About 10 years ago, Bud Norman, a gravel-voiced, fedora-wearing reporter for The Wichita Eagle, wrote a story about Wichita Mayor Bob Knight suggesting Knight's life was stuff straight from the Merle Haggard songbook.
There was the hard-scrabble upbringing, which 60-year-old Knight, a candidate in the GOP gubernatorial primary, described last week to a small group at the Southwind Country Club in Garden City:
"My father had an eighth-grade education. My mother had fourth-grade education. My father was just a tough guy who worked very hard. As I recall, a lot of the work was seasonal. My mother washed dishes in taverns and cafes and cleaned up in other people's houses.
"When I was 8 or 9 years old, I would go along with my mother and try to help her. My mother worked in homes where people expressed genuine gratitude. But I was in too many situations where I saw her stripped of her dignity. Some people rewarded her hard efforts by stripping her of her dignity in front of her kids. I left home at 15, washed dishes in a downtown hotel. That's how I went to high school."
Then there was the drinkin', which always figures prominently in Haggard songs:
"In a lot of ways, Bob Knight is kind of similar to Bob Docking," said Grover McKee, a Wichita businessman who once was an aide to Gov. Docking and is a longtime Knight friend. "Very strong family in both cases ... and both of them used to be pretty ferocious drinkers. Knight's not had a drink in 25 or 30 years. But we used to drink together, and we put away some pretty dangerous quantities of ethanol. That's when we were youngsters."
The fightin' side
There was the fightin' side of Knight made evident by his robust temper, which some observers have called "scary."
"I wouldn't call it scary," said Margalee Wright, a Knight friend since third grade who served on the Wichita City Council with him in the 1980s. "I would say he has a temper. When he goes off, you're quite certain he's angry with you, no doubt about it. I think he's worked on that over time. I think he's made a concerted effort to not let his temper out. The temper is part of the persevering determination he has about things. When he loses his temper, I know he is generally sorry. We all have things to learn as we mature. I think that's one of the things he's worked on."
"He's got some failings," said McKee, another Knight admirer. "He's short-tempered and can be abrupt. He does not suffer fools gladly or well."
And there was that other Merle Haggard essential: the redeeming love of a good woman.
"I've known Bob since third grade," Wright said. "Bob had a rough time as a kid growing up. It was a struggle. He was smart. He did OK in school and had a lot of tenacity about everything and good friends. He stuck by his friends, and his friends stuck by him."
But he still might not have made it to where he is today had he not met Jane Benedick, the woman who became his wife.
"It's like he was picked up," Wright said, "Rescued is not the right word, but he was found, and Jane saw the goodness and potential in him, and she's a very strong woman. Her family was established. Her dad was an architect. She loved him into being somebody."
Now Knight wants to be an even bigger somebody governor of Kansas. If he pulls it off, it would be the first time Kansans have elected a governor from Wichita since Ed Arn, in office 1951-1954.
Since gubernatorial terms were extended from two to four years in the early 1970s the beginning of what former Gov. Mike Hayden calls the "modern Kansas governership" every governor has had Topeka experience, gained either in the Legislature or through holding lesser statewide office such as secretary of state. Knight's most serious opponents, State Treasurer Tim Shallenburger and Kansas Senate President Dave Kerr, are from that mold.
"Since Bob Bennett, every governor has come out of what I call that Statehouse family," Hayden said. "So, the people of Kansas obviously have put a lot of credence in those people who have Statehouse experience."
Knight's candidacy aims to reverse that trend. When his lack of Statehouse experience is mentioned, Knight points to his running mate, House Speaker Kent Glasscock, and talks about the strong role Glasscock would play in his administration.
Knight also is trying to walk victorious through the intraparty war being waged between GOP conservatives and moderates. Shallenburger is considered champion of the conservative, anti-abortion faction. Kerr has the backing of many party moderates, especially those with Topeka and Johnson County ties.
Knight calls the warring party factions "the Crips and the Bloods" and says he wants to heal divisions among Kansans, not exacerbate them.
Knight opposes abortion but earned the wrath of anti-abortion activists during the Summer of Mercy protests in Wichita, which sparked hundreds of arrests.
Knight said he had met then with one of the protest leaders, a man from San Diego, and asked the man why he didn't stay in California and help pregnant women find ways to raise their babies as an alternative to abortion.
