Missing in Action

Why there's no more Knight in the Knight Initiative

Where's Pete?

Where's the sour, dour, career gay-basher from Palmdale who cooked up Proposition 22? With the March 7 election less than a month away, promoters of Republican state Sen. Pete Knight's ballot initiative to ban recognition of gay marriage in California are wisely keeping the beetle-browed old troglodyte under wraps.

Pete is what's known in the spin-control trade as a big damn problem. He's estranged from his gay son, an Air Force Academy graduate and Gulf War fighter pilot. The senator admitted to me last year that he didn't bother to attend the funeral of his "peculiar" gay brother, who died of AIDS. He's disgusted by gays and lesbians and doesn't hesitate to say so in public.

Pete Knight.
Wild Don Lewis
Pete Knight.

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Unfortunately for the people trying to peddle his poisonous initiative to voters, hatred, bigotry, and a dysfunctional family aren't very good selling points. So Knight, who worked closely with wealthy Bible-thumpers to get Proposition 22 on the ballot, has suddenly disappeared from his own campaign.

He didn't sign the pro-22 arguments in the official state voters' guide. He doesn't appear in the Yes on 22 commercial that began running on Spanish-language TV stations last month. And he's been involved in few, if any, public debates on the measure, including a recent California Capitol Week forum that was aired on public television stations across the state.

Indeed, the Yes on 22 people have sanitized their campaign to the point that it's hard to tell it's about trashing gays at all.

Under state family law, any legally valid marriage performed in another state must be recognized in California. That means if another state were to approve same-sex marriages, those unions would be legally binding here -- unless Proposition 22 passes and closes that "loophole." Gays recently lost court battles over the right to marry in Hawaii and Vermont (where the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to the same legal benefits and protections as married couples but not to an all-important marriage license). Eventually, though, they'll win, as soon as some group of high-ranking judges works up the nerve to acknowledge the obvious: Denying gays the fundamental civil and human right to wed -- a right straights take for granted -- is indefensible discrimination, plain and simple.

But you'd never know any of this from watching the first Yes on 22 TV commercial, which features a large Mexican-American family celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of its patriarch and matriarch. Throughout the 30-second spot, people smile, mariachi music plays, and happiness oozes. "We always salute our grandparents, where our tradition began," says the voice-over. Then comes the tag line: "Marriage and Family -- that's what Proposition 22 is all about." There's no hint that gays and lesbians are getting screwed out of a basic right, no mention of the rich right-wingers like savings-and-loan heir Howard Ahmanson and Christian radio magnate Ed Atsinger who bankrolled the initiative. Remember the syrupy "Morning in America" TV ads that helped keep Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1984? The Proposition 22 people are using the same happy-face formula.

"This is a very tolerant campaign," says Robert Glazier, the head flack for Yes on 22. "This campaign has never been mean-spirited or anti-gay or derogatory in any way, shape, or form toward any group of people or their behaviors or their lifestyles."

Glazier says Pete Knight hasn't been involved much in the campaign because "he's focusing on legislative and constituent responsibilities." Although Knight was heavily involved in qualifying his initiative for the ballot, says Glazier, the Yes on 22 campaign has mushroomed to the point that the senator has "not had to play the type of role for the passage stage that he did have to play for the qualification stage."

Uh huh.

In fact, Knight is very much involved in the campaign, but in a behind-the-scenes role as a fund-raiser. In a Jan. 1 letter, Knight exhorted his fellow gay-haters to shell out big time for Proposition 22, warning apocalyptically that "it is not an exaggeration to say that the future of marriage as an institution may well depend on your response to this letter."

"Gay activists headquartered in San Francisco are in full roar against Prop. 22, actively raising more than $10 million to defeat us," the letter shrieked. "A defeat for Prop. 22 in California would open the floodgates for 'same-sex marriages' not only here but all across our country." Knight also complained that his three previous efforts to keep gay marriage out of California were all thwarted by the "gay lobby's stranglehold on the [state] Senate."

Now that'sthe Sen. Homophobe we know and loathe. And it's also the reason you won't see much of him on TV or on the stump during this campaign. He's a far-right crank who would repel most California voters if they were familiar with his record, and scare the bejesus out of the rest.

Just for fun, let's review some of Pete's, um, accomplishments.

