‘We just lost an icon of a man’: Remembering former State Senator Joe Neal

January 1, 2021

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Joe Neal, Nevada’s first African American State Senator, has died. According to family, he passed away on New Year’s Eve at the age of 85, after battling a long illness.

Neal served in the Nevada State Legislature for more than three decades and was known as a fighter for the less fortunate and a champion for social justice. Those who knew and admired him say, although he is no longer with us, his legacy will live on.

“We just lost an icon of a man,” said Cedric Crear, Las Vegas City Councilman for Ward 5. “Senator Joe Neal was revered in our community.”

Crear says Sen. Neal paved a path for him — and so many other public servants of color — as the first African American to serve in the Nevada State Legislature.

“Somewhere along the way, he inspired me to come in and try to do what I can to make a difference in our community,” Crear said.

Sen. Neal’s work on civil rights and legal reform gave him the nickname, “The Westside Slugger.”

“As a young person growing up in the historic West Side community, he was our fighter,” Crear said.

The late Sen. Neal is perhaps most famously known for introducing the 1981 high-rise fire sprinkler bill — the toughest in the nation — following the disastrous MGM Grand fire that happened in 1980.

“As the state fire marshal in 1987 noted, Joe saved a lot of lives and saved a lot of families,” said Andrew Barbano, Sen. Neal’s former campaign manager.

Barbano also says Sen. Neal was a man of uncompromising principle.

“Joe Neal was as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar and you’ve got to respect a man like that,” Barbano said.

Sen. Neal’s impact was immeasurable — and he helped shape the State of Nevada, as we know it today.

“We’re sorely going to miss his wisdom,” Crear said.

Sen. Neal also 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.

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak called Sen. Neal a tireless advocate for Nevada’s workers, adding, “Senator Joe Neal will continue to be known as one of Nevada’s greatest legends, and his legacy will leave an indelible mark on our State. There is no doubt Nevada is a better place because of his fearless service.”

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman also reacted on Twitter, saying, “Senator Neal was a true pioneer of Las Vegas and opened doors that that had always been tightly shut! His insightful and tenacious leadership inspired us all to move into a more equal tomorrow.”