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Joe Morrissey shakes hands with Kevin Lowe. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Charlotte Chapple (left) pulled her car over to stop and ask Joe Morrissey for a yard sign. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Morrissey greets Roy Bridges. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Joe Morrissey asks volunteers which homes they’ve already visited on German School Road in Richmond's South Side. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Earlier this week, Joe Morrissey and a small team of volunteers hit the ground in a subdivision off Midlothian Turnpike in the 9th District. The former commonwealth’s attorney and state delegate crisscrossed lawns and climbed porches, wooing voters to support his bid for Richmond mayor, a task made easier by the fact that almost everyone in the neighborhood already knew who he was.
“I believe you’re going to do a good job, and I know you’re a trouper,” an older African-American woman tells Morrissey before he can even deliver his spiel. “You are. No matter what they throw at you, you rise up and you’re still standing.”
Next door, a middle-aged father says he hesitated until he realized it was Morrissey knocking. “You thought I was going to sell something – a vacuum cleaner or something,” Morrissey says. “I’m just doing a little door-to-door campaigning.”
“I usually don’t answer, but you’re OK with me,” the father says. “You got my vote.”
Across the street, Morrissey converses with a Westover Hills Elementary School teacher about the state of Richmond Public Schools. He’s a former high school teacher and coach, he shares, plus he served on the House of Delegates education committee for eight years.
“You haven’t had a pay raise in the last eight years, right?” he asks. She nods. “You’ve had two minor cost-of-living increases, and some of your colleagues who are just out of college are coming in making almost as much as you’re making right now. Am I right?”
“You’re right,” the teacher says. That wouldn’t be the case if the city didn’t sink money into wooing breweries, or bike races or professional sports teams, he tells her. Under a Morrissey administration, that won’t happen, he says.
On Tuesday afternoon, in the span of two hours, Morrissey for Mayor signs in front yards multiplied to outnumber Council President Michelle Mosby’s by 10-to-1 in a neighborhood in the heart of her home district. Nearly everyone Morrissey greeted received him with enthusiasm.
Dedicated door-knocking is the foundation of Morrissey’s campaign strategy, and it has built him a strong base of support in the predominantly African-American districts in South Richmond and the East End. Reva Trammell, the longtime 8th District councilwoman, says her constituents call Morrissey “the Energizer bunny” because of his tireless approach. “They have seen him knocking on their doors in some of the poorest of the poorest parts of my district,” Trammell says. “They say, ‘Mr. Morrissey came to my door. Mr. Morrissey came to our function. Mr. Morrissey came to our National Night Out event. We have Mr. Morrissey’s phone number.’”
The 58-year-old has translated his patented brand of retail politics into a substantial lead in the mayor’s race, an August poll by Christopher Newport University found. A quarter of the 600 registered voters surveyed said they were undecided. But with 28 percent of the vote citywide and leads in five of the nine voter districts, the most polarizing man in city politics would be popping champagne if the general election were held today.
The CNU poll also showed that while 40 percent of people viewed Morrissey favorably, 44 percent viewed him unfavorably. “There are people who will vote for him no matter what, and then there are people who will not vote for him no matter what,” says Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College.
Morrissey’s professional and personal travails are well-documented. The most recent episode occurred in 2014, when Henrico investigators charged him with four felonies, alleging he had sex with a then-17-year-old receptionist at his law office and used his phone to send pornographic photos of her. Throughout the ordeal, Morrissey maintained his innocence, claiming a woman obsessed with the receptionist hacked her cell phone and planted incriminating messages.
The case did not go to trial. Instead, Morrissey agreed to a plea deal. He entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge of taking indecent liberties with a minor, which means he did not admit guilt, but acknowledged prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of the charge.
While serving 90 days in jail, he ran as an independent and won back his House of Delegates seat in a special election, allowing him to serve in the General Assembly by day and serve his sentence at night. He ultimately forfeited the seat months later when he moved out of the district and into the city.
Morrissey went on to marry the employee at the center of the incident, Myrna Pride. The couple now have two children. He has said the scandal is behind him, but Virginia State Bar investigators have lodged new allegations against the candidate – that he used a “knowingly false” defense and misled the Henrico court.
The turn of events puts Morrissey’s law license in jeopardy. While knocking on doors, he dismisses the allegations: “Let them do what they want. That matter was three years old,” he says. “The State Bar is still smarting from the time the Supreme Court overrode them – the first time ever – and gave me my license back.” (Morrissey is referring to a 2013 decision by the Virginia Supreme Court to reinstate his law license, which was suspended a decade earlier. The state bar’s disciplinary board had unanimously opposed his petition to the court.)
Depending on the investigation’s timeline, it could yield more negative press for Morrissey’s opponents to use against him. Whether that’s an effective way of cutting into his lead is another question, says Bob Holsworth, a longtime observer of city politics.
“It doesn’t do much good, unless you’re trying to run for second place, to simply use the arguments that appeal simply to the people who are already against him,” Holsworth says. “You have to find ways of criticizing Morrissey that don’t seem to be simply remaking the arguments that have already been rejected by part of the citizenry.”
Devising a strategy to weaken the front-runner requires elusive answers to two questions: What argument can persuade his supporters to defect? And who can make that argument most effectively in the places he is strongest?
Former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry is the candidate trailing closest behind Morrissey in the polls, but has virtually no support in the districts in which Morrissey is leading, save from the 3rd. Council President Michelle Mosby would do the field a favor if she wins her home district, but she has little cash to work with to reach voters en masse. West End Councilman Jon Baliles faces the same challenges Berry does and has less money to overcome them. The same is true for Bruce Tyler.
That leaves former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, who has more cash than anyone in the field, several key endorsements and friends in high places in the Democratic Party. Stoney and Morrissey have tangled several times at forums, but Stoney has thus far managed little more than glancing blows to the front-runner. Morrissey has directed his own jabs at Stoney, most recently at a forum hosted by city Democrats, where Morrissey accused the local party leaders of fixing the endorsement process to favor Stoney.
Several candidates have indicated they do not expect the race to be decided on Nov. 8. They’re betting that Morrissey will not win five districts, and a second election held on Dec. 20 featuring the top two vote-getters will drive turnout for the candidate opposite him.
The race-for-second-place strategy has its own perils. Candidates playing catch-up risk cannibalizing one another and indirectly increasing Morrissey’s chances of winning outright, observers say. Even hyper-focused, negative attacks aimed at him could turn voters off, and not necessarily benefit the attacker’s chances of making it to a runoff.
Asked whether the impending attacks worry him, Morrissey scoffs: “Have at it.”
Why shouldn’t he be confident? With seven weeks to go, it’s his race to lose.