His own man

Nevada Legislature learned to work with a black senator

Joe Neal in the Nevada Senate early in his tenure.

Joe Neal in the Nevada Senate early in his tenure.

The Westside Slugger by John L. Smith (University of Nevada Press, $35) is available at Sundance Books and the Nevada Historical Society.

Joe Neal arrived in Nevada in 1954, about 10 months before Colliers Magazine ran a story, “The Sorry State of Nevada,” about substandard life in the Silver State that Neal would one day help to improve. The state, then and later, was often used as a bad example, as when Pennsylvania’s Somerset American editorialized that Nevada was “no place for the poor and needy, or for any on whom the wheel of fortune might turn adversely.”

Born in 1935, Neal was raised in a very small Louisiana town, where a federal malaria research program in the 1920s had provided some jobs and a New Deal program in the 1930s helped farmers, so Neal had no fear of using government for social progress. Both Louisiana and Nevada had been helped by the New Deal (“How the New Deal built Nevada,” RN&R, May 15, 2008), and the reactionary leadership of both states resented it.

After arrival in Nevada, Neal did a stint in the Air Force, then became a community leader and civil rights activist. He was elected to the Nevada Senate in 1972.

It is appropriate that in this year’s Black History Month, there is a new biography available of Neal by veteran Nevada reporter John L. Smith—The Westside Slugger. Smith’s book is a substantial contribution to the state’s political history.

From his first day in the Senate, it became clear Neal was going to go his own way. When a ceremonial resolution congratulating Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew on their reelections came up, he voted against it.

Neal: “I think this particular resolution was conceived in haste, and I think it would be more appropriate if it would come up near the end of the session when we would have a better understanding of what this peace in Vietnam represents to the people of the United States.”

Jeff Menicucci, then an aide to Republican Sen. William Raggio and a conservative newspaper columnist, wrote of Neal: “It takes no special courage to cast an anti-Nixon vote in the Foreign Relations Commission of the U.S. Senate. It requires considerably more courage to do so in the Nevada Legislature.”

During his tenure, a fellow senator said to a group of visiting Nigerian dignitaries that few blacks lived in Northern Nevada because of the cold weather. The climate of the Nevada Legislature was not conducive to a first African American senator, either.

On one occasion, Assemblymember Bob Robinson, after a dispute with a black colleague, told members of the Ways and Means Committee, “Sickle cell anemia is the new great white hope.”

In 1997, Neal read a sample of his mail to the senate: “I always thought you were a typical of what we get with aff, action and other programs that promote the unqualified. … Did you know that your species accounts for 14% of the population and 70% of the crime? Whats the goals of your species in America, turn it into one of those great black run countries like somilia, hatie, or rawanda. FUCK YOU.”

But his life experiences also gave him a view of reality that his colleagues did not have, and he brought it to bear on the drafting of state laws, should there be legislators willing to learn. Smith describes the late 1970s and early ’80s, when hiking the penalties on drunken driving offenses was all the rage in state legislatures. Hiking penalties is an expensive habit that seems to have no critics. One measure imposed jail time and “distinctive garb” on drunken driving first offenses. Smith quotes Neal:

“In a mostly black district, knowing that those jail cells weren’t full of white folks, I was very much concerned about the people it would impact. Getting arrested and being forced to go to jail had a greater impact on the lives and livelihoods of the poor. They would often lose their jobs as a result of a mistake.”

Note that Neal did not solely challenge the impact on blacks, but on all low income people.

Neal often got along better with conservatives, such as Senate Democratic leader James Gibson, a right winger and Mormon, and even with Republicans, because his fellow Democrats were sometimes less than reliable allies. Besides, both sides learned from the other over time. Republican leader William Raggio said in 1995, “I kidded him the other day when we were talking. I said, ’You know, we’ve been here the same length of time. And I find you and me voting the same on issues. We’ve really done a dramatic change. Issues that we wouldn’t talk about, now we’re together on.’”

KNPB in Reno staged debates in the 2002 election. Here Democratic nominee for governor Joe Neal was seated next to an empty chair. His Republican opponent, Kenny Guinn, declined to debate him.

