Morrissey talks policy, says 'no scores to settle' in Senate

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RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — When Joe Morrissey staged a primary challenge against Sen. Rosalyn Dance, he also faced off against the state's top Democratic leadership -- Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe -- who supported the incumbent.

Morrissey has been disbarred twice, convicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and canonized in Virginia history for punching a defense lawyer in 1991 while he served as Richmond's commonwealth attorney. The last time he served in the General Assembly, he spent his nights in jail and his days representing constituents.

Yet, Morrissey swept the primary with 56% of the votes after running a campaign that put him directly in front of voters; going door-to-door converted into a surprising win. Now he seems surely bound for Capitol Square representing the 16th Senate District, which includes Petersburg and Hopewell, part of Richmond and parts of Chesterfield, Prince George and Dinwiddie counties.

The party largely snubbed Morrissey during the competitive primary, but now Democrats are sidling back with an eye to the January 2020 legislative session, and concern over who Morrissey may caucus with.

In the past few weeks, Morrissey confirmed he had coffee with Northam's chief of staff, Clark Mercer, and beer with McAuliffe. Democrats aren't the only ones courting Morrissey, who received phone calls from Republicans after his primary win.

"Fighting Joe" Morrissey indicates that the fights he's most interested in now are the ones for his constituents.

"I'm not going to the Senate to settle old scores. I'm not going there with any type of 'I told you so,'" Morrissey said when asked about his future political relationships.

Morrissey touts a legislative agenda that would make Democrats beam, citing environment and criminal justice reform as his biggest priorities.

An analysis of his 2008-2015 legislative record shows Morrissey voted mostly with his party, according to the Richmond Sunlight database records. He championed legislation dealing with gun control, environmental policy and criminal justice reform, including a proposed constitutional amendment that would have restored civil rights to individuals convicted of felonies.

The linchpin of his current environmental focus is excavating and recycling coal ash rather than capping coal ash ponds

"There's a coal ash pond 100 feet from the James River. Don't think that it won't seep into the river," Morrissey said. "That's why I'm against simply capping — putting a cover — over toxic coal ash and saying that everything is going to be okay -- it's not going to be okay."

Morrissey also has ambitious plans for criminal justice reform, pointing to the steep cost of incarceration versus drug court.

"I favor doubling the number of drug courts in Virginia," Morrissey said. "The recidivism rate for people that go through a drug court is 6.1% while the recidivism rate for people that go through the Department of Corrections is 61%."

Morrissey wants to bring parole back for felons, which was abolished in 1995. He compared parole to auto insurance demerit points that are used to incentivize safer driving.

"I want to incentivize people to behave in prison, to take advantage of programs, and to not commit other crimes in prison or abuse drugs. How do you incentivize them? Reinstate parole," Morrissey said.

Other criminal justice reform goals include automatic restoration of rights for felons leaving prison, establishing a mental health court and permanently ensuring that drivers can't have their license suspended or revoked over unpaid court costs or fines.

Of the $66,000 in contributions Morrissey's campaign has received as of the most recent filing report, the bulk is from his own coffers: $25,000 from his own checkbook and another $25,000 from the law practice he established, Morrissey & Goldman LLC. The third top donor is Verona-based Nexus Services, which helps immigrants post bond and provides them with GPS monitoring devices while they wait for immigration cases to be heard.

"I'm going in there kind of like a free agent, with no debts that I have to pay back," Morrissey said.

Democrats eager to flip the Senate may rest easier when they hear his policy positions, but Morrissey is careful to note that constituents are his primary concern.

"I can go in there and vote for the legislation that's best for Virginia and best for the citizens of the 16th District," he said. "Then what's best for the party, and then what's best for Joe Morrissey -- in that order."

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This story was produced by the Virginia Commonwealth University's Capital News Service.