State Sen. Gerald Neal is modest when asked about his role as the first African-American to hold a leadership position in the Kentucky General Assembly. He jokingly says he was in the right place at the right time with the right tools to do the job.
But the Louisville Democrat did make history when he was elected in December to be the Senate Minority Caucus Chairman. Neal spoke about the job and his hopes for the 2015 legislative session on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw.
Neal represents the 33rd State Senate District, which comprises parts of northwestern Jefferson County. As caucus chair, Neal says he conducts meetings of Senate Democrats (there are currently 11), and helps shape legislation and policies the group may propose. He says he wants his caucus to be a “fine-tuned machine.”
Criminal Justice Reforms a Focus for Neal
Neal has been a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty, voting rights restoration, and expungement of certain felony convictions. He says taxpayers can no longer afford the tough-on-crime policies of the last 30 years that have resulted in building more jails and incarcerating more people.
Neal contends the death penalty system in Kentucky is deeply flawed and he has sponsored legislation to end capital punishment in the state. He says it’s beneath human beings to participate in an activity that deprives another person of their life. Yet Neal acknowledges he must work with lawmakers who take a very different stance on the issue.
“I have to respect those who believe that the death penalty is something that they just can’t let go of,” Neal says. “I’m going to be patient with them, and I’m going to listen and I’m hoping they’re listening to me.”
Neal says he’s optimistic that his ultimate goal can be achieved through bipartisan support. He points to conservative Republicans like Sen. Tom Buford of Nicholasville and Rep. David Floyd of Bardstown who have spoken against the death penalty.
Other Legislative Issues
The Democratic Caucus Chair says being the minority party in the Senate makes it difficult to push legislation. He says he counters that challenge by working with House Democrats on bills. For this year’s legislative agenda, Neal says he hopes lawmakers will approve measures to address the heroin epidemic and to provide domestic violence protections for dating couples.
But Neal voted against the right-to-work bill that passed the state Senate earlier this month. “It is a ruse to union bust,” Neal says. “The rationales that are used by those who advocate that thing are at the expense of working people.”
Neal credits the Senate leadership under President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) for creating a new tone in the chamber. Neal cautions, though, that he wants to hear more than words from Republicans, he wants to see what they deliver for the people of Kentucky.
A Quarter-Century of Service
Neal was born in the Beecher Terrace housing project in west Louisville and he grew up in the California and Algonquin Gardens neighborhoods. He recalls the positive influence of neighbors who were doctors, lawyers, ministers, teachers, and police officers.
The Democrat says local African-American leaders recruited him to run for the seat vacated by Sen. Georgia Davis Powers when she retired. He notes that as a young lawyer, he ran against Powers in an earlier race, which she won by 59 votes.
Neal succeeded Powers in 1989 and became the second African-American to serve in the state Senate. He says there are specific issues that Black Kentuckians face, and there are broader issues that impact everyone across the commonwealth.
“We all want the same thing,” Neal says. “We want security, we want to have sufficient food on our tables, we want to be able to make a better life for our kids… and we want respect and dignity in doing so.”