To say that Joe Morrissey is colorful is to do an injustice to Crayola. Morrissey is somewhat beyond colorful.
Where shall we begin to describe the candidate who on Tuesday upset a Democratic incumbent to become the party nominee in the state Senate district that runs from Richmond to Petersburg to the rural areas beyond?
Shall we begin with his time as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney in 1991, when he slugged a defense attorney? Or, as Morrissey described it: “I punched his lights out. He had to be taught some manners.” Since then, Morrissey has styled himself, proudly and rather accurately, as “Fighting Joe.”
Should we mention how in 1999 he got into a fight with a contractor — another actual fist fight — and how a jury awarded the contractor $1 million (a sum later reduced to $390,000)?
How about the fact that Morrissey now has had his law license revoked not just once but twice? He’s now appealing the most recent revocation.
Of course, no recitation of Morrissey’s career would be complete without mentioning how he got elected to the House of Delegates and then was forced to resign after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That minor, by the way, was his 17-year-old receptionist and lover — who is now his wife and mother of his children. We should also mention how he ran again for the seat and got elected while still behind bars.
What’s the standard for withstanding a scandal? Donald Trump said he could stand in the middle of 5th Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and get away with it — something he thankfully hasn’t tried. Edwin Edwards, the scandal-plagued governor of Louisiana, once bragged: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” He wasn’t caught with either, but he did win that election and another before finally getting convicted of less interesting offenses. In any case, “Fighting Joe” is back. On Tuesday, he upset state Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, and rather easily, too. He took just under 56% of the vote. Most astonishingly, he took just under 72% of the vote in Petersburg. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Petersburg is Dance’s hometown — a city where she was mayor before entering the General Assembly. She’s been winning elections there since 1992. Second, Morrissey is white and Petersburg is 78% African-American. How in the world did Morrissey pull this off? Before we answer that, let’s pose another question: Why does any of this matter to us? It’s a heavily Democratic district, but does it really matter to us in this part of the state which Democrat sits in that seat?
There are two reasons why we should care.
First, Virginia Republicans will try to make us care. They cling to precarious majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate — majorities that are very much in jeopardy in November’s elections. Now they have another argument to use in their favor: Do you really want a party in charge that includes Joe Morrissey in the majority? Republicans thought they had a trifecta to talk about with Gov. Ralph Northam (blackface), Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (allegations of sexual assault) and Attorney General Mark Herring (more blackface). Now they have a quadfecta! (Yes, there really is such a word. If you spent more time at the off-track betting parlor in Vinton, you’d know this). Even if you didn’t know Morrissey before this, Republicans will helpfully remind you this fall. No need to thank them; thank the Democratic primary voters who made this possible. Republicans are positively gleeful at the prospect of linking every Democratic candidate for the state Senate to “Fighting Joe” — or, more likely, “Contributing to the Deliquency of a Minor Joe.”
There’s another reason,we should care about Morrissey’s election — and make no mistake, he’ll win easily over an independent in the fall, so he’s as good as elected. That reason is a bit more high-minded, not a phrase often found in conjunction with Morrissey. That reason is this: Morrissey might, just might, be another advocate for doing something about the sorry physical state of many schools in rural Virginia. And not just rural Virginia.
Morrissey spent an interesting amount of his campaign complaining about dilapidated schools in his district. As he said in a letter to the editor to the Richmond Free Press last year: “Let’s be honest: We have two school systems in Richmond. One is a private, mostly white student body attending modern, clean facilities providing the educational opportunities. The second is a public system, where a 90 percent minority and mostly poor student body attends the most decrepit, non-maintained, obsolete facilities in Virginia.”
It’s not unusual for a candidate, especially a Democratic one, to bemoan such conditions. In his inaugural address, even the low-key Gov. Ralph Northam decried “crumbling schools.” What is unusual is for a politician to actually try to do something about it. For that, we must turn to a Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County, who spent much of last year talking up a proposed $3 billion statewide bond issue. If it had come to pass, it would have been the most significant state action on school facilities since 1950. But it did not. The Senate Finance Committee dispatched Stanley’s proposal in about three minutes — and a vote of 14-2 against. One of those who voted against the proposal was Dance, even though her district covered localities that have 26 schools built before 1950, more than in the district of any other senator on the panel. At the time, we called her vote “the most inexplicable of all, especially given how poor much of her district is.” Perhaps on Tuesday her constituents agreed.
Now, maybe Morrissey will forget all this once he takes office. If so, he would not be the first politician to do so. Maybe he will turn out to be completely ineffectual. Once again, he would not be the first politician to attain that status. But maybe there’s a chance he turns out to be the one thing this issue so far has lacked — a Democratic advocate representing an urban district to match the Republican advocate representing a rural district.
Morrissey certainly isn’t the ideal champion, but you know what they say about how beggars can’t be choosers. We’ll take what we can get, and right now all those people whose kids really do attend “crumbling schools” might have one more champion than they had before.