Somber and sometimes tearful S.C. legislators Wednesday remembered state Rep. Joe Neal as a fighter for the underdog.
That fight will be his legacy, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said, the day after the 66-year-old Neal died unexpectedly.
Neal, a civil rights champion elected to represent Lower Richland in the House in 1992, was known for his efforts to help the rural poor and for his support of environmental causes.
Neal, a minister, led pushes to improve drinking water for Lower Richland communities, expand health care and HIV prevention, and curtail racial profiling in law enforcement.
“Joe was one of the few members left who cared about people and not himself,” said Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, one of Neal’s best friends in the Legislature. “He cared about all people, not just certain people. I could always count on Joe to be the moral voice, to talk to us about what we were doing and really put it in the perspective of faith.”
A cause of death was not available Wednesday. However, Neal was taken to a hospital emergency room Tuesday.
While at the hospital, Neal was trying to reach the chairman of the House’s budget committee to talk about putting money into the state budget for HIV and hepatitis awareness and prevention, Cobb-Hunter said. “He had such a big heart.”
‘All of us are human beings’
Neal was a happy warrior, legislators recalled Wednesday.
S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said he heard Neal’s laughter every day. His desk was in front of the speaker’s podium.
“He always had that little Cheshire cat grin when something amused him or when he got something over on someone,” Lucas said.
Lucas said the House would remember Neal for his ability to “dominate this institution ... without ever raising his voice.”
Colleagues also recalled Neal’s 2015 speech calling for the Confederate flag to be taken down from State House grounds.
Neal asked his colleagues to think about what the flag, often defended as a symbol of Southern heritage, meant to people like him – “a heritage based on a group of people who were brought here in chains.”
The Democrat received an ovation after imploring lawmakers to “put aside partisan bickering and understand that all of us are human beings and all of us deserve to be treated like human beings.”
Cobb-Hunter said the speech showed the “essence of Joe Neal.”
“It was so moving. It was so Joe,” Cobb-Hunter said. “He was always trying to show another point of view. The state, the General Assembly will never see the kind of public servant that Joe Neal was.”
‘A great warrior’
News of Neal’s death hit Karen Irick hard.
Neal helped her Hopkins community get clean drinking water in 2005. For 20 years, Irick’s Franklin Park neighborhood had been plagued by spotty, substandard water service that carried lead into the homes of residents.
State regulators failed to force a local water system to resolve the problem. But, Irick said, Neal helped persuade the Department of Health and Environmental Control and Richland County to upgrade the water system after decades of inaction.
“He was a great warrior for this community,’’ Irick said. “He understood our plight in Franklin Park.’’
Irick said Neal decided to help 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 moral conscious’
State Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, Neal’s deskmate for more than two decades, said Neal was no different in everyday life than he was while behind the pulpit of Chester’s Calvary Baptist Church.
When debates became heated, Neal remained cool and collected.
“He was the moral conscious of the General Assembly,” Howard said.
Rep. John King, a York Democrat who attended Calvary Baptist, 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 adviser. Rev. Neal was a gentle giant who loved people.”
‘Concerned with people’
Neal entered the Legislature just as Democrats were becoming the minority party.
But his fellow Democrat, former state Sen. Phil Leventis of Sumter, said Neal “was not concerned with party. He was concerned with people.”
Lucas requested a moment of silence for the members before they adjourned in memory of Neal.
“Our challenge today is to honor his memory,” Lucas said. “Our challenge tomorrow will be to move forward without him just as he would have wanted us to do.
“It will not be an easy task.”
Remembering Joe Neal
Lawmakers remembered their colleague Wednesday, a day after state Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, died.
‘A compassionate force’
“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.”
— Gov. Henry McMaster, R-Richland
‘Presence ... brought a peaceful calm’
"Joe Neal’s words were more powerful than the gavel we use to bring this historic institution to order. His mere presence at this well brought more silence, brought a peaceful calm over this body, like no other representative I have ever heard."
— S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington
‘A constant force of good’
“Having served over 20 years in the state Legislature, Representative Neal was a constant force of good who fought continuously for justice and improvement in the lives of South Carolinians.”
— S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland
‘Passionate about fighting for folks’
“He was very passionate about fighting for folks having access to healthcare, good-paying jobs, quality education, people having great living conditions. He always cared about people.”
– State Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston
‘We ... celebrate his legacy’
"A moving speaker, caring colleague, and gentle giant; Representative Joe Neal was called ‘pastor’ or ‘representative’ by many, but ‘friend’ by all he encountered. ... 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."
— House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York
‘Stood for what was fair and just’
"I'll remember him as a champion for the underdog. He always stood for what was fair and just."
— State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter
‘Champion of environmental causes’
"He was a champion of environmental causes. At our last meeting, we talked about water and sewer issues, and hanging on to family land. ... 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."
— State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland