State Sen. Joe Morrissey battles for Petersburg casino
Although many political observers doubt there will be much legislation of major significance passed by the split legislature this year, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Petersburg, is gambling on a productive 2023.
As one of a slight Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate, the only state body currently under the party’s control, Morrissey is in an enviable position to get some bills passed — as long as he is willing to play ball with Republicans. That could mean bringing a casino to Petersburg.
Morrissey, who was elected in 2019, is closing out his freshman term in the Senate, but his reputation precedes him — to say the least.
At the end of Gov. Ralph Northam’s term in January 2022, Morrissey was granted a pardon for a 2014 misdemeanor conviction of contributing to the delinquency of a minor — his now-wife, Myrna, who was his 17-year-old receptionist at the time, and with whom Morrissey, 65, has since had four children. In January 2015, Morrissey was serving in the House of Delegates and commuted to the session from the Henrico County jail, wearing an electronic monitoring device and followed by unflattering headlines.
Disbarred twice, he also carries the nickname “Fightin’ Joe,” which dates back to a 1991 fistfight in which Morrissey, then the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, punched defense attorney David Baugh during a circuit court trial. He also was found guilty in 1999 of misdemeanor assault and battery of his former handyman, and in 2001, Morrissey was prohibited from practicing law in federal court, followed by the Virginia State Bar’s revocation of Morrissey’s license in 2003. After a few years teaching law in Ireland and Australia, Morrissey returned to Virginia and was elected to the House of Delegates in 2007.
But the pugnacious senator considers his checkered history a badge of honor: His live WJFN-FM radio show is called “The Fighting Joe Morrissey Show,” and his district office features a glass display cabinet full of red boxing gloves.
Neither his temper nor his legal entanglements have apparently cooled with time. The president of Petersburg’s NAACP chapter, a casino critic, claimed in February 2022 that Morrissey said, “I’ll rip your heart out of your chest” during an argument — words the senator has acknowledged saying — which led to a Capitol Police investigation. And in May 2022, two WJFN employees filed preliminary restraining orders against Morrissey after a heated argument about abortion restrictions, but a judge dismissed the orders. (Raised Catholic, Morrissey has said he supports some limits on abortion, although not a full ban.)
But even with all his personal baggage, Morrissey is viewed as a savvy politician and strong advocate for his region. Petersburg has suffered financial woes for decades but has seen an uptick in developer interest and the attention of the new governor, particularly in support of the city’s burgeoning pharmaceutical manufacturing hub.
One of Morrissey’s top priorities this session is bringing a casino to Petersburg — and removing the possibility of a competing casino in Richmond, where voters rejected a casino referendum in November 2021. Some Richmond leaders want a second chance to bring a referendum to the city’s ballots this year, but Morrissey says that if there were two casinos — one in Richmond and one in Petersburg — they would both suffer financially. “We’d have a Rosie’s [Gaming Emporium] on steroids, and that’s not good for either location.”
Instead, Morrissey has filed a bill that would bring a local referendum to Petersburg this fall to allow The Cordish Cos. to build a casino as part of a $1.4 billion mixed-use development, a deal the Baltimore developer says won’t happen if it has to compete with a casino in Richmond. Even though his party is in the minority in the House and Gov. Glenn Youngkin is a Republican, Morrissey said in November 2022, “I think it’s very likely it’s going to happen. I think the House is going to be behind it.”
Morrissey’s 2023 legislative agenda also includes sponsoring a bill to ban assault-style weapons, following two high-profile mass shootings late last year in Chesapeake and Charlottesville.
In late December, Morrissey was defeated by Sen. Jennifer McClellan for the Democratic nomination for the late U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin’s congressional seat, gaining only 13.56% of the primary vote to McClellan’s 84.81%. She will go on to run in a special election in February.
Virginia Business: You weren’t elected yet as a state senator in 2018 when negotiations began to legalize casinos in Virginia. Why do you think Richmond — and not Petersburg — was included in the bill with other economically challenged cities like Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth?
