Pro­ce­dural pro, peo­ple’s champ

Neal put acu­men to use in Sen­ate

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Scott David­son Las Ve­gas Re­view-jour­nal

I NFe­bru­ary 1977, the Equal Rights Amend­ment looked to have no chance to pass the Nevada Sen­ate.

Law­mak­ers were dead­locked over the fiercely de­bated res­o­lu­tion, which would guar­an­tee equal rights for all cit­i­zens, re­gard­less of sex.

Half of the state’s 20 sen­a­tors sup­ported the ERA, but 11 votes were needed for pas­sage. In the­ory, a tiebreak­ing vote would be cast by Demo­cratic Lt. Gov. Bob Rose, but op­pos­ing sen­a­tors were choos­ing to ab­stain in­stead of vot­ing no. That would pre­vent a tie and cause the bill to fail.

En­ter Sen. Joe Neal, a Demo­crat rep­re­sent­ing North Las Ve­gas. Armed with a vast knowl­edge of par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure, the fresh­man law­maker in­voked a more than 100-year-old by­law known as Sen­ate Rule 30.

The rule forced a vote on the ERA and caused ab­sten­tions to be counted as no votes. With a tie es­tab­lished, Rose cast the tiebreak­ing vote and the res­o­lu­tion passed the Sen­ate.

The vic­tory was short­lived — the ERA failed in the As­sem­bly that year and would not be rat­i­fied in My whole makeup at getting elected to the Sen­ate was not to go along to get along. Peo­ple thought maybe I would sit in the back­ground and just vote and stay along with the party struc­ture, but I didn’t do that. Nevada un­til 2017 — but Neal’s ma­neu­ver il­lus­trated what many would come to learn about him dur­ing his 32-year ten­ure in the state Sen­ate.

The trail­blaz­ing legacy left by Neal, now 83, is not lim­ited to his dis­tinc­tion as Nevada’s first African-amer­i­can state se­na­tor. He was a law­maker who was of­ten out­num­bered but rarely out­wit­ted. A tac­ti­cian whose ad­vo­cacy for civil rights would earn him nick­names in­clud­ing the “Con­science of the Leg­is­la­ture” and

“West­side Slug­ger.”

“He was al­ways a cham­pion for the lit­tle guy,” said U.S. Rep. Dina Ti­tus, a Demo­crat who served along­side Neal in the state Sen­ate for 13 years. “He was will­ing to fight against any odds for what he be­lieved was right.”

A need to be rep­re­sented

Neal was born July 28, 1935, in Mound, Louisiana, a tiny town in Madi­son Par­ish west of the Mis­sis­sippi River.

He first moved to Las Ve­gas in

1954 af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, fol­low­ing his mother and older brother to live in the seg­re­gated Las Ve­gas West­side neigh­bor­hood near down­town. The same year he joined the Air Force so he could earn GI Bill ben­e­fits and pay for a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion he other­wise could not af­ford.

In 1961, Neal en­rolled as a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent at South­ern Univer­sity in Louisiana, where he joined other stu­dents in demon­stra­tions dur­ing the civil rights move­ment.

“Blacks did not have any rights that whites would re­spect at that time, so you had to force that upon them and make sure we were not in­vis­i­ble,” Neal said. “Back then, they would send you into ser­vice to fight, and they would not give you the right to vote.”

Neal re­turned to Las Ve­gas and even­tu­ally found work as an equal op­por­tu­nity com­pli­ance of­fi­cer for Reynolds Elec­tri­cal & Engi­neer­ing, one of South­ern Nevada’s largest em­ploy­ers.

He was tasked with in­te­grat­ing the com­pany in ac­cor­dance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he also used the po­si­tion to fight dis­crim­i­na­tory hir­ing prac­tices at North Las Ve­gas City Hall and lo­cal la­bor unions.

Around the same time, Neal be­gan vy­ing for po­lit­i­cal of­fice. He was wal­loped in 1966 when he ran for state Sen­ate and beaten again when he tried for the As­sem­bly in 1970.

But a piv­otal change hap­pened the fol­low­ing year. The Leg­is­la­ture re­drew po­lit­i­cal dis­tricts, an ef­fort Neal said he in­flu­enced from the out­side, cre­at­ing a Sen­ate dis­trict with a ma­jor­ity of black vot­ers.

