Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
A draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that, as published by POLITICO a week ago, would end a federal guarantee of abortion rights granted under the 1973 “Roe v. Wade decision.” If the final opinion in a case challenging a strict Mississippi anti-abortion law is anything like the leaked draft, abortion rights will become a state-by-state crazy quilt of differing laws.
In Virginia, that puts Democratic state Sen. Joe Morrissey squarely in the middle, whether he wants to be or not.
So-called red, or Republican-ruled, states are poised to rapidly – in 13 states, instantly – ban or drastically limit abortions if the Supreme Court reverses Roe. Think of the South along with a scattering of Midwest and Rocky Mountain states forcing wholesale overnight closures of women’s clinics within them.
Blue, or Democratic-ruled, states (think California and the Northeast) would remain open for women who decide to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and women from the red states could go to blue ones in a post-Roe America.
The battlegrounds will be states such as Virginia where neither party holds the balance of power outright. And in the commonwealth, no political figure is more pivotal to determining the future of abortion rights than Morrissey, a trouble magnet whose career arc has repeatedly defied political physics.
Morrissey is a Democrat in the 40-seat Virginia Senate where his party holds the slimmest possible majority – 21 to 19. Lose just one Democrat on a party-line floor vote and Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle Sears casts the deciding vote to break the 20-20 tie. Sears makes no secret of her disdain for Roe. Such a scenario gives Republicans a clear path to curb or ban abortion because Republicans control the House of Delegates and the governor’s office.
“Fightin’ Joe,” as he bills himself (his history literally backs him up; more on that later), is hard to pigeonhole, either by the GOP or his own party. On some issues, he’s progressive. In the legislative session that ended in March, he led the fight to end mandatory minimum sentencing on most felonies, arguing that draconian punishments enacted in the get-tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ’90s disproportionately harmed people of color by taking away a judge’s discretion to lessen sentences for first-time offenders or those convicted of crimes with significant mitigating circumstances. Two Democrats joined a united GOP caucus to defeat his bill on the Senate floor.
Morrissey, a former Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, has been at the heart of numerous landmark criminal justice reforms enacted since 2019 when Democrats began a two-year period in which they controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s office, including the repeal of the death penalty in Virginia, where more inmates had been executed than any state except Texas since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Virginia is the only state in the South to have done so.
But on the issue of abortion, Morrissey, a Roman Catholic, finds himself more aligned with Republicans. He has said he would consider limits on abortions, perhaps after 20 weeks – about five months. That aligns with what Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed.
“I am a moderate who tries to bring consensus to this,” he said in an interview with me last week. “While I’m personally opposed to abortion, I believe the woman’s decision should be made after consulting with her doctor, her partner and perhaps her spiritual adviser. I don’t think women should be jailed for having an abortion.”
“There has to be some type of middle ground. Perhaps it’s if the child can feel pain. But I believe my moderate position is the view of the people of my district as well as … Virginia and that’s how I’m going to approach this,” he said.
Indeed, Morrissey’s position was boilerplate in the party not so long ago. Rather than a fulsome, unlimited embrace of abortion rights, Democratic candidates took a measured approach in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. Theirs was a carefully calibrated message succinctly articulated by Bill Clinton in his successful 1992 presidential campaign: “Abortions should be safe, legal and rare.” Back-to-back Democratic governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine backed “a woman’s right to choose,” but were careful not to mire themselves in such issues as whether late-term procedures should be allowed.
Since then, as polls have shown support for legal abortion and sustaining Roe, and as the party’s progressive wing has gained clout, many Democrats have been more and more willing to push the envelope. Some now bristle at any suggestion that abortions should be rare.
It came to a head in Virginia in 2019 over a bill that would have relaxed abortion restrictions to allow the procedure as late as labor, provided that just one doctor certified that delivering the child would affect the mother’s health, not the concurrence of three doctors that delivery could kill the mother or severely damage her health. The bill died quickly in committee in a General Assembly then under GOP control, but Republicans – including then-President Donald Trump – had a field day, labeling it “infanticide.” Then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist who has since returned to his medical practice, aggravated the PR maelstrom when he appeared to defend the legislation in on live radio that can most charitably be described as clumsy and tone-deaf. His Dumpster-fire interview was overshadowed just days later when a photo of a person in blackface and another in Klan regalia was discovered on Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
Morrissey’s position on abortion and the leaked draft Supreme Court decision is already an intraparty flashpoint. Lashrecse Aird, a Democratic former delegate who is challenging Morrissey in the 2023 primary, takes a significantly more expansive position on abortion than Morrissey. Aird quickly used the POLITICO disclosure to rouse abortion-rights voters by saying the ability of women in Virginia to make their own reproductive decisions hinges on Morrissey’s ouster.
“That is the only vote that is required to undo the progress that has been made,” Aird said in an interview with the Virginia Mercury last week.
It could be a very persuasive argument for Aird. Primary voters aren’t known for moderation in either party. Her statement, however, omits the significant fact that Morrissey does not sit on the Senate Education and Health Committee where GOP abortion bills go to die before they reach a vote by Morrissey and the full Senate. It happened in March when Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh’s informed-consent abortion bill, which had passed the House of Delegates on a 52-48 vote, died on a 10-5 Senate committee vote, ensuring that it never made it to the floor.
But you get Aird’s drift. And it could be a potent issue for her because primary voters are not known for moderation. Besides, whether Morrissey remains in the Senate could be moot to the issue of abortion if the GOP achieves an outright Senate majority or even a 20-20 tie in legislative elections still a year and a half away.
Publicly, Morrissey is projecting an almost Alfred E. Neuman-esque “What – me worry?” air about the challenge. But, as even a short interview reveals, Aird clearly has his attention.
“You don’t win in politics if you’re on the extreme. Lashrecse Aird is on the extreme,” he said.
Also, you don’t normally win in politics or serve in elective office if you’re doing time for allegedly having sex with an underage employee less than one-third your age. In 2015, when Morrissey was in the House, he was commuting daily to the Capitol from jail where he served a six-month sentence for a misdemeanor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He and his onetime law office secretary have married and have four children ranging in age from 4 to 9 years old. Northam pardoned Morrissey earlier this year.
Morrissey has also been jailed for resorting to fisticuffs in a courthouse, lending credence to his pugilistic brand. Currently disbarred for a second time, he is fighting to get his law license restored. And all of that was known to voters when he easily won his Richmond-area Senate district seat three years ago.
Politically, he’s outlived premature obituaries and enjoyed more lives than a cat. At age 64, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself without the hot breath of adversity on his neck. Now, thanks to a Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority and the likely demise of abortion rights, Fightin’ Joe may be in for the fight of his life.
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