Book review: Book on Las Vegas civil rights leader captures a man and an era

When you put the book down, you know you’ve been introduced to a man of uncompromising principles and watched him grow to his full potential, despite a myriad of obstacles due to racial discrimination, powerful economic forces and petty party politics.

The book is “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” by lifelong Nevada writer John L. Smith, whose Las Vegas Review-Journal columns I edited for two decades.

The biography introduces you to Joe Neal, the first African America to serve in the Nevada state Senate. It traces his rise from impoverished Madison Parish, La., through his three decades in the state Senate until he earned a place in the chamber’s Hall of Fame. 

Practically every page includes the name of some Nevada mover-and-shaker who befriended or exchanged blows with the ever hard-charging Neal — governors, fellow lawmakers, casino executives, fellow civil rights champions, journalists, mobsters, lawmen and family members who rose to make names for themselves in their own right.

It was Nevada state Sen. Cliff Young — a future state Supreme Court justice — who dubbed Neal the Westside Slugger for having ably represented the predominantly black neighborhood near downtown Las Vegas. “You get knocked down, but you always get back up, and you never stop swinging,” Smith quotes Young as saying of Neal.

Smith uses countless such sources as well his own considerable knowledge of the man and the times — both as a journalist and through his parents’ civil rights and union activism — to paint a detailed portrait of the scrappy Neal, who fought for the things in which he believed. 

After the fatal MGM and Hilton hotel fires in the early 1980s, Smith relates that Neal was probably the key leader in pushing legislation to require the state’s hotels and high-rises to retrofit with fire safety equipment that included sprinklers and proper ventilation systems. 

While he is probably best remembered for the civil rights efforts — including backing the Equal Rights Amendment, restoring felons constitutional rights and creating a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. — he also fought for higher casino industry taxes to support education funding. He led the fight to limit casino development on Lake Tahoe to protect its shores and pristine water. 

Neal also fought against allowing casino owner Steve Wynn to have a sales tax exemption on his millions of dollars worth of fine art, because it cut education funding. He even bucked his own Democratic Party leaders and refused to take a stand against the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. He also fought to end the death penalty in Nevada.

As always, Smith has an ear for the quote that fleshes out the premise of the piece — such as the one from Dina Titus, then a state senator and now a congresswoman, at the Hall of Fame ceremony for Neal, when she called him “the greatest orator in the history of the state. His eloquence derives from his academic knowledge, from his vast experience, and from his compassion for those who are about to be affected by the actions that we are about to take. When Joe stands to speak, a hush falls over the room. Everyone, including legislators, staff, the press, the lobbyists in the back, all stop to listen. He speaks from the heart. He fears nothing. He deftly parries any argument, and he does not hesitate to attack those who he believes turn a blind eye to injustice.”

Smith quotes Neal himself as saying, “You fight for the causes you believe in. You get knocked down, but get back up again. And the fight never ends because you’re fighting for the rights of people.”

The book is thoroughly researched and brings readers through those years when Las Vegas was dubbed the Mississippi of the West, when black Strip entertainers could not stay in the hotels in which they performed, through the mobbed-up days, through rough and tumble politics — including two doomed bids by Neal for the governorship of Nevada. It recounts a remarkable legacy in a remarkably readable manner.

Available in bookstores and various sites online.

 

Bad optics vs. fiduciary responsibility

Window from which shots were fired into crowded concert. (Pix by Jeff Scheid for NVIndy)

The pro/con format lives at NVIndy.

The online donation-funded news site today features columns by John L. Smith and Elizabeth Thompson taking differing stances on MGM’s decision to try to legally limit its liability for the Oct. 1 shooting that left 58 concert goers dead and hundreds more injured.

Smith makes a cogent argument that the legal maneuver — technically a suit against the victims — is tone deaf and damaging to the brand.

“The legal questions will be determined, but the fallout from the filing of the litigation against shooting victims still in various stages of physical and emotional recovery seems downright cruel,” Smith states. “It’s also terribly risky, and something more than money is at stake.”

Thompson argues that MGM should not be financially liable for the acts of a madman firing from the windows of his 32nd floor room in Mandalay Bay, any more than a convenience store should be liable if someone is shot on its property.

“It is easy to say MGM ‘should have’ noticed (Stephen) Paddock’s activities and prevented his crime,” she writes. “But it is not fair. An unfathomable act was perpetrated. None of us could initially believe it, even as it was happening. One cannot anticipate the unthinkable.”

Frankly, I think she missed a salient argument that MGM bears a fiduciary responsibility to its stockholders and employees to protect the bottom line from financial hemorrhaging. Money if fungible. What goes to cover legal liabilities is not available to pay dividends or wage hikes.

