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Nevada's first Black senator, Joe Neal, has died

Posted at 10:36 AM, Jan 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-01 21:57:15-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Former State Senator Joseph M. Neal, Jr., D-North Las Vegas, died on New Year's Eve, according to a statement from his family.

"My Dad, after a long-fought battle, succumbed to an illness," stated his daughter, Sen. Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas.

"He passed away at 10:25 p.m. Dec. 31 at Dignity Health, Sienna Campus, in Henderson, where he received the best care, surrounded by family," she added.

Mr. Neal apparently succumbed to multiple system failure after rebounding many times to the surprise of professionals and family surrounding him with thoughts and prayers.

"He was the best who ever was," stated his former campaign manager Andrew Barbano of Reno.


"He was absolutely fearless and often went against the grain of 'the overlords' as he termed them," Barbano said. "His Neal Care proposal, which he unveiled in his 2002 campaign for governor, with a few tweaks, is now known as Obamacare," he added.

"Joe could be convinced by a reasonable presentation, but when it came to basic principles, he was unyielding. When he first ran for governor in 1998, veteran Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jane Ann Morrison published extensive research on his record. She commented on the remarkable consistency of his positions from his first election in 1972 forward," Barbano added.

Joseph M. Neal, Jr., was born in Mounds, Louisiana, on July 28, 1935. He ran for governor twice. He was defeated in the 1998 Democratic primary by Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones. In 2002, he made history as the first African American major party nominee for the state's top post. Both he and Jones were defeated by the late Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn.

His major legislative accomplishments came with the 1981 high-rise fire sprinkler bill, the toughest in the nation, which he introduced after the disastrous MGM Grand conflagration of 1980. After years of effort, including a statewide initiative petition, he finally won a long-sought increase in the world's lowest gross gaming tax on Nevada's largest, most profitable casinos. The tax has not been raised since he left office in 2004. His mastery of parliamentary procedure resulted in passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a hostile and conservative senate in 1977.

Here are summaries from SenJoeNeal.org:

THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT: In 1977, Sen. Neal accomplished what everyone viewed as impossible. The legislature's acknowledged master of parliamentary procedure, he engineered the passage of women's rights in an ultra-right Nevada State Senate. A political payoff later killed it in the assembly. It finally passed in 2017.

THE NATION'S TOUGHEST FIRE SPRINKLER LAW: After the 1980 Las Vegas MGM Grand high rise fire killed 87 people, Sen. Neal introduced a bill calling for retrofitting buildings and other safety measures. The gambling industry opposed it because of the cost. Only one other senator, Bill Hernstadt, D-Las Vegas, signed on - until an arsonist set fire to the Las Vegas Hilton, resulting in more death and damage. Sen. Neal's proposal remains the law today, a model studied and emulated worldwide.

Former Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston wrote to Sen. Neal upon leaving state service in 1987: "In large part because of your courage, the State of Nevada enjoys the most comprehensive fire prevention laws in the world. We are a leader in the fire service and accordingly, many countries, states and cities have copied all or part of what we have done in Nevada. The steady downward trend in life and property loss from fire in Nevada reflects our accomplishments. The yearly life loss in our state has been more than cut in half during the last few years even though our population continues to grow. This is due to your efforts. Many people owe you their lives and health. The fire service in Nevada is in your debt. Thank you."

TOUGHER REGULATION OF EXPLOSIVES MANUFACTURING: After a massive explosion at the Pacific Engineering rocket fuel plant in Henderson killed two people in 1988, Sen. Neal sponsored legislation imposing strict controls on the industry. The law has not been enforced. The 1998 Sierra Chemical plant explosion east of Sparks revealed lax or non-existent oversight.

MONEY FOR LIBRARIES: Sen. Neal ramrodded legislation allowing small communities to sell bonds to build libraries and establishing the Southern Nevada Library District to do the same in the Las Vegas area.

Sen. Dina Neal served 10 years in the Nevada State Assembly before ascending to her father's seat in the upper house last year. Sen. Joe Neal served 32 years, the second-longest length of service in Nevada State Senate history, eclipsed only by the late Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

Mr. Neal's biography, "The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal's Lifelong Fight for Social Justice" by Nevada Press Association Hall-of-Famer John L. Smith was published by the University of Nevada Press in 2019.

"Getting to know Joe Neal was one of the great honors of my life," Smith said when informed of Sen. Neal's passing. "He possessed the courage of his convictions at a pivotal time in Nevada's history. That courage helped open doors for a new generation of leaders in a more inclusive state. God bless his family."

Joe Neal was the recipient of many honors in his career, including a Lifetime Commitment Award from the Nevada State AFL-CIO and induction to the Nevada State Senate Hall of Fame and César Chávez NevadaLabor.com Hall of Fame.

He came to Nevada in 1954. He lost his wife, Estelle Deconge Neal, to breast cancer in 1997 after 32 years of marriage. He is the father of five: Charisse, Tania, Withania, Dina and Joseph; grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather to two.

The Louisiana native graduated from Southern University in 1963 with a degree in political science and history. He did postgraduate work in law. He was also a graduate of the Institute of Applied Science in Chicago, Illinois, where he studied civil identification and criminal investigation.

After 25 years in personnel administration, he retired as assistant to the general legal counsel of Reynolds Electrical & Engineering Company, Inc. After retiring, he taught constitutional democracy at Community College of Southern Nevada. A Las Vegas elementary school bears his name, as does the southern Nevada Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital.

In 1992, he received the prestigious Elijah Lovejoy Award from the Elks Grand Lodge. The honor is named for the pre-Civil War newspaper editor who opposed slavery. Because of his views, Lovejoy was murdered by a midnight mob and his printing press thrown into a nearby river. (Lovejoy's son, Edward, is buried in Dayton, Nev.)

Previous recipients of the Lovejoy Award include the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., United Nations Ambassador Ralph Bunche (like Dr. King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner), renowned soprano Marian Anderson and United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Remembrances for posting may be sent to Andrew Barbano at <barbano@frontpage.reno.nv.us>