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Meet Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia's new attorney general

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - It's been more than a year since Patrick Morrisey filed to run against longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw, and more than three months since voters elected him the state's new lawyer-in-chief.

But West Virginians still might find themselves asking, "Who is this guy?"

Throughout his long, expensive campaign, voters heard about Morrisey's views on "Obamacare." It's federal overreach, he says.

Voters know he holds similar views on the current leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Those who tuned in know where he stands on trinkets, especially ones featuring officeholders' names. Whether it's a pillbox, ink pen or piggy bank, Morrisey wants to ban trinkets in the six months leading up to an election. His position is influenced, no doubt, by his predecessor's predilection for taxpayer-purchased baubles.

And almost everyone knows where Morrisey grew up. He's a New Jersey native, as his opponent's television ads and direct mail flyers constantly reminded us.

But who is Patrick Morrisey, really? What was his childhood like, what brought him to West Virginia and what made him decide to enter the world of politics?

Morrisey, the much-heralded first Republican attorney general in West Virginia since the Great Depression, describes a middle-class boyhood.   

He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in Edison, N.J., the youngest of four children. His father was an account manager at U.S. Steel while his mother worked the midnight shift as a registered nurse.

He ran on his high school's cross-country team and also wrestled and played tennis. His aggressive style on the tennis court earned Morrisey a write-up in the local newspaper.

"I was all energy," he said.

But as much as he enjoyed sports, Morrisey also began developing a passion for politics at an early age.

Although he was less than 10 years old at the time, he says he vividly remembers President Richard Nixon's resignation.

"To me it was not how politics should be. We always have to emphasize integrity and ethics in office," he said.

Morrisey started to follow elections, beginning with the 1976 Republican primary battle between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

By the time he reached high school, Reagan was in the White House and Morrisey found himself drawn to the Republican platform. In class debates, he would be picked to play the president while another student played Walter Mondale.

Morrisey said he liked the GOP's policies of limited government. He said he always has felt more comfortable with a party that "got out of the way of everyday people's lives."

When he graduated from high school in 1985, he headed to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to study history and political science.

As the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college and having little money to spend on school, Morrisey worked his way through college. He was a stock boy at a CVS pharmacy, worked as a referee for intramural sports, dug pools and gave tennis lessons.

He played tennis for two years in college, and that eventually led to a job as a professional tennis umpire.

Morrisey was able to travel all over the country working tournaments. He was a line judge at the 1988 and 1989 U.S. Open tournaments, making calls in matches featuring tennis greats like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and a young Andre Agassi.

"He used to have the worst temper. He was just immature," Morrisey remembers of Agassi. "People say being screamed at by professional tennis players prepares you for politics. I agree."

Morrisey stayed at Rutgers after completing his undergraduate degree to attend law school. He was interested in working in politics even then but decided it would be a good idea to get a background in law. He received his juris doctorate in 1992 and opened a solo law practice.

A 25-year-old lawyer with plenty of energy but not much experience, Morrisey spent his first few years taking any kind of case he could get, from real estate closings and bankruptcy cases to public defender work. When law work didn't pay the bills, he took a job waiting tables in the off hours.

"I had to fight every day to make ends meet," he said.

He closed that practice after about two years when he got a job working for the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C., where he was the East Coast political director, handling election law issues and recounts.

He left that job in 1995 to join a law firm where he continued to work on election law but also health care and regulatory matters.


Morrisey came down with a bad case of bronchitis in the mid-1990s that led to a brief hospitalization.

He said the experience changed his life, at least in a professional sense, because he was able to see the health care system from a patient's viewpoint.

He watched doctors and nurses spend more time on paperwork than on patients and wrestled with frustrating billing practices.

"It was an eye-opening experience. The practice of medicine has been transformed into a business enterprise," he said.

Morrisey took those experiences into the courtroom and eventually to the U.S. Capitol. In 1999 he became chief counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee, working on health care issues.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Morrisey worked with the committee on public health and bioterrorism issues. He also helped craft the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which created a prescription drug program for the nation's retirees.

Morrisey said working with the committee was his favorite job to date because it allowed him to have a direct effect on policy.

"I really subscribed to the theory one person can make a difference. It's unfortunate that people in public service are sometimes so castigated," he said.

