- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina Rep. Joe Neal, a pastor and staunch advocate for the poor, has died. He was 66.

Neal, who served in the House for 24 years, died Tuesday night at a Columbia hospital, said Rep. John King, whose funeral home is handling the services.

Legislators in both the House and Senate rose for a moment of silent prayer Wednesday to honor a legislator universally beloved by Democrats and Republicans, even though Neal often admonished the chamber’s GOP majority as he fought for the underprivileged. The issues he advocated included better health care, education and infrastructure in poor communities.

As the House adjourned Wednesday in his honor, members filed by his desk - draped in black and adorned with vases of white roses and lilies - to write notes to Neal’s family. The chamber’s voting screen read, “We love and miss our Brother Joe Neal.”

Joe spent every day of his life trying to help those that had nothing, and he would never let you forget it,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia.

Neal was first elected to represent rural Richland County in 1992. The Hopkins Democrat was also pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester.

“He loved people. He loved serving people,” said King, D-Chester, a parishioner, adding that Neal was at “every major function of my life.”

Neal’s death stunned legislators, who described him as passionate yet never confrontational.

“It was devastating. I didn’t think it was real,” said Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia, Neal’s deskmate for 23 years, who last spoke to him Tuesday. “He was a kind, gentle man who never acted out of character.”

Even without yelling, Neal’s baritone voice commanded attention from the podium.

Anyone speaking after Neal “understood the word inadequacy,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville. “His mere presence in this well brought more than silence; it brought a peaceful calm over this body like no other representative I’ve ever heard.”

Neal often rose last to speak on legislation - even if Republicans had predetermined the outcome - to at least make his colleagues think about their vote.

“He was a man who could dominate this institution without ever raising his voice,” Lucas said. “He wanted to have the final word and, most of the time, the best word.”

Gov. Henry McMaster ordered Statehouse flags to fly at half-staff on the day of Neal’s funeral.

“He was a compassionate force who gave voice to those without one and stood tall for those who could not,” McMaster said.

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