Born in Currituck County, Joe graduated from New Bern High School, then UNC Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He earned a Masters at George Washington and was a distinguished graduate of the Naval War College. He was a Marine fighter pilot, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Joe returned to North Carolina and was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1980. Serving a total of 15 years, Joe became nationally known when he successfully led an effort to oust long-time House Speaker Liston Ramsey. Joe served as Speaker from 1989-90.
The father of two sons, Mitchell and Michael, Joe and wife Laura attend Edenton Street Methodist Church. Joe is currently writing a book about understanding North Carolina.