When Bob Knight, investment banker in Wichita, Kan., appeared before the city council in the late 1970s with a business proposal, he got a first-hand look at how local government operated. It was a rude awakening.
“I waited most of the day to speak,” he recalls. “[The council members] were very tired and seemingly distracted, and they rejected the proposal. That didn’t bother me as much as the fact that I didn’t think they understood the proposal.”
Knight later met with individual council members, and his suspicions were right on target; they had not understood his proposal, and, instead of taking the time to review it, they rejected it. He decided then and there to do something about the way the council operated, and he enlisted for duty. “I ran for office with the idea that people ought to know what they’re talking about when they’re affecting other people’s lives,” he says.
Knight was elected to the city council in 1979. This year, elected by a 4-to-1 margin, he began his seventh term as mayor. Next month, he takes over leadership of the National League of Cities, having served as second vice president and first vice president previously. He is the first elected municipal leader from Kansas to serve as an NLC officer.
Taking a different road
Politics was not part of the original plan. Knight graduated from Wichita State University and served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve before working in investment banking in Wichita. When he decided to run for city council, there were three seats up for election, and Knight landed a spot. He had planned to keep the job for only four years, but his success – and popularity – in Wichita have kept him in public service for 20 years.
He has taken his local experience to the national level, serving on multiple committees and task forces at NLC and is now poised to lead NLC and work on issues affecting all municipalities. “I want to spend my year practicing at the national level what I try to practice at the local level,” he says.
Electric deregulation, e-commerce and racism – an important issue to the NLC, according to NLC Director Don Borut – will consume much of Knight’s attention. “Racism pervades over our society and often is not addressed,” Borut says. “That Bob decided this issue was critical is in itself significant.”
Knight will spend his year as NLC president examining the issue of racism in the nation’s cities and working with advisors to develop solutions to problems associated with racism, such as crime. “It’s a difficult topic, a very sensitive subject, but it’s a subject all of us need to think about and explore,” Knight says. “We need to try to blur the lines of political parties, age differences and racial differences.”
Leveling the field
Equality is a hot topic for Knight – it influences nearly all of his work, nationally and locally. “I want to make sure that everyone has standing,” Knight explains. “Any time someone believes I’m giving preference to some group because of their standing, that bothers me.”
That notion of equal standing includes party affiliation, according to Frank Shafroth, director of state-federal relations for the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., and former director of policy and federal relations for NLC. “There are a lot of people in NLC who are very sharply partisan, and he’s able to make people focus on the issue and on the common good and not their parties,” Shafroth says.
“One of [Knight’s] greatest qualities is that he has a great vision of what the role of government should be,” says Wichita Chief of Police Mike Watson. “Mayor Knight is adamant that government needs to be inclusive and that everyone needs to be treated fairly and equally.” Watson has experienced part of that vision in his duties in law enforcement – an area of government that can divide a community, he says. To prevent that division, Watson and Knight worked together to create a community policing program, under which police officers meet with individuals and neighborhood representatives to hear their concerns and problems, and then tailor policing to their needs. Some areas may require a strong police presence on the street while others may only have a problem with litter, Watson explains.
The program has helped reduce crime, Watson reports, and it has opened lines of communication between the police department and residents. In 1996, Wichita won an award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, Va., for the program.
Even after six terms, Knight is challenged by the problems with which he must deal. For example, he has spent much of this year going head to head with statewide utility provider Western Resources over electric rates.
The battle began when Knight discovered that utility customers in south central Kansas, including Wichitans, were paying 33 to 38 percent more for service than their neighbors to the north. He filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that halted a proposed merger between Western Resources and Kansas City Power & Light. That experience fueled Knight’s interest in electric deregulation.
“My circumstance here has to do with fairness of pricing,” he says. “While I am an advocate of deregulation, we have one company charging rates in this state, and I don’t think that’s right.”
In addition to the public battles, Knight has fought – and won – a very personal battle. Last summer, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery. After the mayor announced his illness publicly, the Wichita Business Journal printed an editorial stating, “He has work to do – we can’t spare him.” But Knight will be doing the job for some time. His surgery was successful, and he returned to work in Wichita well before doctors’ recommendations.
While Knight focuses much attention on the critical issues in Wichita, he also engages in serious self-analysis to ensure that he is doing the best job he can. “Every night, I review my day, and I try to assess, as objectively as I can, whether I was part of the solution or part of the problem,” he says. “On far too many occasions, I have found that I have been part of the problem.”
Until recently, Knight was known to have a bit of a temper, which he later realized may have created problems for him. “He used to get publicly angry with citizens at council meetings,” says Randy Brown, editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle. “He’s a strong-minded and combative kind of person, and he does not suffer fools gladly. But he’s mellowed recently.”
Colleagues note that Knight has begun to let a little more of his sense of humor show. “Bob is kind of a quiet, cerebral leader,” Borut says. “But he has a very wry sense of humor.”
That sense of humor would serve Knight well in public, Brown says. “It would help if Mayor Knight showed more of a sense of humor or loosened up more in public. When he’s making a speech, he’s all business.”
And Knight has much business to attend to, in Wichita and in Washington, D.C., at his new post. But he is prepared for the work and honored to take the job.
“I think it’s the ultimate privilege to serve your neighbors in government,” Knight says. “Public service truly is a high calling.”