In 1993, he tried to abolish the California Commission on the Status of Women. In 1996, he tried to kill a state Senate amendment to grant gays the right to visit sick or injured lovers in the hospital. The California League of Conservation Voters gave him a legislative rating of zero in 1998. Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California gave him a zero rating in both 1997 and 1998. He voted against organized labor in each of 25 legislative floor votes monitored by the California Labor Federation in 1998.

My favorite Pete anecdote is how he passed around a "poem" to his fellow lawmakers in 1993 mocking Latinos -- the very people his TV ads now court -- with racist slurs. "We have a hobby, it's called breeding/ Welfare pay for baby feeding," the ditty went, in part. "We think America damn good place/ Too damn good for white man race." Confronted by reporters, Pete said he thought the poem, penned by one of his cave-dwelling constituents, was "interesting, clever, and funny." I can only guess that Pete, a retired Air Force colonel, hit his head on the cockpit one time too many during his test-pilot days at Edwards Air Force Base.

And let's not forget Pete's supporters, many of whom are almost as alarming as he is.

Eighty percent of the money to qualify the Knight initiative for the ballot -- $372,500 -- came from Ahmanson and Atsinger. Heir to the Home Savings of America fortune, Ahmanson has spent millions underwriting hard-right political candidates, ballot measures, and think tanks. Among the latter is the Chalcedon Foundation, whose president believes capital punishment is an appropriate sanction for adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, hitting or cursing a parent, and other "crimes against the family." Atsinger controls the Camarillo-based Salem Communications Corp., which runs the nation's largest string of Christian radio stations, broadcasting, among other things, syndicated talk shows by Oliver North and anti-abortion radical Randall Terry.

Proposition 22 is strongly supported by the Mormon and Catholic churches, which have exhorted their members across the state to contribute cash and otherwise assist the campaign. In thumbing through the latest Yes on 22 fund-raising report, I came across a $10,000 donation from Concerned Women for America, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that describes its mission as "to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens -- first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society -- thereby reducing the decline in moral values in our nation."

Of course, keeping Pete Knight locked in the cellar as much as possible during the campaign is a very smart political move. With Knight in a marquee role, California voters -- many of whom have at least one gay or lesbian friend or relative and aren't particularly sympathetic to anti-gay demagogues -- would vote against his proposition in droves. And ironically, it was the No on 22 campaign that may have forced Knight to keep his head down.

Back in October, the No on Knight people helped engineer what seemed a clever PR maneuver, coaxing Knight's gay son, David, now a Baltimore cabinetmaker, to go public with his vehement criticism of his father's ballot measure. In a moving essay supplied exclusively to the L.A. Times, the state's biggest newspaper, David related that his dad had broken off their relationship after learning he was gay, and said how much he missed him. David also attacked Proposition 22 as "a blind, uncaring, uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which [Pete] knows nothing and wants to know nothing, but which serves his political career."

The essay struck a major blow against Pete's already cheesy public image. But it may also have given the Yes on 22 crowd one more reason to keep him out of sight -- depriving the No on 22 folks of their best political target.

"Sure, if he would agree to go out and debate representatives of our campaign, as we've offered over and over and over again [to do], and he's refused, it would help us," says No on 22 campaign manager Mike Marshall, who helped persuade David to write his newspaper piece. "It would definitely help us."

But as far as I'm concerned, Knight's invisibility is just another indication of his campaign's hypocrisy. Despite the Orwellian doublespeak of its advocates, Proposition 22 isn't about tolerance, it's about intolerance. It isn't about letting people "live their life the way they choose," as Robert Glazier told me; it's about using government to control and restrict people's lives.

Listen closely to Glazier for a moment:

"We value the importance of diversity and tolerance," he says of the Yes on 22 campaign. "But tolerance is a two-way street, and we believe that we here in California have got to continue to respect one another with all of our great differences. And that includes people that believe the institution of marriage should remain between a man and a woman without taking away anyone else's rights and privileges which they deserve to have under law."

Translation: We'll be tolerant as hell as long as fags don't have the same rights that we have.

In the 1950s and '60s, George Wallace and other segregationists stood in the schoolhouse door, preventing blacks from attending Deep South high schools and colleges. Today, Pete Knight and his ilk stand in the doors of churches and temples, preventing gays and lesbians from enjoying one of society's sweetest, most profound rituals: binding yourself to the one you love in matrimony.

On Election Day, let's all go to the polls and push Knight out of the way.

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