Morrissey: Petersburg was much more of a natural fit. The casino legislation was to help struggling cities in the commonwealth, not counties or cities that were going gangbusters. You had to work to construct language that allowed Richmond to fit into one of the five host cities.
The answer is simple. Should I be my usual candid self? The legislators representing Petersburg [in 2018], both of them were asleep at the wheel. To allow Richmond to get a casino when Petersburg was struggling and had just escaped bankruptcy three years [or] four years before, to allow that to happen was disgraceful. When God saw fit to allow Richmonders to vote against a referendum, it was an easy pivot to Petersburg. I’ll say this — had I been the state senator at the time, I would’ve fought tooth and nail to give Petersburg that initial casino.
VB: If a casino is built in Petersburg, are there any guarantees that Cordish will be creating well-paying jobs?
Morrissey: Absolutely. I think [the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission] was conservative in their estimate of 1,300 jobs. Most people think there’ll be between 1,500 and 1,800 permanent jobs. That’s not just Petersburg, but it’s Surry, Sussex, Prince George, Dinwiddie [counties] and Hopewell. This casino will benefit all of Central Virginia.
VB: How do you feel about Cordish being the casino developer tapped by Petersburg officials earlier this year? Did you have much to do with that?
Morrissey: I spoke with all the different casino developers, and I thought that Cordish is probably one of the preeminent casino operators in the country. When Richmond endeavored to put a casino in Richmond, it was down to [finalists] Cordish and [Urban] One. If you talk to other developers, they would say far [and] away, the best proposal [came from] Cordish. Now part of that is a factor of experience. [Editor’s Note: Cordish operates Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, Florida, and developed and operates Live! Casino & Hotel resorts in Maryland and Pennsylvania.]
What’s coming now to Petersburg is a destination resort — a 300-room hotel, retail shops, pools, music venues and gaming — but Cordish develops the contiguous area, that’s their brand. They will improve the infrastructure and all 90 contiguous acres, not just the 20 that the casino sits on.
VB: Gov. Youngkin has brought a lot of recent focus to Petersburg, notably launching a $14.5 million, 42-point state aid initiative, the Partnership for Petersburg, which he described as a pilot program for assisting underserved localities. Have you made any agreements with Youngkin’s administration or other Virginia lawmakers for support of the Petersburg casino or anything else regarding economic development in Petersburg?
Morrissey: There are absolutely zero deals, zero conversations, nothing whatsoever. The only thing that I’ve spoken to the governor about [in] the Petersburg initiative is the Petersburg initiative. It’s not fluff; it’s substantive programs that will improve Petersburg. They’re going to bring in prosecutors to help the local commonwealth’s attorney’s office. They are focused on improving water infrastructure, sewage infrastructure, rehabbing schools, perhaps a lab school. They are focused on natural resources, including that river that flows behind the old city and perhaps [building a] marina.
Let me just say this, and I said it before: I think that [Democratic governors like] Gov. Northam, Gov. [Terry] McAuliffe [and] Gov. [Doug] Wilder did some very good things for Central Virginia. [But] let’s be clear, no governor has focused as much and has put as much emphasis and money and resources into Petersburg than Gov. Youngkin.
To my Democratic colleagues that want to pooh-pooh that and say it’s ridiculous, if Northam was still governor and he did what Youngkin is doing, they would be building a statue to him right now in Old Towne Petersburg. It is, in every sense of the word, substantive, and that’s why the African American sheriff, chief of police, mayor, majority of city council, school board chairman [and] school board are all fully invested in this.
VB: Why do you think the governor’s so focused on Petersburg?
Morrissey: I think he sees an opportunity to improve a city very close to Richmond, an African American [majority] city, with initiatives and policies and programs. I think if he does exceedingly well [there], it bolsters any presidential aspirations that he has. Anybody that criticizes him and says, ‘Well, he’s doing it for his own motives,’ well, don’t we all in some way do things if we think it’s going to help us down the road?
VB: Why is it important that the state invests in economic development in Petersburg?
