California state senator William J. "Pete" Knight, who sponsored the state's same-sex marriage ban and took it directly to voters after twice failing to get it through the legislature, has died of leukemia. He was 74.
Knight died of an acute form of the cancer Friday night at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, his communications director, David Orosco, said Saturday. Knight, a Republican from Palmdale, had been absent from his seat since April 12 because of his illness. "The worst thing about this is, he wanted to keep working, going, contributing," said Knight's wife, Gail. "He wanted to live. He wanted to try. God had a different plan."
A retired Air Force colonel and record-setting test pilot who trained for the space program, Knight had served in the California legislature since 1992, when he was elected to the assembly. He was elected to his first senate term in 1996. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Knight "a true Renaissance man." The governor said in a statement that flags would be flown half-staff at the capitol. Knight was best known as author of the state's Defense of Marriage Act, which says that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized as valid in California. After failing to get similar legislation through the Democrat-controlled legislature, Knight took it to voters; the measure passed with 61% approval in 2000. He later used the courts to keep state agencies from granting spousal rights to same-sex couples. His nonprofit group is at the center of the legal challenges to San Francisco's same-sex wedding spree.
Knight's son, David Knight, married Joseph Lazzaro, his partner of 10 years, at San Francisco's City Hall earlier this year, just two days before the California supreme court halted the weddings. Reached at their Baltimore home Saturday, Lazzaro said David Knight was not ready to comment on his father's death, declining to say whether David and his father had reconciled. Senator Knight recently told the Associated Press that his drive to keep gays from marrying didn't make him antigay. "We've had homosexuals since time immemorial," he said. "And nobody cared as long as they did their work and they didn't flaunt their sexuality and didn't try to push it on you and say, 'You have to accept me.' But now they are going to say they want to be classified as normal, and I can't accept the fact that two men, married, is normal."
Knight, a former Palmdale mayor, was diagnosed April 7 with acute myelogenous leukemia, which develops when there is a defect in bone marrow. The disease is most frequently treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplants. Knight's seat, which includes northeastern Los Angeles County, will remain empty until the November election. Other senators have consented to shepherd his package of 24 bills, which includes a measure that would require courts to put in writing their reasons for ordering child support and another that would stiffen prison sentences for people who evade police. Knight is survived by his wife, three sons, four stepsons, and 15 grandchildren.