William J. “Pete” Knight, a former Air Force test pilot who as a Republican state senator led the charge against gay marriage in California with a successful statewide initiative in 2000, has died. He was 74.
Knight, who has been absent from his seat since April 12 because of leukemia, died Friday night of an acute form of the cancer at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte.
At the time of his death, Knight was completing his final months as the GOP state senator from the Palmdale area. He was unable to run for another term because of term limits.
Knight was best known as the author of Proposition 22, the California ballot initiative defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. The initiative was approved by more than 60% of voters and presaged the state’s current fight over the legality of gay marriage.
It also created a painful rift between Knight and his son, David Knight, who publicly announced that he is gay.
When San Francisco officials briefly issued marriage licenses to gay couples earlier this year, the elder Knight fought the city’s efforts in court. Meanwhile, his estranged son traveled from his home in Baltimore to marry his partner in San Francisco’s City Hall.
“I love my father dearly and I miss him,” David Knight told The Times in March. “But if he’s going to continue to attack something that affects me and affects my friends, and do something that I believe is wrong, I can’t just not try to make my own statement.”
Asked Saturday whether he had reconciled with his father before the senator’s death, a clearly grieving David Knight said, “I really just have no input. I am not able to talk just now.”
David Orosco, the senator’s communications director who announced Knight’s death, said Saturday that the father and son had spoken during the past three weeks and that he thought “David also saw his father.”
To social conservatives, Pete Knight was a hero.
“He just has a very strong view of right and wrong, and it’s all kind of wrapped up in being a true, patriotic American,” George Runner, a former Republican assemblyman who is running for Knight’s seat, said recently.
Knight was born Nov. 18, 1929, in Noblesville, Ind. As a slightly built young man, he worked as a racehorse jockey. The love of speed he developed at the track persuaded him to try his hand as a pilot, according to Andrew Pugno, lawyer for the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund and a former Knight aide.
Knight joined the Air Force in 1951, completed pilot training, and in 1954 won the Allison Jet Trophy Race, a contest that pitted him against the Air Force’s best pilots.
After receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1958, Knight enrolled at the Air Force’s Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, where Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947.
Edwards has become almost as legendary for the escapades of larger-than-life pilots as for the aviation records they set. But the future senator was not one of the “cocky flyboy[s],” according to Knight’s friend, Betty Smith.
“Pete was a little humble with everything he did ...[Pete] knew when he was getting out of the service that he wanted to go into government,” she said.
Knight’s most famous exploits came in the cockpit of the X-15, a narrow-winged aircraft that was designed to travel into the shallow reaches of space at more than five times the speed of sound. The plane proved to be a crucial laboratory for the American space program, showing that pilots could perform their jobs in low gravity and at hypersonic speeds.
Knight’s flight of an experimental X-15 aircraft on Oct. 3, 1967, was the fastest manned airplane voyage in history -- at 4,520 mph, he took the plane to 6.7 times the speed of sound. The heat from the friction burned a hole in the tail of the plane and tore off a test engine.
Just four months earlier, on June 29, Knight nearly died in the X-15 when the plane was more than 20 miles up and the engine quit, apparently due to an electrical malfunction. Flying without the aid of instruments, Knight was able to guide the aircraft to a safe landing in Mud Lake, Nev. His only injury came when he bumped his head climbing out of the cockpit.
The feat earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. His later speed record earned him astronaut’s wings for flying into “near space” and a trip to Washington, D.C., where President Johnson praised Knight’s “career of challenging the impossible.”
When he retired in 1982 as a colonel, he had flown 253 combat missions in Southeast Asia and more than 6,000 hours in about 100 planes, cementing his status as a hero in the Antelope Valley, the aerospace-driven desert community in north Los Angeles County that he would later represent.
In 1984, Knight was elected to the City Council in Palmdale, a fast-growing suburb south of Edwards. He became its mayor four years later. In 1992, he was elected to the California Assembly.
Knight endeared himself to his conservative constituency by pledging to cut the size of bloated government. In 1993, he returned more than 40% of the money the state had allocated him to run his Assembly office. He also sponsored legislation to establish a separate air quality district in the Antelope Valley and “enterprise zones” that offer tax breaks to businesses that relocate to the area.
The gay marriage issue had begun to concern Knight in the mid-1990s, when he heard that a Hawaii court had ruled that a state law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples was discriminatory. In both the Assembly and Senate -- to which he was elected in 1996 -- he introduced bills to prohibit California from recognizing gay marriages from other states, but the measures failed.
Some of the debate was punctuated by rumors about David Knight’s sexuality. He eventually publicly acknowledged David’s sexual orientation after hearing that a Bay Area paper was planning to print an article about David. Pete Knight also acknowledged that his younger brother had earlier died from AIDS-related complications.
In interviews over the years, Knight said he was not a homophobe but rather someone concerned about protecting the traditional definition of marriage.
“A man and a woman get married -- that’s the way it was designed,” he said in 1999. “To do anything else is not according to natural law.”
In 1999, Knight took the gay-marriage issue to California voters with Proposition 22. Four months before the balloting, his son David wrote a commentary in The Times describing how he had followed in his father’s footsteps as a combat pilot, serving in the first Gulf War, and how his once-proud father had rejected him when he came out of the closet.
In the wake of the passage of Proposition 22, Knight’s group, the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund, has challenged San Francisco’s issuance of gay marriage licenses. It is also challenging a state law that gives gay couples sweeping domestic-partner benefits.
In March, Knight met with the gay-rights group Equality California and told them he would be willing to “support something short of marriage” for gays if activists would give up their fight for the right to wed. In a news release, Equality California said the offer was “a clear sign” Knight realized “the march toward equality cannot be stopped.”
But Knight spokesman Orosco said Knight never really changed his position.
“He was trying to prove a point -- that if he made that offer he knew it would be refused,” Orosco said. “And that would discredit Equality California’s claim that all they want were equal rights. Their true goal is recognition through marriage. It’s not about the rights necessarily.”
Besides his son David, Knight is survived by his wife, Gail; sons Peter and Steven; four stepchildren, and 15 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.