The late state Rep. Dan McNeill had, on several occasions, told his wife Jeanne McNeill that should he die while in office, she ought to run and keep their work alive.
“I’d go, ‘Hey, knock it off. Don’t be stupid,’” Jeanne McNeill said Wednesday inside the Democratic coordinated campaign office in Bethlehem’s Westgate Mall. “And then, about a week before he died, he said to me, ‘I’m serious Jeannie, if something happens you need to continue what I couldn’t finish.’
“I knew in my heart I had to continue. We’re the same heart and mind. We walked side by side, hip to hip in everything we’ve done.”
Dan McNeill died on Sept. 8 at 70 — in the midst of his third term in office serving the 133rd Legislative District. On Wednesday, Jeanne McNeill formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to fill the seat. She’ll be running in the Dec. 5 special election against an as-yet unannounced GOP challenger.
The Republican Party will select a candidate for the seat on Oct. 11, according to Greg Manz, communications director for the party.
The 133rd House District is an oddly shaped territory that includes parts of Bethlehem, as well as Lehigh County’s Hanover Township, parts of Salisbury and Whitehall townships, and Catasauqua, Coplay and Fountain Hill.
Flanked by family, friends, political supporters and community leaders, McNeill delivered an emotional speech in which she thanked everyone for their support during the last several weeks, which have been “the worst in our lives.”
“In the midst of our grief, we must look to the future,” she said before embracing the nomination.
McNeill, a skills trainer working with the Project Search program at Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21, is no stranger to the issues championed by her late husband. The two were a team, she said, and therefore she was deeply involved in and passionate about the same concerns, including the opioid crisis plaguing the region. McNeill said she wants to continue that legacy, but she said she’ll be adding special education, her personal bailiwick, to the slate of causes.
“You wouldn’t believe how many families have to do without because of the things they have to pay for for their kids with disabilities,” McNeill said. “They need all the help that we can give them.”
Michael Laws, a longtime friend and photographer of the McNeills, said Jeanne McNeill isn’t a political spouse with no experience.
“She was actively in the struggle, helping people,” Laws said. “That [the Democratic Party] would go with her makes perfect sense.”
Kathleen McNeill, 30, and Shannon McNeill, 24, embraced their mother after her brief speech and said later they knew this new political journey for their mother was the natural next step for the family.
“This is what he wanted. He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else in that role,” Kathleen McNeill said of their father.
Shannon McNeill acknowledged that this next step, while a joyful one, comes less than a month after their father’s death. It’s painful, she said, but necessary.
“It’s hard because it’s all happened so fast. But it had to happen this fast,” Shannon McNeill said. “We’re all still grieving but this is the way to continue his legacy. Through my whole life, they’ve always been a team. Everything they’ve done, they’ve done it together.”