State Rep. Joe Neal, a Democrat from Richland County who pastored a Chester church, died late Tuesday, according to state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison and S.C. Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell.
Neal was a longtime pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Chster, according to his online biography.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Staff writer Bristow Marchant contributed.