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GOP's Pete Knight, 74; Former Test Pilot Was Foe of Gay Marriage

May 09, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

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.

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