Neal de­feated Repub­li­can Woodrow Wil­son, the first African-amer­i­can elected to the As­sem­bly, in the 1972 race for Sen­ate Dis­trict 4. He cred­ited the vic­tory to a tire­less door-to-door cam­paign in black neigh­bor­hoods.

“You had to make an ap­peal to peo­ple that were com­ing here that there was a need to have blacks be rep­re­sented into the struc­ture,” Neal said. “I said one thing: I will never em­bar­rass you, and I will do the right thing in terms of ser­vice to you and the com­mu­nity.”

When he wasn’t in Car­son City, Neal kept the North Las Ve­gas home he lived in with his wife, Estelle, and five chil­dren open to con­stituents.

“Our liv­ing room was his of­fice,” said his youngest daugh­ter, As­sem­bly­woman Dina Neal. “It was open all the time.”

Fighter on the floor

Neal was a fighter from the day he walked into the Leg­is­la­ture, never afraid to be the lone vote cast on the los­ing side of an is­sue.

But Neal said he never saw los­ing as los­ing. A skilled or­a­tor, he saw de­feat as an op­por­tu­nity to put his is­sues with a bill on the record, even if it earned him the nick­name “19to-1” from his col­leagues.

“My whole makeup at getting elected to the Sen­ate was not to go along to get along,” he said. “Peo­ple thought maybe I would sit in the back­ground and just vote and stay along with the party struc­ture, but I didn’t do that.”

Neal saw plenty of vic­to­ries, too. The first piece of leg­is­la­tion he cham­pi­oned and passed was a 1973 bill that re­stored the rights of felons. Two years later, he suc­cess­fully fought leg­is­la­tion that would have made it a felony to carry a “cake-cut­ter” Afro comb, which some law­mak­ers tried to paint as a dan­ger­ous weapon.

The 1980s were an even more fruit­ful decade for Neal. Af­ter 85 peo­ple died in a fire at the MGM Grand in Novem­ber 1980, he led the charge to pass im­proved fire-safety codes that be­came a model for the rest of the na­tion. There was also a com­pact be­tween Nevada and Cal­i­for­nia in 1980 to bet­ter keep Lake Ta­hoe clean, and $20 mil­lion in bonds were al­lo­cated to build li­braries across the state.

Neal cred­its much of his suc­cess to Ma­son’s Man­ual of Leg­isla­tive Pro­ce­dure, which he stud­ied metic­u­lously from his first year in the Sen­ate. He saw the book as fer­tile ground for a new law­maker to make his voice heard.

“I used to take that book and beat ’em up on it,” he said.

A real legacy

Af­ter serv­ing 16 reg­u­lar leg­isla­tive ses­sions and seven spe­cial ses­sions, Neal re­tired in 2004 fol­low­ing an un­suc­cess­ful run for gover­nor two years prior.

Neal sees him­self as a trail­blazer. Black men now lead both houses of the Nevada Leg­is­la­ture: Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Kelvin Atkin­son and As­sem­bly Speaker Ja­son Fri­er­son.

Last year, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Aaron Ford be­came the first black can­di­date to win statewide ex­ec­u­tive of­fice in Nevada. In 2010, Neal’s daugh­ter Dina be­came the first black woman elected to the state As­sem­bly.

“I kind of won­der what would have hap­pened if I had not been there and done what I did,” Neal said. “Took the slings and ar­rows, as Shake­speare would say.”

Dina Neal said her father’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer may be over, but his name is as strong as ever. Rare is the day that some­one does not ap­proach her with a story about how “Se­na­tor Neal,” not Joe, helped them or their fam­ily.

“I didn’t re­al­ize how big his im­print was. He has af­fected thou­sands of peo­ple,” Dina said. “The legacy is ac­tu­ally real.”

Con­tact Michael Scott David­son at sdavid­[email protected]­viewjour­nal.com or 702-477-3861. Fol­low @david­son­lvrj on Twit­ter.

Ben­jamin Hager Las Ve­gas Re­view-jour­nal @Ben­jam­inh­photo

For­mer North Las Ve­gas state Sen. Joe Neal, 83, at the Re­viewjour­nal on Thurs­day.

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