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Sen. Pete Knight Succumbs to Leukemia


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Sen. Pete Knight on April 1, 2004.

A fast-moving form of leukemia claimed the life of Santa Clarita's sitting state senator Friday night, May 7.

William J. "Pete" Knight, 74, of Palmdale, died about 7:30 p.m. at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, where he had been receiving treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia.

Knight was diagnosed with the disease April 7 and took a formal leave of absence from office April 12. It was only last week that his legislative staff publicly announced the diagnosis.

"The worst thing about this is he wanted to keep working, going, contributing," his widow, Gail, told the Associated Press. "He wanted to live. He wanted to try. God had a different plan."

A type of bone marrow cancer, AML is the most common form of leukemia in adults. Men and smokers over 60 are particularly susceptible. Knight quit smoking about five years ago.

Knight was due to be termed out of the Senate at the end of the year. Because his death followed the March primary, his seat will remain vacant until a successor is elected in November. Otherwise, the governor would have had to call a special election.

A retired Air Force colonel, Knight set the current world speed record for level flight in an aircraft at 4,520 mph in 1967. He represented most of the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys in the Legislature since 1992 when he was elected to the Assembly. He moved up to the Senate in 1996.

Knight achieved statewide attention when he authored Proposition 22, the voter-approved Defense of Marriage Act that detractors dubbed the "Knight Initiative," defining marriage in California as the union of one man and one woman. The law currently faces a Supreme Court test in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier this year.

Knight discussed his ongoing efforts to uphold Proposition 22 during the April 1 taping of a "Newsmaker of the Week" interview with The Signal, which proved to be his final television interview and Santa Clarita appearance.

"The idea of changing the definition of marriage is kind of foreign to me. That's what it's all about," he said in the interview. "Marriage is defined. Marriage is a natural evolution of man and woman. Man and woman together make a marriage. That's no discrimination."

"You know," he said of critics, "they talk about equal rights, but there is no right to marriage. ... There is no civil right that says that you should be allowed to marry a man and a man."

Other attention getters during Knight's legislative career were his proposals to license more concealed weapons and to require the pledge of allegiance in public schools. Neither idea got through the Legislature.

Knight had more success carrying bills to aid his district.

"He did a lot of things for economic development," said George Runner, who succeeded Knight in the Assembly and is the current Republican nominee for Knight's Senate seat.

"He wrote the legislation to separate (the Antelope Valley) from the (South Coast) Air Quality Management District. That was essential for our area," Runner said Saturday. "And he wrote the legislation setting up enterprise zones."

Santa Clarita Councilman Cameron Smyth, Knight's onetime deputy chief of staff, said his former boss routinely put the district first when it came time to develop legislation.

"Every year, before the start of the legislative session, he would ask the staff to shop around the district to see what bills the cities, the school districts, even private individuals wanted. A lot of bills come from lobbyists, but with Pete, he wanted the first bills to come from the district."

Smyth said Knight "wasn't one for many words," but he listened — and even answered his own phone.

"I would laugh," Smyth said. "When we would take a constituent call and someone would be upset about an issue, I'd say, do you want to talk to the senator?"

Knight "returned every phone call" and "you didn't have to have an appointment to see him," Smyth said.

Patty Kelly, Knight's current area representative, said the senator "was really very interested in what was going on in this valley. ... He was always following (local issues)."

"It was important, I thought, to attend as many events as possible for him, because it is important for charitable organizations and the chamber to know they could call on us," she said.

* * *

Knight demanded loyalty from staff members and repaid them with his personal friendship.

"He was more than a boss to his entire staff," said David Orosco, Knight's Sacramento spokesman. "He was a great man and a good friend."

"He was a man that I really admired," said Kelly. "It was a lot of fun to get him to sit down and tell stories about what he did as a young man."

"I'm going to miss him when I call every day and say, 'Good morning senator,' and he'd say, 'Hello, Patty.'"

"There are so few people who have convictions and beliefs and stand by them, even when they're unpopular ones," she said.

Knight gave Smyth his first real job out of college in 1994. Smyth stayed until 2000.

"Aside from my father, I learned more from Pete Knight than anybody else," he said. "Pete and Gail were like second parents to me. When I was going to propose (marriage) to Lena, the first people I told were my parents and the second people were Pete and Gail."

Runner said Knight didn't let ego interfere with serving their mutual constituents.

"One of the great things I always appreciated was that working alongside Pete, it was never competitive. ... Pete worked so well as part of a legislative team for the district."

"His word was his bond. You could depend on him," Runner said. "People would disagree with him, but Pete would always tell you where he stands."

"He was so steady," Runner said. "A lot of us are more emotional and responsive. (Steadiness) is probably a much better trait to have."

On the other side of the aisle, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, said through a spokesman that Knight "had the affection and respect of his colleagues, even when we disagreed on issues."

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon and wife Patricia extended their condolences to Knight's widow and family.

"I am deeply saddened by the loss of my good friend Pete Knight," said McKeon, R-Santa Clarita. "Our community has lost a true hero and statesman."

* * *

It may not be business as usual for Knight's legislative staff members, but they'll still be in business until Knight's successor is sworn in.

"Sen. Knight's legislative package continues to be graciously handled by (other) legislators, and his district offices remain available to assist constituents of the 17th Senate District with state-related matters," a statement said.

Senators' staff members are actually employees of the Senate Rules Committee. Orosco said Knight's staff will take direction from Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte.

* * *

Knight was born Nov. 18, 1929, in Noblesville, Ind. Both a test pilot and astronaut, he attended Butler and Purdue universities and served in the U.S. Air Force for 32 years. He logged more than 7,000 flying hours, tested more than 100 experimental aircraft and flew 253 missions over Vietnam.

He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988 and the International Space Hall of Fame in 1998. The Antelope Valley Union High School District opened Pete Knight High School last year.

Memorial arrangements were still being prepared Saturday.


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