"They picketed my church," Knight said of the protesters.
Knight's TV ads have come out swinging against opponents, particularly Shallenburger, the candidate the Knight campaign considers its most formidable primary rival. But in talks on the campaign trail, Knight preaches unity and common purpose.
The unity talk goes well with his main credential, being mayor of the state's largest and most diverse city.
Knight tells people on the campaign trail that he understands diversity and how it can be harnessed to solve difficult problems.
"This is a diverse state, growing more diverse by the day," Knight told a group last week at the Dodge City Country Club. "There are far too many people who try to pull us apart, try to pit us against one another, whether it's rural against urban, or one race against another ethnicity. Kent and I want to be voices of reconciliation, voices of people uniting behind common purpose. We think most working people, most productive people are tired of the politics of division."
Bridging racial divides
Judging from Knight's actions in Wichita, his interest in bringing together different groups and bridging racial divides is sincere.
"One thing I know he put a lot of effort into was inclusion of all people," said Ray Denton, a friend of Knight's since high school days. "He's done an awful lot for race relations here. I've heard him speak about it, and it's pretty moving in some instances. He's got standing ovations, and it's not a speech somebody wrote for him. He just stood up and told what he felt. Some people saw that as a kind of a paradox because he's such a strong business promoter. He doesn't see it that way. He has really strong convictions about that."
Wright, a Democrat who crossed swords frequently with Knight when they served together on the city council, said Knight's strong belief in bridging racial divides was one of the things that kept their friendship strong despite policy differences over the years.
"I have worked with him on that issue," she said. "That's one thing we certainly have in common. Both Bob and I have a sense of what it means to be excluded from that inner circle. While president of the National League of Cities, he took on race relations as the priority issue, and in Wichita we're working on a project called 'Building Bridges.'"
She said that while Knight had built a network of political support within the Wichita business community, he saw himself as a champion of the "little guy."
"In many ways," Wright said, "he is an outsider to the traditional processes. He sort of started out that way but has become a person who can cross a lot of boundaries."
When Knight flew to western Kansas last week, it was on a Piaggio turbo-prop jet loaned to him by Wichita businessman Larry Fleming. His main campaign fund-raiser is Jay Swanson, another businessman who once worked on campaigns for former Atty. Gen. Bob Stephan.
Wright says she will be torn between voting for Knight or another personal friend, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, if it comes to that in November.
But, she added, "There's an awful lot of us involved in the political scene in Wichita that would love to see a governor from Wichita."
According to Shallenburger campaign aides, Knight fund-raisers "have locked up the Wichita money" going into the primary race.
Knight admirers say he would bring an experienced but "fresh-from-the-outside" view to Topeka and that he is a tight budget watchdog.
Wright, citing Knight's efforts as mayor to get the city lower electric rates, said he didn't shy from fights he believed were worth the effort. But she said Knight would avoid controversy he didn't consider worth the political capital. That's one reason Wichita still doesn't add fluoride to the public water supply, though public health officials consider it a common-sense thing to do.
"Fluoride in the water has been a contentious issue in Wichita for at least 20 years," Wright said, "and his position has been 'no' every time the board of health suggests he put it on the agenda. I think that has been very tough for him. He has regular critics among those people who think fluoridating the water is a public health issue. But either way you go with that, you make people mad. He doesn't consider it an important enough issue for the stir it would cause."
Facing the budget
The certain issue awaiting the next governor is the state's unprecedented budget shortfall, which forecasters now expect will be from $600 million to $700 million.
Knight, no different from the other candidates, has offered few details on how he would deal with the issue. He has said the state school finance formula needs an overhaul and that Glasscock would lead a task force of experts to fix it. Knight said he would lead a similar task force to tackle the state's budget problem. In his stump speeches, he usually tells the audience Kansas is in a difficult time, requiring difficult decisions. That's usually the closest a candidate can come to promising a tax increase without committing political suicide.
As Wichita mayor he was generally considered fiscally conservative.
"He's always been kind of a hard-ass when it comes to finances," McKee said.
Dealing with the budget problem will require close work with legislators. Knight hasn't had that kind of experience, and his temperament, friends say, makes him want to get things done quickly.
"His weakness would be that he's not terribly patient," Wright said. "I think the legislative process would make him feel impatient. But I think he would learn to deal with that" if that's would it took to accomplish the job.