Moreover, he and Gibson were skilled players who knew the rules better than the average senators. Most legislators learn house rules, but not the secondary or backup rules—Mason’s Manual. Neal did.

Over time, Neal gained influence both because he survived longer than most senators and because of his mastery of the rules. It was Neal who came up with the strategy that got the Equal Rights Amendment through the Senate. Some legislators began to credit him more. He won over GOP Sen. Ray Rawson on an issue close to Neal’s heart—a King birthday holiday. Rawson, a conservative Republican and another member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talked about Neal’s relentless efforts: “[H]e tried a humorous approach. He tried an angry approach. He tried to appeal to our sense of justice and our empathy. I mean, I come from a heritage of people that were pushed across the country, that lost home after home, that know what prejudice is. … But it’s through Sen. Neal’s eyes that I appreciate now without this [holiday] we can’t really communicate as well. There is suspicion. There is a prejudice that exists.”

Neal was not always easy to predict. Though he voted for abortion, he seemed uncomfortable with the issue, once keeping a measure bottled up in a committee he chaired.

A 1977 right to die measure sponsored by Assemblymember Steve Coulter was approved by the Nevada Senate after Neal opposed it because “that means we’re beginning to take life lightly.” His colleague Richard Bryan defended it on grounds it “only allows someone to say that if he is ever incapacitated or comatose, that he does not want life-sustaining procedures taken.”

Neal’s best guide to his thinking was not his party or a label like liberal, but his occasional comment, “I speak to a need”—that, and the fact that the fixed star in his universe was those who were hurting. They were always his concern.

At various times, he sponsored legislation to create a state bank (an idea he got from North Dakota), requiring employers of 300 or more workers to provide child care, and requiring financial institutions to invest some profits in “socially beneficial projects.”

He did not, however, have a good feel for the Senate hall. He was noted as long-winded—on at least one occasion, he spoke so long that a fed-up Senate finally halted his speech. He could give an effective five-minute speech and not be able to detect sentiment turning his way. Then he would keep talking until he started losing support.

In 1997, largely on the strength of his seniority, Neal became Senate Democratic leader. It was a poor fit from the beginning, almost a contradiction in terms. Neal operated best as an outsider using the institution’s rules against it, and he alienated industries his fellow Democrats tapped for campaign money, particularly the casinos, which Neal wanted to tax at higher levels.

Even so, he might have succeeded in the role but for two members of his caucus—fellow Democrats Nick Horn and John Vergiels—constantly undercut him.

When Democrats gained the Senate majority, they undertook the delicate task of dropping their black leader and giving the job to Vergiels. In the same shift, Neal became Senate president pro tempore, in line of succession to the governorship, occasionally serving as acting governor.

Neal first talked about running for governor in 1973, when he threatened to run against incumbent Mike O’Callaghan, then made a short primary run in 1998. Then, when Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn ran for reelection in 2002, Neal ran and won the primary, the first African American to win a nomination for governor in Nevada history. The Democratic Party’s leadership promptly abandoned him.

The state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, set the pattern. Bryan’s fig leaf was that he would not support Neal because he was soft on nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain—though, as Smith’s book notes, when Bryan was governor, there were issues on which Neal was Bryan’s only Senate ally. In addition, over the years, Bryan had supported plenty of Democrats with whom he disagreed on one issue. With Bryan and Reid over the side, other smaller fry such as the Democratic speaker of the Assembly also abandoned ship. It deeply angered black Nevadans. Neal, of course, lost to Guinn.

In that prescient column in Neal’s first year, Menicucci wrote that Neal “often resort to tactics common to the right.”

“Senator Neal believes that eventually we will have to deal with the problems addressed by his bills,” he wrote. “In the meantime, debate will be stimulated and interest aroused. Much the same function is performed by Neal’s lonely dissenting voice on heavily supported legislation. A minority opposition vote, while practically impotent, can alert the public that there is another side to a seemingly non-controversial issue.”

That was pretty much the way Neal’s career unfolded. He did not often win first rounds, or even later rounds. And some things he never won, though in 2003 he did see enactment of a half percent increase in the casino tax rate. He or others who followed him sometimes did win after he broke the ground.

In an 1837 lecture, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career, do not yet see, that, if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”