State Rep. Joe Neal, a Democrat from Richland County, died late Tuesday.
Harrison tweeted just before midnight that the long-serving representative had passed away. Reached early Wednesday, Powers Norrell said she had confirmation from more than a half-dozen state officials, including House Speaker Jay Lucas, that Neal had died. A cause of death was not immediately known.
"It's devastating,'' Powers Norrell said. "Joe Neal was one of the people we considered the conscience of the House of Representatives. When he spoke, everybody listened. He always had something very important to say and he could lend perspective to any issue.''
Gov. Henry McMaster issued a statement Wednesday morning on Neal’s passing.
“Peggy and I wish to extend our most heartfelt condolences to Representative Joe Neal’s family and loved ones,” McMaster said. “Throughout his remarkable career in public service, he was a compassionate force who gave voice to those without one, and stood tall for those who could not.”
McMaster also ordered flags at the State House flown at half-staff on the day of Neal’s funeral.
House Speaker Jay Lucas honored Neal at the opening of Wednesday’s State House session.
“No one in this chamber commanded the podium like Joe,” Luca said. “His words were more powerful than the gavel we use to bring this historic Institution into order. His presence at the well brought more than silence, it brought a peaceful calm over this Body like none I have ever felt in over twenty years.”
Neal, 66, was elected to the House in 1992. He was a pastor in lower Richland County and a champion of civil rights. Soft-spoken but resolute in his beliefs, Neal supported environmental causes and efforts to help the rural poor. He was a leader in a push to improve drinking water for communities in lower Richland.
His passing was felt across the aisle, as Republican majority leader Gary Simrill called him a “moving speaker, caring colleague, and gentle giant.”
“Representative Joe Neal was called ‘Pastor’ or ‘Representative’ by many, but ‘Friend’ by all he encountered,” Simrill said. “Reverend Neal, a champion of many causes, was an effective leader of good report whether standing behind a church pulpit or state house lectern. His 24 years of service to the people of South Carolina will live on; etched in the hearts and minds of the lives he touched.”
“We will mourn his death and celebrate his legacy,” Simrill said.
Powers Norrell said Neal's speech several years ago about removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds was memorable.
"It was the best speech of the entire debate,'' she said.
The African-American Chamber of Commerce expressed condolences for Neal’s family “with deep sadness.”
“Representative Neal was not only a great advocate for the least of these but he was a friend to all he encountered,” the Chamber said in a statement. “Today South Carolinians mourn this great loss with his family.”
Neal graduated from Benedict College in 1972, according to his biography on the statehouse website. He represented the Hopkins area and lower Richland in the Legislature.
News of Neal’s death hit Karen Irick hard. Neal helped her community in Hopkins get clean drinking water in 2005. The Franklin Park neighborhood had for 20 years been plagued by spotty, substandard water service and the water itself carried lead into the homes of residents..
But state regulators had failed to force a local water system to resolve the problem. Neal, she said, helped persuade the Department of Health and Environmental Control and Richland County to upgrade the water system after two decades of inaction.
“He was a great warrior for this community,’’ Irick said. “He understood our plight in Franklin Park.’’
Irick said she remembers how Neal helped after she showed him a jar of brown water that had flowed from her tap.
“He jumped right on the problem,’’ Irick said. “He began to attend community meetings in my yard, and he would talk to us.’’
The advocacy group Conservation Voters of South Carolina honored Neal after his passing.
“A constant voice for clean water and environmental justice for all citizens, Representative Neal's latest efforts to champion these causes included legislation in 2016 and 2017 to amend the South Carolina Constitution to codify the fundamental right of all South Carolinians to a clean and healthy environment,” the group said.
“I’ve lost a friend”
For years, he pastored the Chester church of Rep. John King, D-York, who recalled Neal presiding over family christenings and funerals long before they became colleagues in the State House.
“We’re family,” King said. “He was a father figure to me, and a political advisor. Rev. Neal was a gentle giant who loved people.
“Our whole community is in mourning,” King said.
If Neal had been suffering any kind of illness prior to his passing, King said he was unaware of it.
“He was a strong believer in Christ. His strength was in Christ,” King said. “If he had any kind of ailment, he would have had those conversations quietly with our Lord and Savior.”
Former state Sen. Phil Leventis of Sumter served alongside Neal, whose district included portions of Sumter County.
“He made a lot of effort to get here,” Leventis said. “He had to come the opposite way from his home and the State House. The members who don’t live here are always attentive, but Joe especially.
“He was just accessible,” Leventis said. “That should go with the territory, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
Neal entered the Legislature just as Democrats were becoming the minority party, but his fellow Democrat Leventis says “he was not concerned with party. He was concerned with people.”
“I’m sad for his family and the people he represented,” he said, “and for myself, because I’ve lost a friend.”
Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said Neal was "cut from the same cloth" as the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who died in the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston.
"He was a gentle guy, but when he spoke there was power behind it," he said.
Before he served with Neal, McElveen's father - Sumter Mayor Joe McElveen - served alongside Neal in the House in the '90s.
"My dad always told me he was a good man, and now I know that to be true."
Neal was a "close neighbor" to Sen. Darrell Jackson in Hopkins, and the two even "ran as a team" in their overlapping districts in 1992.
"He was a champion of environmental causes. At our last meeting we talked about water and sewer issues and hanging on to family land," said Jackson, who remembers Neal's father as the principal of his elementary school.
"He was always on DHEC making sure that, even though we live in a rural area that's not a high tax base, that people get the quality of service that was needed."