It is not one of Bob Knight’s pleasant memories. High school – a white kid harassing one of the school’s few blacks. “What I remember is I didn’t say anything,” Knight says now. “I saw it happening, and I didn’t say anything. I should have said something, not because he needed my assistance, but because it was the right thing to do.”
That episode, along with others that he says “prove I’m not perfect,” haunts Knight. It, as much as anything, shaped the man who would become mayor of Wichita, Kan., and, who would, as president of the National League of Cities, take on the ultimate non-Midwestern white guy issue – racism. It would make him a national voice for the disenfranchised, and, ultimately, lead to his selection as American City & County’s Municipal Leader of the Year for 2000.
Knight knows what it is like to live “on the other side of the tracks.” His mother cleaned other people’s houses for a living; his father was a laborer and an alcoholic. Neither made it past grade school.
Occasionally Knight would tag along when his mother worked, where, he says, “you saw the best and worst in human conduct. Some people would embarrass her, some were kind and understanding.”
Knight left home at 15, moving into a rundown hotel in downtown Wichita and working in a nearby cafe before and after school. “I came from unlikely birth circumstances to be the mayor of a city,” he says. (Knight credits his wife Jane, whom he says “came from vastly different circumstances,” with turning his life around. “She was the first person who ever believed in me,” he says.)
Many who know him say the circumstances of his upbringing gave him a special empathy for those living on the fringes. “For him, it’s a genuinely felt issue,” says Ed Flentje, director of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State and a longtime friend. “He lived on his own for a number of years. He washed dishes. He’s always had a concern for the little guy.”
It was concern for one little guy – himself – that propelled Knight into politics. He was in the investment banking business, and he needed city council approval for some financing for a client. Knight’s proposal was summarily rejected by a council that, he felt pretty sure, did not understand it. “I thought I could do better,” he says. “I figured I’d give it four years and go back to the private sector.”
That was 1979.
Twenty-one years later, Knight is serving his seventh – and final – term as mayor, a feat as interesting for its improbability as it is for its longevity. “I’ve done research on the history of Wichita, and it’s pretty tough on local elected officials,” Flentje says. “I don’t remember the percentage, but most folks who have served in Wichita don’t make it to the end of their second terms for whatever reason. He’s served more than 20 years, and he still remains amazingly popular.”
That popularity persists despite the fact – or perhaps because of it – that Knight is not exactly Mayor Feel-Good. “He doesn’t shy away from unpopular or difficult tasks,” says Wichita City Manager Chris Church, who has worked with Knight for 15 years and considers him a friend.
Tenacity, Church says, is the driving force behind a battle Knight is waging with Western Resources, the state electric utility that was charging Wichitans, as residents of the state’s largest city, higher rates than it charged other Kansans. “It is a real injustice,” Knight says.
“Bob wouldn’t let it drop,” says Church, “He’s a strong-minded individual, and, if he feels something is good for the community, he’ll fight for it.” (The Western Resources matter is now before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.)
Like Church, those who know Knight insist that he can be a bulldog when he feels deeply about an issue. “He was instrumental is solving a long-time water supply issue,” Church says. “He helped organize a statewide symposium on cleaning up the Arkansas River. He fought for a $5 million expansion of the police department. He has a vision about how the city should be, and he will not take no for an answer.”
“He’s tenacious in his beliefs,” Flentje says. “He listens, but he’s also ferocious.”
Entities as disparate as hog farmers and railroads have discovered both attributes. Knight helped push a bill through the state legislature that forces corporate hog farms to make “site specific” locating decisions that will not cause environmental harm. And, after years of negotiating, he helped force the railroad that divided the city to build grade separations that would help in the ongoing downtown revitalization efforts.
The crown jewel of those efforts is Exploration Place, a science center and museum that represents the largest public/private partnership ever undertaken in Wichita. In that, as in everything, Knight credits cooperation. “You have to have a lot of people behind you,” he says. “You can’t do anything by yourself.”
Knight’s absolute belief in that statement prompted him to reach out to local governments around Wichita to bring them together in a regional council of governments. The result of his efforts is an organization that now represents 32 dues-paying members and almost 750,000 people. The group identifies regional issues and solutions and helps lobby on matters that require state action.
“It would not have happened without him,” says Flentje, who worked with Knight to establish the group. “For 100 or so years, people in Wichita just worried about Wichita. They didn’t care what happened next door. Bob concluded that that attitude was not productive in the long run. He is trying to build relationships based on the common interests of the region.”
