Joe Morrissey wins election from jail. Why do voters reelect the disgraced?

Joe Morrissey won 42 percent of the vote in a special election for the seat in the Virginia House of Delegates that he resigned. Last November, New York voters did something similar, reelecting Michael Grimm to the US House.

Steve Helber/AP/File
In this Jan. 26, 2012 photo, Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico, left, holds papers during a debate on a bill that would end the state mandate for girls to receive the HPV vaccine during House session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Jailed Virginia lawmaker Morrissey was able to win a special election because enough voters apparently weren't bothered by his sex-scandal conviction. But whether he'll find enough support among his colleagues to remain in the House of Delegates is another matter. Morrissey, who defeated two opponents Tuesday night, Jan. 13, 2015, will return to a legislative body whose leaders have been researching the process for expelling him.

Joe Morrissey didn’t have a typical path to victory in a special election for the Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday.

Last June Mr. Morrissey, who was serving as a Democrat in the state legislature, was indicted on, among other things, felony charges of indecent liberties with a minor. Although the plea agreement that he entered into included a six-month sentence, he was eligible to attend legislative sessions on work release – until pressure from other state lawmakers persuaded him to resign.

Yet Morrissey came back when it was time to fill his seat – running as an independent candidate from jail. And on Tuesday, he beat Republican Matt Walton and Democrat Kevin Sullivan with 42 percent of the vote.

While Morrissey’s immediate comeback may be making headlines, the election is also raising larger questions about which values voters hold sacred. In a country where family values often play a strong role in political campaigns, why do voters sometimes flock to reelect candidates who have been publicly disgraced?

In the case of Morrissey, who touted himself as a defender of the underdog, his close relationship with constituents was enough to ensure his election victory, says Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

“The general issue, as with any campaign, was that he is the incumbent. People know him. He has a strong relationship with constituents, especially with African-American Democrats, and he is skilled at connecting with people in his backyard. It was enough to overcome the negative results of this latest scandal,” Professor Meagher says.

In November, New York voters did something similar, reelecting disgraced congressman Michael Grimm. Last April, the Republican lawmaker was charged with 20 counts of fraud, federal tax evasion, and perjury.

Even so, on Nov. 4, Mr. Grimm was reelected for a third term.

“Americans historically like to vote for their own rascal. Grimm played on the fact that he is a local guy: He is one of our own, he is fighting for us instead of for those crazy people in Washington,” says Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University in Orange, N.J.

Grimm’s status as an incumbent also played an important role, Dr. Hale says.

“He was the incumbent, and it is safe for the incumbent. The way we structure things in this country, once you get elected, it’s tough to lose your spot,” he says.

As Roy Moskowitz, a leading Democratic consultant in Staten Island, sees it, voters didn’t care about the charges against Grimm. “I’m more likely to vote for a corrupt legislator who will vote the way I want him to than I would for a squeaky-clean member of the opposing party,” he says.

“Republicans want to vote for Republicans, and Staten Island is the most conservative area of New York,” Mr. Moskowitz says.

After the November election, Grimm pleaded guilty to a single count of felony tax fraud. Then, ahead of the new Congress convening at the beginning of this year, he announced he would resign.

Other politicians who have succeeded in getting reelected after damaging public scandals are Washington Mayor Marion Barry, who was reelected in 1994 after going to jail for possession of crack cocaine, and Buddy Cianci, who was reelected mayor of Providence, R.I., after being charged with the assault of a contractor who he believed was having an affair with his wife.

During his second term, Mr. Cianci resigned after a felony conviction of racketeering conspiracy. He launched yet another bid for mayor in 2014, but lost to Jorge Elorza.

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