Morrissey and felony convictions (but not his)

Former Delegate Joe Morrissey is the gift that keeps on giving. People's taste for political entertainment may vary, and so many may be tired of Fightin' Joe. But the latest chapter in his story, as usual, has a greater moral.

Morrissey is, of course, running for state Senate. In order to run he needed to collect 250 signatures from the Senate district. Since these signatures are submitted for a primary election, run by the parties, the party controls the process in accordance with their state plan, plus Virginia state law. And here's where it gets tricky: the Democratic Party wants nothing to do with Joe Morrissey. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the party district committee rejected 750 of the 972 signatures Morrissey submitted.

Submitting petition signatures is a messy business. You have to get voter names and addresses, and all of these need to verified. Petition challenges are a standard way to try to defeat political opponents before they even get started. If you can knock someone off the ballot, it makes your path to election victory easier. So most savvy candidates try to go way over the required amount; hopefully you have enough to survive any names being removed.

[School Board member - and son of the Mayor - Derik Jones also didn't make the required 250. But he didn't even submit 300, so it's doubtful he can find enough legitimate signatures to get on the ballot. Yet another blow to the Mayor's political reputation - couldn't he help his son get on a state ballot?]

Morrissey certainly knew this, collecting almost four times the required amount. And of course there were problems with his forms. According to the Roanoke Times,

An additional five pages of signatures Morrissey submitted were not even counted. The review concluded that two pages were duplicates, one page did not have dates next to the signatures and two other pages were gathered by a convicted felon whose rights have not been restored.

That last part is intriguing; Virginia law bans convicted felons from registering to vote, unless they go through a lengthy appeals process in the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office. (The Secretary's website currently warns of a backlog.) Morrissey claims that this designation is a mistake, that the collector was NOT a felon, and will certainly include this issue in his appeal of the district committee decision.

But even then, why can't a convicted felon collect signatures? VA law requires that signatures be collected by someone at least able to register, for obscure reasons. And so Morrissey may find himself in the middle of a debate about the rights of people who have supposedly "paid their debt to society," at a time where the Governor's office has been a leader in reform. (Indeed, just this week Terry McAuliffe signed a "ban the box" law that prohibits state employers from asking about prior felony convictions.)

You could try to make a moral argument here, but the main intention seems to be the same intention all ballot access laws have: to restrict access. Parties like to make potential candidates jump through multiple hoops, because it makes it easier for them to do what they're doing to Morrissey now. Getting your name on a ballot shouldn't be a Kafkaesque navigation through bureaucracy, but as long as states continue to let parties drive the nomination process, that's how things will work.

And so Morrissey again finds himself able to say that he's on the side of the little guy, against uncaring institutions. It's an argument that his constituents often find compelling - and a key to his continued political survival.

Apparently Joe himself won't be a felon any time soon: a judge dismissed the felony counts against him, noting that the Alford plea Morrissey agreed to that sent him to jail prohibits him from being charged with any more related crimes. Prosecutors are not happy about that decision, obviously, and may appeal. But who wants to bet on them winning?

A Christmas gift for the 74th: More Joe Morrissey?

UPDATE: Just spoke to Mark Tenia of WRIC-8 News about this story - look for me on the Friday evening newscasts.

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A lovely Christmas present to cap off a crazy year of Virginia politics is taking shape in the VA 74th district. Democratic Delegate Joe Morrissey is resigning his seat, running for re-election, and spending his days at the GA and nights in jail, unless he's not. Wait, what? Here's the rundown:

  • Morrissey was indicted back in June for having an improper relationship with a minor, his 17-year-old receptionist. The receptionist, who is defending Morrissey, claims to have lied about her age to get the job and that there was no sexual relationship. Whatever went on, her mother seems to have been on board (it was the father who notified authorities). Morrissey and the woman make the usual claim about cell phone evidence: they were hacked. And oh yes: she's pregnant.
  • Last week Morrissey entered what's called an "Alford plea" (named after a 1963 NC murder case), where he does not admit guilt but acknowledges that there's enough evidence to convict him. His sentence: 6 months in work-release jail, meaning he sleeps at jail at night but is free during the day. (The sentence is likely to be reduced to 3 months, as is typical with misdemeanor charges.)
  • In a brilliant move, Morrissey said he would resign - but would then run for re-election in the resulting special election held in January. This puts the decision to keep him in office in the hands of the voters. If he's re-elected, and especially with significant support, it would be harder for the GA to expel him (still a possibility).
  • The Democrats have just a few days to pick their nominee for the special election, which will be held January 13. The two main candidates are Lamont Bagby, a Henrico County School Board member, and Kevin Sullivan, a union activist and alpaca farmer (and dad to one of my former students). It's not clear yet how the Dems will pick their candidate; Sullivan could have district support, but Bagby is more of a known quantity, having at least won a local election. But Morrissey could try to pack a caucus with his supporters to try and get the nomination.
  • Even if the Dems go with Bagby or Sullivan, Morrissey could run as an independent. He already has thousands of dollars in his campaign war chest, and there's a history of people in the district ignoring Morrissey's less than savory history. (If he can get re-elected after trying to bribe his way out of community service, it's hard to see how a relationship with a 17-year-old will completely kill his chances.)
  • The latest wrinkle: last night the Times-Dispatch's Markus Schmidt reported that the Henrico Sheriff had revoked Morrissey's work-release privileges for going to his office without prior approval. (The Sheriff, Michael Wade, is a Republican, so he's not following marching orders from embarrassed Dems; more likely, he's just ticked off by Morrissey's apparent arrogance.) Morrissey will, of course, appeal, but this is going to make it harder to mount a campaign.

The lesson, as it has been in the 74th for years, is don't ever count Joe Morrissey out. Happy holidays!