Two very different Virginia state senators announced Tuesday that they would seek the Democratic nomination to succeed the late Rep. Donald McEachin in the upcoming special election for the safely blue 4th Congressional District: Jennifer McClellan, who launched her bid with support from three colleagues in the state's congressional delegation; and Joe Morrissey, a self-described “unapologetically pro-life” lawmaker who has confounded observers for years by surviving numerous serious scandals.
McClellan, who would be the first Black woman to represent the Old Dominion in Congress, was elected to succeed McEachin in the state Senate in 2017, and she unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for governor last year. She begins her campaign for this Richmond-area seat with endorsements from Northern Virginia Reps. Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton, and Gerry Connolly. Morrissey, by contrast, used his announcement to spread a conspiracy theory that Democratic leaders were trying to ensure that their favored candidate, whom he implied was McClellan, was nominated.
The pair joins a field that already includes Del. Lamont Bagby, former Del. Joseph Preston, and insurance business owner Tavorise Marks. Democrats will pick their candidate on Dec. 20—just a week from now—in a so-called firehouse primary or unassembled caucus, which is a small-scale nominating contest run by the party rather than the state, and the filing deadline will be noon local time Friday.
The party explains that the vote will take place at five different locations—far fewer sites than would be operated during a state-run primary—from 6 AM to 7 PM local time, which matches the state’s regular polling hours. Voting will be open to any registered 4th District voter who “brings a photo ID and signs a statement declaring themselves to be a Democrat.” It will take a simple plurality to win the nod, and the winner will be the heavy favorite in the Feb. 21 general election, since Joe Biden would've carried this district 67-32.
McClellan said at her kickoff that she understood why Democrats had picked next Tuesday as the date for the firehouse primary, explaining that the party had few options because Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin required nominees be selected by Dec. 23.
Morrissey, meanwhile, threw out evidence-free allegations insinuating that, by not holding the firehouse primary even sooner—he wanted it to be Saturday, three days earlier—Democratic leaders were trying to get “their person” elected. He didn’t name anyone, though the Richmond Times-Dispatch writes that he was likely describing McClellan when he said the date “benefits one candidate in Northside [Richmond], the West End where they can get out on Tuesday night.”
He also compared the party’s current leadership to the political machine once operated by segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd that ran the state during the Jim Crow era, proclaiming, “This decision that they made last night is the most anti-working class, anti-Democratic, anti-women's decision since the Byrd era.”
It would be a massive understatement to say that this isn’t the first time that Morrissey, once memorably described as a “chaos Muppet who seems to delight in wreaking havoc,” has rankled Democrats. But Morrissey, who is white, also has long had a strong base of support among local Black voters thanks in part to his career as a defense attorney and his service as Richmond’s top prosecutor from 1989 to 1993.
One African American ally, former Richmond City Council member Marty Jewell, explained his appeal in 2016 by saying, “Joe Morrissey has spoken up on Black issues when so many others haven’t opened their mouths. He does pro-bono work for low-income people on a regular basis where Black lawyers can’t be found.” Jewell continued, “He’s spoken out on various issues with regard to payday lending, he’s spoken out about the failure to address economic inclusion for Black businesses, he has spoken out on the excesses of law enforcement.”
This support has helped Morrissey endure despite a seemingly never ending string of scandals. Indeed, he already had years of legal baggage when he was first elected to a suburban Richmond state House seat in 2007. This included, but was not limited to, a 90-day jail sentence for making public statements about witnesses in violation of federal court rules; losing his license to practice in federal court; and losing his Virginia law license for several years.
For a moment, Morrissey’s time in politics seemed to be over in late 2014 when he resigned from office after pleading guilty to contributing in the delinquency of a minor named Myrna Pride, a 17-year-old receptionist at his law office whom prosecutors accused the delegate of having sex with. (The two, who later married, both maintained that they’d never had sex before Pride turned 18.) However, Morrisey decided to run as an independent in the special election to succeed himself in early 2015, a contest he won even as he was still serving his prison sentence in a halfway house.
But Morrissey, who was permitted to attend sessions of the legislature as part of his work-release program, was only back for two months before he announced he was running as a Democrat again, this time in a primary against state Sen. Rosalyn Dance, even though their districts didn’t overlap at all.
As a result of strict residency rules, the state House declared that Morrissey’s seat had again become vacant after he moved to Richmond to take on Dance, and Bagby won the year’s second special to replace him. Morrissey, however, failed to collect enough signatures to make the ballot so once again he became an independent, though he later announced he was dropping his campaign against Dance because of a paralyzed diaphragm.
Of course, there was much more Joe Morrissey to come in everyone’s future. The former delegate, who still identified as an independent at the time, campaigned in the 2016 contest for mayor of Richmond, and it soon became clear he had a real shot. (One opponent even dropped out to stop him.) Yet another scandal emerged late in the campaign after a former law client accused Morrissey of exposing himself to her and making sexual advances through text messages; Morrissey himself admitted to sending "flirtatious" texts to her, though he denied the rest of her account.
Morrissey ended up taking third place, and in 2018 he lost his law license again partially because of his alleged relationship with Pride before she was an adult. Undeterred, he went on to challenge Dance again in 2019 as a Democrat in a safely blue seat, portraying himself as an anti-establishment contender. Dance had the support of then-Gov. Ralph Northam, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and Sen. Tim Kaine, who was governor when Morrissey first got to the legislature, but the challenger won 56-44. “It’s somewhat sweet that three governors campaigned against me,” he said in victory.
Democrats immediately recognized that they’d likely need Morrissey’s vote even before the party ended years of Republican control in the Senate by winning a narrow 21-19 majority that fall, and they quickly worked to keep the longtime outcast close. But Morrissey’s power only increased two years later when that same Democratic majority became the only thing keeping Republicans from gaining total control of the state government following their loss of the state House and governorship in 2019, especially since GOP Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears would be able to break any ties for her party.
Morrissey, who received a pardon from Northam on his last day in office for his 2014 conviction, arguably remains the most influential member of the state legislature. He's even publicly mused about backing a GOP proposal to limit abortion after 20 weeks, though he hasn’t committed to advancing any legislation.
Morrissey also has a radio show called “The Fighting Joe Morrissey Show” on a network owned by conservative commentator John Fredericks, who's been encouraging Republicans to vote for Morrissey in the firehouse primary. Unsurprisingly, the program has also been a source of scandal: Two employees sought a restraining order against Morrissey earlier this year for allegedly making them feel unsafe after a violent verbal and physical outburst. The Democrat acknowledged in court that he’d called the station manager a “fat fucking pig” but maintained, “At no time did I ever say ‘I’ll kick your ass.'" A judge ended up ruling in his favor and lifted the order.
Morrissey would be able to turn around and seek re-election next year if he fails to win the contest to succeed McEachin, but he’d be in for another tough intra-party battle, this time against former Del. Lashrecse Aird. Aird, who has the backing of Planned Parenthood of Virginia, declared Monday that she wouldn’t run for Congress herself and would instead continue her bid against the state senator she called “an anti-choice Democrat in sheep’s clothing who has committed to voting in support of an abortion ban in Virginia.”