Around the same time, Morrisey made his first run for public office, an unsuccessful 2000 bid for the Republican nomination for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District seat.  

He continued working for the House Energy and Commerce Committee until 2004, when he became a partner at Sidley Austin, one of the nation's largest law firms.

He joined another large law firm in 2010, the Atlanta-Based King and Spalding, as co-chairman of the firm's health care and life sciences practice. At that job, Morrisey had over 200 health care lawyers under his command.

He resigned from that job in June 2012 to focus on his campaign for West Virginia's attorney general.

"When you care about something deeply and you're interested in public service, you should be willing to take a risk," he said.

A West Virginian

Morrisey did not become a West Virginia resident until he was in his mid-30s.

By 2006, the hard-working, well-traveled lawyer was ready to put down roots. He says he could not think of anywhere else he would rather live than the Mountain State, so he purchased a hilltop home in Harpers Ferry.

He had traveled through the state many times and was struck by its beauty. He fell in love with the Harpers Ferry area, which was close enough to Washington, D.C. that Morrisey could keep his big-city job and still enjoy a home among the hills.

Morrisey soon became involved in his adopted community, writing a column for the local Spirit of Jefferson newspaper and joining a campaign to restore Harper's Ferry's historic Potomac Street.

He married his wife, Denise, a health care lobbyist, in 2008. The couple had met years earlier when Morrisey was working for the House of Representatives. They were just friends at first but eventually started dating.

The couple kept a residence in Washington during that time, for days when the workday didn't leave enough time for a commute. Still, Morrisey said he tried to make it back to West Virginia as often as he could.

"Every day you could spend in West Virginia was a cherished day. I never wanted to be part of the rat race," he said. "It's not where you were born; it's where you decide to live."

Morrisey's move to West Virginia was the subject of much political scrutiny after he filed to run against longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw in January 2012.

McGraw is a lifelong West Virginian, deeply entrenched in state politics. Morrisey's opponents accused him of being a carpetbagger, an opportunist and worse.

The new attorney general believes the issue was largely driven by the state's news media, however. He said making an issue of his residency is "an absurdity."

"West Virginians are good people. They're not xenophobic people. The fact is, we had a tremendous reception from people from all over the state. They cared about why you were running," he said.

It was a close race. McGraw was a Democrat candidate in a highly Democratic, if conservative, state. The longtime attorney general, who also was a state Supreme Court justice earlier in his career, also had a lot of name recognition and Morrisey had nearly none.

Morrisey raised $545,000 for his campaign but put $1.45 million of his own money into the pot. He originally planned to spend about $1.2 million on the endeavor but loaned the campaign an extra quarter-million dollars in the last days before the election because it looked like McGraw was going to pull ahead.

"I didn't resign my job to lose," he said.

In the end, Morrisey won by 16,000 votes and a few percentage points.

The work begins

Morrisey got the keys to the attorney general's office on the morning of Jan. 14. A few hours later, he stood on the state Capitol steps alongside the state's other elected officials to take his oath of office.

There was little time for celebration, however. Morrisey said his staff immediately set to work on "boring" managerial procedures, developing a centralized docket system (which McGraw's administration lacked), creating a system for hiring outside counsel through a bidding system and reviewing the office's computer systems.

Some nights, staffers worked into the wee hours, only to come back a short time later for the start of another day.

"We're putting in some long hours, trying to develop a basic organizational structure," he said. "You want to run the railroad the right way."

All that work has left little time for personal matters, however, like finding the attorney general somewhere in Charleston to live. Morrisey has been staying with friends for a while but is looking for an apartment until he can find a more permanent residence.

He plans to spend his weekends in Harpers Ferry as often as possible. Denise will split her time between Harpers Ferry and Alexandria, Va., where her daughter, Julia, attends high school.

"We're not going to tear the family apart for some political narrative," he said.

Morrisey also isn't thinking much about the political narrative of "Republican attorney general." He said he's not concerned with being a good Republican, just a good attorney general.

"We're going to act without regard to political affiliation. We're going to treat everyone fairly in regard to the law," he said." "People who know me know I don't put party first."

Morrisey has repeatedly said he wants to create the "best law firm in the state."

"I think we're going to make West Virginia proud," he said.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or Follow him at


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