LAS VEGAS (KSNV) — A new book explores the life of Joe Neal, a towering presence in Nevada politics for more than three decades. From the mid-1970s past the turn of the century he was a state senator and two-time gubernatorial candidate. Joe Neal was also sometimes referred to as "The Westside Slugger".
"Because one of his colleagues said, 'You know, you get knocked down, but you always get back up and you keep on slugging,'" explains author and longtime Nevada journalist John L. Smith, who used the nickname as the title of his biography.
"Joe Neal is a great American success story in his own right," begins Smith. "He also is a reminder of how far black Americans have come in such a relatively short time, and how difficult their struggle was."
Neal had grown up in poverty in Louisiana before following his family west.
"When he gets to Las Vegas, he gets to a Las Vegas of the 1950s that's very much ruled by the Jim Crow era," says Smith. "You know, very separate."
Neal settled in the segregated "Westside" of Las Vegas, north of Bonanza and west of the railroad tracks, later moving to North Las Vegas.
Institutionalized racism had been a fact of life during his Louisiana childhood. It was only upon his arrival in Southern Nevada and then his stint in the Air Force — eventually becoming a security guard at nearby Indian Springs — that Neal truly became aware of the indignities he faced because of the color of his skin.
After earning a college degree from Southern University on the GI Bill, Neal returned to the area he was raised to help enforce provisions of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.
"He was the first registered voter in Madison Parish, because he helped lead a Justice Department effort to register black voters for the first time in that Louisiana County."
In the early '60s, Neal became active in Southern Nevada politics as an organizer for the Democratic Party. He had volunteered on the campaigns of Grant Sawyer (elected Governor) in 1962 and Howard Cannon (re-elected Senator) in 1964 and had made a failed bid for a seat in the State Assembly.
Then in 1971, re-apportionment of the State Senate created a new district and a path for Neal. The following year, he became the first African-American State Senator in Nevada history.
Neal was new to Carson City, but he made his presence felt on the floor of the Senate almost immediately, ruffling some feathers along the way.
"It's a pretty conservative group," said Smith, "and so they weren't accustomed to people speaking their mind quite so much."
Neal acquired an effective tool for debate when Senate Secretary Leola Armstrong took him aside and provided a copy of "Mason's Manual."
"It's about the size of a cinder block and it is the rules of parliamentary procedure," says Smith. "Joe read it and re-read it and essentially became a fellow who had done his reading."
Not all of his colleagues had the same familiarity with the rules of the Senate. Neal entered the Upper House as an underdog until he found his footing and used all the tools available to him, including charts, graphs and statistics.
"He was known as the guy who was on the losing end of a lot of votes," says Smith. "But as time went on, he focused on the rights...returning the constitutional rights of convicted felons. Which we now know is not only in Nevada, but essentially nationwide."
Neal was always on board for a social justice issue.
"Blacks and no seems to come in pairs," he said in 1992 confronting discriminatory housing issues.
"North Las Vegas Police Department has a problem with young black males," stated Neal at a 1997 use-of-force hearing.
In fact, Neal had long been concerned with the relationship between law enforcement and young. male African-Americans.
"I think the Charles Bush case pushed Southern Nevada into a different era of policing," says Smith.
in 1990, Charles Bush had been an African-American casino floorman. Bush had been sleeping at home when police burst into the wrong apartment and put him in a chokehold. Bush died at the scene, and by the following year the police department was facing several civil lawsuits.
Neal spoke frequently about the injustice of the case after arresting officers were not held at fault following a coroner’s inquest.
"Clearly, there were issues that were raised there that were reflective of a police department that was not quite at the level it needed to be," notes Smith.
In 1992, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department settled the case, awarding $625 million to Bush's son, born after the man's death.
"I think [Clark County] Sherriff [John] Moran with his overall philosophy was more willing and wanted to give the money to the baby then to spend it in two or three or five years of litigation," explained LVMPD Attorney Walt Cannon at the time.
At a 1997 hearing about gaming regulation in Nevada, Neal took the social justice angle.
"And if you look around, there are very few blacks participating in the management of the hotels," he told the committee.
Hotels and gaming became a regular target of Neal's starting in the late 1990s. One flashpoint came when casino mogul Steve Wynn sought a multi-million-dollar tax exemption for his prized collection of art on display at the Bellagio. A break from the tax was supposed to come if the exhibits were displayed free. Steve Wynn was charging $10 a pop, but said he deserved it both ways.
"We are benefiting the citizens of Nevada in a way that they have never been benefited before," argued Wynn to the tax commission.
"Wait a minute. You're getting a tax break for your art collection," quotes Smith, channeling Neal from two decades earlier. "You're fixing the system. Others have to pay their taxes. You should have to pay yours."
Neal had hotels, gaming and taxation very much on his mind when he entered the Democratic Primary for Governor in 1998, but lost out to Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, who was then defeated by Republican Kenny Guinn.
Then finally in 2002, Joe Neal became the first African-American to run for Governor in Nevada as a major party candidate in the general election.
"We'd hoped it could have happened earlier," he told News 3 in September of that year. "But it's now and it's on my watch. And I'm the one who's carrying that banner."
Neal sounded optimistic even though he was facing a popular, well-funded incumbent.
"We'll be traveling some more," he laughed. "We'll be making all of the counties. Talking to the people."
But he wasn't kidding himself, according to John L. Smith.
"It's important to remember what he was really fighting for at that point. He knew that anyone who outraised him millions of dollars to one was probably going to prevail. He also knew it was going to be difficult to get votes all through Nevada."
And in fact, his opponent was also his friend. Guinn and Neal had worked closely together three decades earlier in drafting fire-safety legislation in the wake of a 1980 inferno at the MGM Grand (now Bally's) that had taken 86 lives.
"I've said I am running against gaming and not Kenny Guinn," Neal told News 3. "He's just the palace guard that I have to go through to get through to the castle."
"I think his main issue was to increase that gaming tax," notes Smith. "Lo and behold, after he lost...Governor Guinn thought about it and thought about it, and there was a slight tax increase on gaming."
Joe Neal retired in 2004, and was inducted into the Nevada Senate Hall of Fame the following year. He is 83 years old and lives in North Las Vegas.
"This is a guy who's still outspoken and very up to date with current events," notes Smith.
An in-depth examination of Joe Neal's life and contributions to Nevada is available in Smith's book, "The Westside Slugger."