I knew what it was before I even opened the e-mail. I stomped the floor, cursing and swearing every damnation in the dictionary before I even sat down.
I didn’t even know that he had been ill but I knew Joe was dead.
The three e-mails from Sen. Dina Neal all carried the same subject line: “My Dad.” I knew what it meant.
Thus ended a very quiet New Year’s Eve. Former State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, had died at 10:25 p.m. December 31.
Just when I thought 2020 could not possibly get any worse, God pulled a Loki.
My dear friend had been hospitalized since Dec. 18 with a list of maladies competitive with the plagues of Job. To the surprise of doctors and family, he rallied from near death several times but finally had nothing left. He was 85.
From a sharecropper’s life in the outback of Mounds, Louisiana, to the heights of political power – twice serving as acting governor of Nevada – this man achieved enough for a dozen lifetimes.
He was the first African American elected to the Nevada State Senate, where he served for 32 years, second longest in history after only Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
“With a level of appreciation of the power of learning that only a once poor child could know, Joe successfully pushed to fund and expand the state’s library system,” his biographer, Nevada Press Association Hall of Famer John L. Smith wrote on New Year’s Day.
Joe once memorably noted that “a library is a poor man’s university.” Last year, the University of Nevada Press published his biography, “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice.”
Joe and I were both products of our respective west sides, his in Las Vegas, mine in Fresno. The black and brown parts of town. We went through freshman year together in 1973, Joe in the senate and me as a motorcycle industry lobbyist.
I worked on both his gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002. He was defeated in the 1998 Democratic primary by Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones who was put into the race on the last day of filing by now-defrocked casino mogul Steve Wynn. (See below.) In 2002, Joe 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.
I also worked on his initiative petition to raise the world’s lowest gross gaming tax on the largest, most profitable hotel-casinos.
In 2000, the gambling industrial complex marshalled all its money and consultants to knock Joe out of the senate for daring to say their stinginess had broken their deal with the state when gambling was legalized in 1931. They recruited a young black man to run against him the Democratic primary. That was quite ironic, as Sen. Neal had helped his single mom find food and housing when she moved here with her small children years before.
“They got smoked,” Joe told me on election night, winning re-election outright in the primary.
His major legislative accomplishments came with his 1981 high-rise fire sprinkler bill, the toughest in the nation, which he introduced after the disastrous MGM Grand conflagration of 1980. The gambling industry wanted it killed because it was too expensive. Joe thought differently.
“In large part because of your courage, the State of Nevada enjoys the most comprehensive fire prevention laws in the world,” former Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston said.
“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.”
Joe finally won the long-sought gaming tax increase in his last session in 2003. 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. It was killed in the lower house after Democrats made a dirty deal with some juice lobbyists. It finally passed in 2017.
Joe’s 2002 Neal Care proposal, with a few tweaks, became known as Obamacare a decade or so later.
Joe never lost his sense of humor and remembering his hearty laughter always makes me smile.
He once addressed a labor convention at the Carson City Nugget and took the opportunity to trash Steve Wynn’s state tax break for his expensive personal art collection.
“Look above you,” he said, “that chandelier qualifies this casino for a tax deduction as art. Look down at your feet, the carpet does, too.”
We fought Wynn at the Nevada Tax Commission and got his freebie seriously reduced. He was flamingly angry.
Joe always knew that Nevada never got over our Mississippi West hangover. I once met up with two of his campaign stalwarts at a Reno Carrows coffee shop. John Stevens and Spurgeon Daniels had driven north with a bunch of campaign signs. They had arrived 20 minutes before me but the Carrows staff had not even handed them menus or water. Until little ole white me arrived.
Joe was once on a lawmaker tour of the Nevada nuclear test site. The busload of officials stopped for lunch in Beatty. All asked for separate checks. The skinny young waitress handed Joe his and informed him it was on the house. Why?
“Well, you’re the bus driver, aren’t you?” Had to be. The only black guy wearing a telltale blue short-sleeved shirt on a hot day.
THIS JOE BOB AIN’T CHICKEN. Joe found his kindred spirit at the other end of the hall in his North Las Vegas colleague, Assemblymember Bob Price. They began as bookends and ended up soul brothers, hard-wired by principals with soft spots for the least among us. Bob and his wife, former University of Nevada Regent Nancy Price, retired to Sparks where he died two years ago this week.
I started the new year filled with thoughts of my dear friends Joe and Bob. They allowed me to walk with giants for just a little while. Their gigantic accomplishments live with us for the rest of our lives here in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream.
Joe once said his mother told him that you can’t run from the truth. Remember that advice as we emerge from the dark time of alternative facts.
Sen. Neal will be honored by the North Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday, Jan. 6, at 4:00 p.m. Zoom info with this column at NevadaLabor.com/
Take care of each other and be careful out there.
¡Sí se puede!
Be well. Raise hell. Esté bien. Haga infierno.
Andrew Barbano is a 52-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com and SenJoeNeal.org/ He serves as first vice-president and political action chair of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his comments are strictly his own. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988. E-mail <email@example.com>