on his latest scrape with the law backfired.
“People hate negative campaigns,” said Morrissey, who received 42 percent of the vote in unofficial returns. Sullivan got 33 percent and Republican Matt D. Walton 24 percent.
Morrissey’s latest legal troubles began when Coleman Pride told authorities the lawmaker was preying on his daughter when she worked at his law office in 2013 – allegations he repeated in campaign ads last week for Sullivan.
But perhaps Morrissey’s staunchest defender is Myrna Pride, who went public this month with her side of the story. The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged 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.
Richmond radio host Jack Gravely was interviewing Coleman Pride on WLEE about his daughter’s relationship with Morrissey on Monday 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.
It was Morrissey’s role in the family’s dispute that reportedly prompted police to serve a search warrant of his office Monday afternoon, with only hours to go before the voting started – an action Morrissey decried as 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 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.
“She is a very smart young lady,” he told the radio host. “She is kind, she is considerate. She will go on to do very well.”