As a Nevada state senator for more than three decades, Joe Neal rarely agreed with the powerful gaming industry on anything. He was a thorn in the side, a fly in the ointment, a pain in the, well, you get the idea.
Neal, who died on New Year’s Eve at age 85, was an unabashed liberal. He was Nevada’s first Black state senator. He supported greater workers’ rights and stood up for the Culinary Union and other branches of organized labor. He favored increasing taxes on the casino industry and ending Nevada’s status as a right-to-work state. In fairness, he was also tough on the banking and insurance industries, and the corporate hospital operators as well.
All that said, it’s little wonder the Strip marquees failed to bid him a fond farewell with his passing after a lengthy medical challenge. He left a proud family and a string of personal accomplishments as a lasting legacy.
He was also willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with the gaming industry’s top lobbyists. He endured monied challenges to his senate seat sponsored by some casino bosses who didn’t care for his rhetoric and personal style. One casino government affairs executive once approached Neal with a backhanded compliment: Neal was so well positioned in his senate district that money was not a factor in his campaign. “If it were, you’d be gone,” the casino representative said.
His relentless chiding of former casino mogul Steve Wynn over the billionaire’s ill-fated and incredibly tone-deaf art tax break grows more hilarious as the years pass. Wynn’s hyperbolic protests about a lack of fairness and Neal’s vindictiveness still brings tears to my eyes.
In reality, Neal stood alone so often in his criticism of the industry that he was easily marginalized and eclipsed by its lobbying clout and undeniable importance to the Nevada economy. Yes, Joe Neal could be obstinate. Man, could he ever.
But Neal also helped save the Las Vegas gaming industry from itself, and for that, he deserves more than a passing nod of respect from the casino kings.
When a fire that could have been prevented roared through the MGM Grand on Nov. 21, 1980, killing 87 people and injuring hundreds, Strip high-rises were exposed for their lack of quality construction and fire safety. They weren’t unique in that regard – fire safety was an issue in buildings across the country – but the credibility of Las Vegas as a place that could keep visitors safe was at stake. And bad news traveled faster than any fire.
On Feb. 10, 1981, a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight persons. Something needed to be done quickly, and that meant taking legislative action in Carson City.
It was no time to take account of the marketing damage that might be done by an open debate, and Neal wasted no time with niceties. By forcing the issue, he helped move the process forward even at a time that some MGM officials of the day were trying to soften the blow and position for the inevitable lawsuits that were anticipated.
The result of the efforts of Neal and others was the finest high-rise fire sprinkler law in the nation.
Reflecting on that tumultuous and tragic time in 1987, former Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston penned a letter to Neal and gave him the thanks he didn’t receive elsewhere.
Huddleston wrote in part, “In large part because of your courage, the State of Nevada enjoys the most comprehensive fire prevention laws in the world. We are a leader in the fire service and accordingly, 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.”
That was thanks enough for Joe Neal, a casino industry critic who deserves to be remembered with respect.
Editor’s note: John L. Smith’s biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal — “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” – is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com.
John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at email@example.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.