Two Nevadans Who Influenced Casino Industry Died at End of 2020

Posted on: January 4, 2021, 02:35h. 

Last updated on: January 4, 2021, 03:05h.

Joe Neal and George Swarts, two Nevadans who helped shape and enforce gaming policy in Nevada, have died.

Joe Neal
Joe Neal stands near an American flag while gazing into the distance. The former state senator from Southern Nevada died on Dec. 31. (Image: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

A North Las Vegas Democrat and Nevada’s first Black state senator, Neal died on New Year’s Eve at a health care center in Henderson. He was 85.

Neal’s death resulted from “multiple system failure,” according to a news release from his campaign manager, Andrew Barbano. 

A Louisiana native, Neal served in the Nevada Senate for 32 years. He advocated for an increase in the gaming tax and was opposed to neighborhood casinos.

His opposition to casinos in residential areas stemmed from his contention that “gaming does not put anything back,” he said in an oral history for UNLV, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“If you have a gaming house in your community, then that gaming house is going to draw money from that community that should go for Medicare or groceries or paying the rent and things of that sort,” he said.

Neal also opposed casino developer Steve Wynn’s effort to receive a tax exemption on artwork. Neal referred to this tax exemption as Show Me the Monet.” 

After the deadly MGM Grand fire in 1980, Neal succeeded in passing legislation to improve safety regulations in casinos. This resort on the Las Vegas Strip is now named Bally’s. 

Neal twice ran unsuccessfully for governor. He retired from the state Senate in 2004. In a 2005 resolution inducting him into the state Senate Hall of Fame, state Sen. Dina Titus (D) said Neal was “unbought and unbossed.” Titus now is a US House member.

“Whether he was fighting for voting rights or against racial profiling, he has never relented,” Titus said from the Senate floor in Carson City. “He is a man who has changed the face of this state.”

Cars Rigged With Bombs 

Former Nevada Gaming Commission member George Swarts died on Christmas Day. He was 77. His obituary on the Las Vegas Review-Journal website does not list the cause of death.

The obituary notes that former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan (D) appointed Swarts to the commission. 

In an era when car bombings occurred in Las Vegas, Swarts’ car once was rigged with a bomb. As former Gaming Commission Chairman Harry Reid noted in his 2008 book, The Good Fight, Swarts was “lucky” the car bomb did not go off.

Whoever rigged his car hadnt grounded the wire properly, and the bomb failed to detonate,” Reid wrote.

Reid was targeted in an unsuccessful car bombing in 1981. He later served as US Senate majority leader. 

The suspects in the bombing attempts on Swarts and Reid were never identified.

‘Casino’ Bombing

In the 1970s and ’80, car bombings and attempted bombings by the Mob were major news items in Las Vegas. 

One of the most prominent was the 1982 bombing of Mafia associate Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s car outside a Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Sahara Avenue near the Las Vegas Strip. 

Rosenthal survived the bombing. His exploits in Las Vegas later became the subject of New York author Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. The book was the basis for the 1995 movie Casino, starring Robert De Niro as a character based on Rosenthal.

The end of 2020 also saw the deaths of other prominent people who had ties to Las Vegas and the casino industry, including Dawn Wells and Phyllis McGuire.