Richmond mayor race: Sex scandals, comebacks, party clashes

AP News
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Posted: Nov 05, 2016 11:19 AM
Richmond mayor race: Sex scandals, comebacks, party clashes

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Mix a heaping of Anthony Weiner-like sex scandals, a dash of a Donald Trump-like clash with the establishment, and a sprinkling of Marion Barry-style political comebacks and you get the potential next mayor of Virginia's capital.

Joe Morrissey made national news last year when he won re-election to the General Assembly while spending his nights in jail because of a sex scandal involving a teenager he later married. Now he's the front-runner for mayor while embroiled in another sex-tinged scandal, this time battling last-minute allegations that he exposed himself to a legal client and sent her lewd text messages.

Like disgraced former Rep. Weiner, sending sexually charged texts has gotten Morrissey in trouble. Like GOP presidential nominee Trump, Morrissey enjoys poking a split political establishment trying to defeat him. And like former Washington, D.C., Mayor Barry, who won re-election after the FBI caught him on tape smoking crack, Morrissey hasn't let a conviction keep him from public office.

Polls have shown Morrissey leading a crowded field thanks largely to support from the city's African-American population.

Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, still grapples with a painful racial history where slaves were once sold a few blocks from the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol and black children were later segregated into sub-standard schools. Morrissey, a graying 59-year-old white man married to a black woman nearly four decades his junior, has become black Richmond's unlikely champion.

But his campaign has unsettled much of the city. Some view Morrissey as a narcissistic rogue who would make Richmond a national laughingstock.

"I hope he doesn't win," said Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, who was Richmond's mayor in the 1990s. "I really think it would be an embarrassment for the city."

Morrissey brushes off such comments and said his resilience is part of why he's so popular with much of Richmond and so unpopular with the city's elites.

"When I get knocked down, they can't stand it when I get back up," Morrissey said.

At a recent stop to shake hands in the parking lot of a small grocery store in a struggling part of south Richmond, nearly all the customers knew Morrissey and greeted him warmly.

One man praised Morrissey for being tough. Another asked why he wasn't running for president. Many mentioned that Morrissey had represented a family member in legal trouble at some point.

Former police officer Deborah Meade said Morrissey is "like a rock star" in the black community, in part because of his work as a defense attorney for low-income African Americans, sometimes for free or at a discounted rate.

Morrissey also is an expert at maximizing media exposure. As a member of the House of Delegates, he waved an assault rifle inside the chamber while arguing for gun control. But his legal problems and tangled personal life probably explain his widespread name recognition more than anything else.

In 2014, while a state lawmaker, Morrissey pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor after prosecutors accused him of having sex with a 17-year-old and said her nude photo was found on his cellphone. He spent his nights in jail and days in the General Assembly, where he was shunned by his fellow Democrats and Republicans alike. He won a special election while still in jail after switching to run as an independent.

Morrissey later married the woman, Myrna Pride, and has two children with her.

It was not his first brush with trouble — starting with a 1991 courthouse fistfight with a defense attorney that earned Morrissey, then Richmond's chief prosecutor, a five-day jail sentence. Fisticuffs with a building contractor led to a misdemeanor assault and battery conviction and suspension of Morrissey's law license in 2000. Three years later, the state bar revoked his license for failing to tell clients about the suspension. Morrissey later had it reinstated.

Last week, Morrissey faced a new potential scandal when a former legal client said that he made unwanted sexual advances and that an attorney in his firm pressured her to take a guilty plea for failing to return a rental car.

Morrissey has said he sent "flirtatious" texts to the woman but denies doing anything inappropriate. He said the allegations are part of a last-minute smear attempt by powerful special interests scared that he'd cut spending on economic development projects as mayor.

While parts of Richmond enjoy a cultural renaissance, Morrissey said, much of the city is left behind. He said Richmond has too long been focused on "big shiny projects" such as a training camp facility for Washington's NFL team and a new craft brewery instead of helping the poor.

Several candidates are trying to position themselves as an alternative to Morrissey, but it's not clear whether they've succeeded.

On Wednesday, candidate Jon Baliles dropped out and said he did it to make sure Morrissey doesn't win.

"I can no longer risk splitting votes with other candidates if it means electing someone who so plainly cares only about himself," Baliles said.