Members of the South Carolina House are mourning one of the chamber’s longest-serving Democrats who passed away overnight.
State Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, died on Tuesday, according to South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison. “Saddened & devastated to hear our good friend & progressive champion Rep. @JosephNeal3 passed away!” the party chairman tweeted. “He will be missed by all! #RIPJoe”
Harrison did not give a cause of death. Neal was 66 years old.
Neal was one of the chamber’s most recognizable members, having represented southeast Richland County in the House since 1993. He prioritized efforts that he saw as helping South Carolina’s rural poor, including Medicaid expansion and opposing efforts to require photo identification in order to vote. He successfully sponsored anti-racial profiling legislation and was involved in legislative efforts to crack down on predatory lending abuses in the late 2000s.
In recent years, he got a brief moment of national attention during an 11-minute speech calling for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the Statehouse grounds. He criticized some Republican arguments about the flag representing South Carolina’s heritage. “I understand you loving and supporting your ‘heritage,’” he said at the time. “But ‘grace’ means that you ought to also love and support mine. It’s not a one-way street. My heritage is based on a group of people who were brought here in chains. Who were denigrated. Demagogued. Lynched and killed. Denied the right to vote. Denied the right to even have a family.”
Neal was a pastor in his private life. He graduated from Benedict College in 1972 and did post-graduate studies at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. He was a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Chester and was vice president of New Horizons Systems, Inc., a multi-service consortium for personnel management training and development of customized software applications.
He was remembered Wednesday as a “gentle giant,” by his colleagues. “A giant of the
@SCHouse has fallen. Devastated by the loss my friend @JosephNeal3, a most powerful & compassionate voice, a loss for all SC,” tweeted the Richland County delegation’s chairman State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia.
“A moving speaker, caring colleague, and gentle giant; Representative Joe Neal was called ‘Pastor’ or ‘Representative’ by many, but ‘Friend’ by all he encountered,” House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, 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.”
Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the flags at the Statehouse be flown at half-mast on the day of Neal’s funeral.
“Peggy and I wish to extend our most heartfelt condolences to Representative Joe Neal’s family and loved ones. 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.”