HENDERSON– Former Nevada State Senator Joseph M. Neal, Jr., D-North Las Vegas, died Dec. 31, 2020. He was 85.
Sen. Neal’s daughter, state Senator Dina Neal, said in a statement, “My Dad, after a long-fought battle, succumbed to an illness…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.”
Sen. Neal served in the Senate from 1972 to 2004 and was the first Black state senator elected in Nevada. During his time in office he was both Minority Floor Leader in 1989 and President pro tempore in 1991. When he retired, he was noted as the longest serving state Senator to date, and was inducted into the Nevada Senate Hall of Fame the following year.
Andrew Barbano, Neal’s former campaign manager shared a statement on Jan. 1 following the news of the late senator’s passing.
“He was the best who ever was. 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.
Those who shared remembrances of Neal noted his steadfastness, courage of conviction and unyielding principles. Nevadans saw those traits put to use in legislation that Neal spearheaded and shepherded to passage including the nation’s toughest fire sprinkler law, an increase in the state’s gross gaming tax, tougher regulation of explosives manufacturing and funding for libraries in small communities.
Sen. Neal also accomplished what many thought was impossible: he used his mastery of parliamentary procedure to engineer the 1977 passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the state’s ultra-conservative Nevada State Senate. It was later killed in the Assembly, but finally passed both houses 40 years later in 2017.
In addition to his tenure in the state legislature, Neal 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 Black major party nominee for the state’s top post. Both he and Jones were defeated by the late Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn.
Nevada Press Association Hall-of-FamerJohn L. Smith wrote a biography of Neal, “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice,” 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.”
Joseph M. Neal, Jr., was born in Mounds, Louisiana, on July 28, 1935. 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.
Prior to and during his political career, Neal spent 25 years in personnel administration and 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.
Sen. Neal was honored with a number of awards and accolades throughout his life. Complete information about his life and career, including his Legislative Counsel Bureau oral history, are on his official website, SenJoeNeal.org/