Knight is a “builder of bridges,” Flentje says. In fact, one of Knight’s proudest achievements in Wichita is a program called Building Bridges, an initiative aimed at addressing racism and race relations in the community through small focus groups. Originally a three-year effort, Knight has extended the program for two more years.
“When you look at the leading voices on this issue, you look at California, D.C., the East Coast,” says Melanie Anderson, community dialogue coordinator for the Wichita office of the National Conference of Community and Justice. “He’s here in the middle of nowhere. We haven’t been as unfortunate as some cities where they are having major problems with racism. We’ve been lucky. So he’s not just reacting. He’s taking a stand prior to any problems.”
Being president of NLC offered Knight the opportunity to take the principles of Building Bridges national. “He told me that racism was the issue he wanted to take on [as NLC president],” says Chris McKenzie, former director of the Kansas League of Municipalities and current director of the California League of Cities. “I was the voice of caution. It’s a hard issue to get your hands around. I was 100 percent wrong.”
Seizing the opportunity
Knight could have played it safe, could have chosen a nice, safe issue like sprawl, education or crime on which to concentrate his considerable energy. But the continuing presence of racism and its effects bothers him greatly, and it is not a crusade he believes should be left only to the minorities it affects most.
“I had a time frame and an opportunity to really call attention to the prevailing problem of racism,” he says. “I chose to take that opportunity.”
“One thing about Bob, he’s very decisive,” McKenzie says. “He makes it clear what he thinks the priorities should be. Racism was the priority.”
As president of NLC, Knight proposed Undoing Racism, an “agenda for cities striving to promote racial justice.” Undoing Racism required local governments to set specific objectives, set measurable goals and draft plans to create inclusive communities. Knight also helped NLC rally more than 400 cities for an Undoing Racism Day in Washington, D.C., last September.
Quick to point out his limitations in dealing with racism, Knight admits he often feels unworthy even to address it. Those feelings were brought home at the Birmingham Summit, a nationwide conference on racism sponsored by Newsweek and MSNBC.
“We had a really wide range of people who had experience in the civil rights movement,” Knight says. “[Detroit Mayor] Dennis Archer and I were on a panel. We had just gone through the civil rights museum, and I had seen pictures of one young gentleman beaten and bloodied. It was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who was a member of Martin Luther King’s inner circle. He was on the panel with us. It was a very moving experience. When I was asked a question, I kept wanting to defer. I felt like I wasn’t worthy to sit on the panel with him.”
Melanie Anderson thinks Knight is wrong. “People are used to hearing from people of color on this issue,” Anderson says. “They don’t expect to see a white elected official put his neck on the line. It’s commendable, and it takes a lot of courage.”
“I had that experience in my work,” says Bill Paul, an Oklahoma City lawyer who is the immediate past president of the American Bar Association. Paul made increasing racial and ethnic diversity within the bar the principal initiative of his tenure. “So many of the minority leaders in the bar would come up to me and say, `On this issue, we are always asked to do the work and chair the committees. But when a white guy from Oklahoma is out front on racism, it can give the issue more credibility than when it’s just us.'”
A contribution to what is right
The NLC presidency gave Knight a forum, and he used it to bring the problem of racism home to America’s cities and counties. “At the inner core of Bob Knight is a gentleman who tries very hard to be a community builder,” says Greg Lashutka, former mayor of Columbus, Ohio, and current vice president of corporate relations for Columbus-based Nationwide Insurance. “He has seen personally the divisiveness of those who want to polarize the country along racial lines, and he has no tolerance for it. He felt as president of NLC, it was time to address the topic on a local government level.”
“He wants to make a contribution to what is right,” says Wichita City Manager Chris Church, who quickly points out that Knight is no one-trick-pony. “Racism may be at the top of the list, but it’s not his only concern. He’s taken on a full plate.”
He has done it all with a sense of urgency since term limits will prohibit him from running for mayor again. “Time is precious to Bob,” Church says. “He sees the end of his term, and he wants to get things done. If people in the community knew he would run again, they’d probably overturn the term limits. Even people who don’t agree with him respect him for taking the lead on unpopular issues.”
Flentje agrees. “I’ve watched politics a long time, and someone with an activist agenda usually loses folks,” he says. “He seems to have figured out the equation to maintaining popular support and getting things done.”