Should he be the new senator for state Senate District 16, Joe Morrissey – who last week won the Democratic Party nomination – wants to be known as “Senator Pothole.”
Morrissey – a controversial former state delegate who has twice lost his law license and was convicted of a misdemeanor for a relationship with a 17-year-old woman whom he later married and had three children with – defeated incumbent state Sen. Rosalyn Dance in the June 11 primary.
Morrissey said that WJFN 100.5 FM radio host John Fredericks called him “Senator Pothole,” which Morrissey considers a compliment. The name came as a result of Morrissey’s willingness to work for constituents, he said. Morrissey won the primary election largely by focusing on Petersburg and saying he would address citizens’ issues, such as high water bills and lack of road maintenance.
“I’ll be on a first-name basis with the Department of Public Works” in the cities and counties in Senate District 16, he said.
Morrissey was raised by Irish Catholic parents. His father, William, was a cardiologist and a Republican, and his mother, Jean Noel, was a Democrat.
Morrissey started out as a Republican and now considers himself a populist and a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. He delights in confounding the powers that be, namely party leaders who have worked against him. He ran against Dance as an independent in 2015 after initially campaigning as a Democrat because of what he calls “hanky panky” by the Democratic Party’s then-Senate District 16 committee chairwoman, an ally of Dance whom Morrissey said refused to meet with him in the final weeks before the filing deadline so he could ensure that he had enough signatures to get on the ballot. The committee chair was a gate holder or guardian of ballot access for partisan candidates, Morrissey explained. He ended up dropping out of that race due to a health issue. Nonetheless, he calls what happened to him evil. “Access to the ballot has to be fair,” he said.
Morrissey’s populist streak – which may be anathema to those whom he calls the party’s elites – includes standing up for those he calls the “have-nots,” or the less fortunate of society.
For his first campaign in 1981, he ran for the state House in Fairfax County as a Republican while in law school and finished fifth out of 13 candidates in an election for three seats. “I was a fiscal conservative and identified with the business philosophy” of the Republican Party, he said. He later became more comfortable with the Democratic Party, he said, “because they looked out for the have-nots.”
His political heroes include two Democrats – brothers Bobby and Jack Kennedy – and two Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
He won an election as commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond in 1989, beating 16-year incumbent Aubrey Davis after only having lived in the Richmond area for four years. He won that race, Morrissey said, by knocking on doors, which also proved successful this year.
For the Senate District 16 race, Morrissey focused on Petersburg and the district’s four most populous Chesterfield County precincts: Enon, Ettrick, Harrowgate and Matoaca.
His 72-to-28-percent margin of victory in Petersburg won the election. Dance won the remainder of the district by 1.5 percentage points.
Morrissey said he targeted Petersburg because it represented 37 percent of the votes in the 2015 primary, in which Dance defeated Joseph Preston, 62 to 38 percent. Although Petersburg and the Richmond portion of the district yielded the same number of votes last week, Morrissey’s strategy paid off.
Morrissey vs. Ross
Come November, Morrissey will face an independent candidate who filed for the race the afternoon of June 11 just prior to the 5 p.m. deadline. Waylin Ross submitted 402 signatures, of which 294 were good, Petersburg’s longtime voter registrar Dawn Williams said. She noted that he needed 250 valid signatures.
Ross, 29, is a Petersburg High graduate and has a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Old Dominion University and a master’s degree in public policy and economics from George Mason University. He worked for Morrissey as a legislative aide. Last week, Morrissey said he ended up firing Ross because he couldn’t do the job. “He’s the only person I’ve ever fired,” Morrissey said. Ross admits that he was fired, but said he worked for Morrissey for seven or eight months. “He has a temper,” Ross said of Morrissey. “One day we just got into it.” Five days after he was fired, Ross said Morrissey called him and offered him another job, but Ross said he already had found other employment.
Ross is CEO of ParaLobby LLC, a Petersburg business consulting firm that he founded four years ago.
Ross said he wants his campaign, which started May 28, to be a blueprint for how Petersburg residents can get involved in politics.
“A lot of people in Petersburg expressed displeasure about the candidates,” Ross said, adding that they were choosing “the lesser of two evils.” Ross said the June 11 primary was a “referendum on Dance. It was not a vote of confidence for Morrissey.”
Ross said he doesn’t think Morrissey is in touch with the needs of Petersburg’s residents. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t fulfill his campaign promises. Most were local [issues], potholes and blighted buildings.”
Noting he grew up in Petersburg, Ross said his top campaign issues are the economy, historic preservation, accountability and criminal justice reform. If elected, Ross said he would work on helping Petersburg residents get grants and loans to start “micro-enterprises.”