But Smith is right. The damage to the brand can also be costly.

Though MGM clearly bore far greater liability as a result of the 1980 fire that killed 85, Kirk Kerkorian’s rush to settlement may have been both good optics and sound fiduciary responsibility.

By the bye, both columns contained the obligatory disclaimers about MGM being a donor to the website.

 

 

 

Finally, having two newspapers in one bag fills in both sides of the story

Sheldon Adelson (R-J file photo)

Ronald Reagan said during a 1980 primary debate in New Hampshire, “I am paying for this microphone.”

Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson is paying for his microphone, which happens to be a front-page printed news story in the Las Vegas newspaper today and the lede position of the paper’s website for the dissemination of his “statement” calling on fellow casino executive MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren to support his proposed football stadium, apparently along with a big chunk of public funding. The current request stands at $750 million via room tax rate hikes.

The obligatory disclaimer at the end of the story reveals: “The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.”

The R-J dutifully reported this morning, “Murren declined to respond to Adelson’s comments Monday, but Murren is on record as favoring the stadium if less public money is contributed to the project.” The Adelson statement reportedly disputes what it describes as  “Murren’s position” — that a convention center expansion is a “must-have” tourism addition, while a stadium would be merely “nice to have.”

The Oakland Raiders have expressed an interest in relocating to Las Vegas if a stadium is built.

But, as Mark Twain is incorrectly credited with saying, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed,” only in this case you have to read two newspapers to be fully misinformed.

You see, delivered in the same bag on the driveway today is the Las Vegas Sun section, which happens to have a front-page story on how Murren views a number of topics, including the proposed stadium. The piece was actually posted online this past Friday, but not deemed worthy of print until today.

The article recounts:

Murren said that, as a football fan, he would love to see an NFL team in Las Vegas and that some level of public funding is appropriate. However, he said he doesn’t have enough information to be able to say what that level should be — the cost of the stadium, other infrastructure costs, how the capital will be pulled together, or what the burden is on the taxpayer.

“Without all that information it’s difficult to say I’m a big fan,” Murren said.

Plus, he said that he chafes at the suggestion that the public wouldn’t be paying for the stadium by virtue of tourists covering the room tax, since a significant chunk of the money goes toward education as well as other funds across the state.

The paper said Murren supports a special session of the state Legislature to approve a room tax hike to pay for the convention center expansion. He also was quoted as saying he does not want to raise the room tax so much that it becomes a disadvantage in competing with other cities for conventions.

In December, as Adelson was taking control of the newspaper, the R-J published an editorial explaining how his ownership might alter some of the newspaper’s long-standing editorial positions. It included this observation about the convention center expansion plans:

Mr. Adelson considers the convention authority, which is funded by room taxes and operates the Las Vegas Convention Center, a publicly subsidized competitor to his company’s Sands Expo and Convention Center. His company opposes the authority’s $2.3 billion convention center expansion plan. The Review-Journal supports it.

Potential change in position: Complete reversal.

Looks like the battle of the casino titans will be played out on the microphones each chooses.

Jim Murren (Sun file photo)

 

 

Dueling polls but not dueling newspapers on question of stadium funding

On Thursday the morning newspaper and VegasInc reported on polls conducted by MGM and the Sands on the topic of public support for a new stadium and/or a convention center. Today the Sun insert in the morning paper printed a version of the VegasInc story.

“Las Vegas Sands, which commissioned Washington-based Morning Consult for its poll, said 70 percent of Nevada voters support relocating an NFL team to the Las Vegas area, with 60 percent supporting construction of a retractable-roof stadium funded by room taxes,” reported the Review-Journal, which dutifully noted that it is owned by the family that owns the Sands.

VegasInc related:

Morning Consult said its poll found that 67 percent of Nevada voters backed relocating an NFL team to Las Vegas, and 62 percent supported building a “new retractable roof stadium for football and other events” in the area.

“There is majority support for a new stadium among men and women alike, across all age groups, and at all income levels,” the Morning Consult statement said. “Moreover, nearly six in 10 (55%) Nevadans are more likely to support building a new stadium if much of the funding comes from a room-tax paid by visitors.”

Indeed, a document posted at morningconsult.com shows:

roomtax

But it also asked this question, which does not appear to be reported by either newspaper:

funding

Today’s R-J, reporting on a committee meeting discussing tourism funding says the current stadium proposal is for $780 million in public funding and $420 million in private funding, “though Las Vegas Sands has said those numbers are not final and are likely to change.”

Sands rendering of Stadium posted on R-J website.