Morrissey: Before I came to Richmond 30 years ago, [there was] a very heavy cigarette industry in Petersburg that unfortunately left, and that decimated Petersburg. It struggled to recover and is still struggling, but now we’re on the cusp of something great. That pharmaceutical ingredient park [in Petersburg] will be the pharmaceutical capital of the East Coast.
With [Republican Del.] Kim Taylor, we got $30 million for sewage and regular water infrastructure improvements [at Petersburg’s Poor Creek Pump Station]. There is a commitment with the new director of economic development, Brian Moore, to plow tens of millions of dollars into this city, and the Petersburg initiative is going to help make that happen. Listen, I see great things ahead. I’ve told people, “You want to make money, invest in Petersburg.”
VB: What’s it like working in a split General Assembly? How easy is it to get bills to come up for a vote, let alone pass both chambers?
Morrissey: For me? Easy. Here’s why — when I’m working [on] a bill, I start a couple of months [early], visiting my colleagues in their home districts, telling them what we need to do and why this will be helpful. Take the Senate: I reach across the aisle to the Richard Stuarts, Siobhan Dunnavants, Bill Stanleys, Todd Pillions, and say, ‘Guys, listen. This is what I want to do. This is what you believe in. Let’s make it happen.’ It works.
I’m going to be very candid. I have had greater success working with some of my Republican, business-oriented, business-focused, empirical-data-driven legislators than some of the folks on my own side. That’s the way it is. Similarly, I think I have some great colleagues on the Democratic side, but when I look across the aisle there, there is a cadre of folks that are really worker bees and committed.
VB: Do you think there will be any adjustments to the minimum wage this session?
Morrissey: No. We already went flying past the $11 to $12 mark because of inflation and COVID. I thought it would take five years to get up to $15 an hour with incremental steps. We’re there, so no, there’s going to be no movement to increase it above what we’ve already done. The free market is already dictating prices, and that’s the way it should be.
VB: Do you expect more tax cuts in 2023? Is that something Democrats can get behind?
Morrissey: We have a tendency to do it piecemeal. For example, we gave $40,000 in income tax relief to military veterans — $10,000 a year for four consecutive years. I think that was good, because we want Virginia to be the [most] military-friendly state in the union, not North Carolina. I spend money when I make votes like it’s my money. I’m very, very prudent. I want Virginia to be prudent in its tax policies and let [those policies] be dictated by market forces.
VB: Cannabis sales regulation was not passed in 2022. Do you think the General Assembly will do it this session?
Morrissey: I hope so. I think so. We dropped the ball by not doing it. We have a fiduciary duty, since we have legalized marijuana, to finish the job. An expression that my kids have heard a thousand times and they can’t stand [is], “Finish the job. … You’re halfway there. You’re three-quarters [of] the way there.”
VB: This year every state legislator will be running in newly redrawn districts, including you. How do you see the November elections impacting the General Assembly and the commonwealth?
Morrissey: The best thing in the world happened. Now 61 legislators are running against each other. You got one seat where three or four Democrats are running together. Great. If we had gerrymandering in there, they would’ve all been protected. OK? Now you got [Republican Sens.] Steve Newman and Mark Peake running against each other. [Republican Sens.] Tommy Norment and [Ryan T.] McDougle. Morrissey and [Democratic primary candidate] Lashrecse Aird. Fine. Wonderful. We have no right to have a district that just protects us. Let the chips fall where they may.
There’s always going to be strong red districts in Southwest Virginia, and there’s going to be strong blue districts in Northern Virginia and some of our cities. We’re going to create more bubble districts. That’s a good thing for politics. It’s a good thing for the economy. It’s a good thing for business because it forces them to use that ‘c’ word: compromise.
VB: Do you think Democrats can hold on to power in the state Senate this year?
Morrissey: Yes. It’ll be a narrow margin once again, but I do think in 2023, they will maintain control of the Senate. It’s going to be a brand-new Senate. We’re going to see a Senate and some degree of House that we haven’t seen before with this redistricting. There’ll be 10, 15 senators [who] aren’t back.
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