RICHMOND, Va. – A state lawmaker who resigned his seat following a sex scandal involving a teenage employee won it back during a special election Tuesday.
Apparently the majority of voters in Joseph D. Morrissey's Richmond-area House of Delegates conviction were OK with his conviction in the scandal involving his 17-year-old secretary, whose nude photo was found on his cellphone and allegedly shared with a friend. Morrissey has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying his phone was hacked. The young woman, who denies they had sex, is now pregnant.
In unofficial returns, Morrissey defeated Democrat Kevin J. Sullivan and Republican Matt D. Walton by a comfortable margin. Morrissey won 42 percent of the vote, compared to 33 percent for Sullivan and 24 percent for Walton.
Morrissey's victory was not unprecedented: Through four previous elections, most voters overlooked or even embraced the lawmaker's flamboyant history of fistfights, contempt-of-court citations and disbarment. The 57-year-old bachelor, who fathered three children out of wedlock with three different women, repeatedly won at least 70 percent of the vote as a Democrat.
Morrissey said in a telephone interview that the results show people aren't interested in 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 Sullivan's ads focusing on his latest scrape with the law backfired.
"People hate negative campaigns," Morrissey said.
The lawmaker has made a career of never backing down. He hung boxing gloves in his office and promised "Joe will fight for you" in campaign ads on city buses. At one point, he waved an assault rifle inside the House chamber while arguing for gun control.
He resigned his seat — effective Tuesday, the day of this special election — after he was convicted last month of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. His agreement to serve six months in jail for the misdemeanor avoided a felony trial that could have barred him from office and put him in prison for years.
But Morrissey wouldn't give up — he promptly quit his party to run as an independent for his seat, sleeping in jail and wearing an electronic monitoring device as he campaigned during the day.
Legislators from both parties denounced him as unfit to serve and began studying how to expel him if he won.
"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," House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican, said in a statement.
House Democratic Minority Leader David J. Toscano and party caucus chairman Scott Surovell said in a joint statement that 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."
According to House Clerk G. Paul Nardo said it takes two-thirds of the 100-member House to expel a member, which hasn't happened since 1876. The Virginia Constitution says a legislator can be kicked out for disorderly behavior, but does not define it.
But Morrissey says the people, not politicians, should decide who represents them — and vowed a voting rights battle if they try to remove him.
His latest troubles began when Coleman Pride told authorities that 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 Morrissey's Democratic opponent.
But Morrissey's staunchest defender is Myrna Pride, now 18, who went public this month with her side of the story.
The Associated Press does not usually identify 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. She denies they had sex — while declining to identify the father of her unborn baby — and she publicly defended Morrissey on Monday in a radio interview.
Richmond radio host Jack Gravely was interviewing Coleman Pride on WLEE about his daughter's relationship with Morrissey 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. Morrissey called that 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 on 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."