Bringing a whole new meaning to back-door politics, Gregor Knauer agreed to run for office while standing in the alley behind his Tempe home.
On the drive home from the ultra progressive Howard Zinn Memorial Film Festival in early April, Knauer, a 56-year-old groundskeeper, was urged to run for the Arizona Legislature. His friend, the driver, told him the Green Party had just gotten the 20,000 signatures necessary to put candidates on the 2010 ballot for the upcoming midterm elections.
By the time they arrived at Knauer’s home and lifted Knauer’s bike out of the VW convertible, Knauer decided to run as the little guy, for the little guy, for the Arizona House of Representatives, District 17.
Knauer isn’t the average political candidate. Not even close. He’s an offbeat, idealistic working man who has a spiritual guru, practices celibacy, abstains from alcohol and only enters his home from the back door. Like pistachio ice cream versus the much more familiar chocolate and vanilla, Knauer’s peculiarities both distinguished him and doomed him all at once.
When he launched his bid for the House he had been a registered Green for several years. This was his first political candidacy, and although he knew the odds were stacked against him, he believed his “standing up for the little guy” message would resonate with District 17 voters.
He was wrong.
Although Knauer only garnered 2 percent of the vote, he wants to run again for public office, but he’s not sure which one.
In the meantime, however, he wants to get people past the tree-hugging stereotypes associated with the Greens and inform them about the party’s focus on social responsibility (drug legalization and environmental conservation), social justice (prison reform) and grassroots democracy (electoral reform). He’s even considering buying a computer to help spread the message.
While he may be focused on changing the public’s perception of Greens, Knauer, sporting khaki shorts, suspenders, a long-sleeve shirt, glasses and a bucket hat while talking to a reporter one day in late November, doesn’t deviate too far from what could be considered the mold of a typical Green candidate.
He stays fit, runs often, and works as a groundskeeper for Cosanti, an Arizona historical site in Paradise Valley developed by Paolo Soleri. He explains the architecture of Cosanti uses Soleri’s earth-casting method creating large cement domes to control temperatures. He then walks around the five-acre lot explaining his daily routine and duties as groundskeeper.
Spirituality plays a big part in his life. Knauer meditates every morning.
He sits cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom facing a shrine of his spiritual master. The shrine consists of a small wooden box adorned with sheet music, photographs and a black and white photograph of his master, Sri Chinmoy, in a “transcendental” state. As Knauer meditates, he practices the “lion’s gaze,” closing his eyelids halfway and staring at the shrine hoping to take in the both the inner and outer world.
Chinmoy was an Indian spiritual leader who preached inner harmony through vigorous exercise, meditation, writing and community involvement. He ran a meditation center out of Queens, N.Y., which claimed to have 7,000 disciples from 60 different countries. Knauer became one of those disciples in 1988 after being invited to a public meditation session in New York City.
On Tuesday evenings, Knauer meets with fellow devotees in the front room of his home in Tempe. Sitting on a blue rug, they practice group meditation. Knauer keeps the front room of his house sacred buy only entering and exiting his home through a back door that leads to an alley.
Knauer shrugs off accusations that Chinmoy and his followers are part of a cult, suggesting those involved in the accusations were nothing more than “spoiled children on a vendetta” against his guru. Knauer has never donated money to his spiritual center, but says others do.
About halfway through his legislative campaign, Knauer received a special phone call from the leader of his spiritual center. He had been granted a spiritual name – Haryakasha. All followers of Chinmoy eventually receive a new name and for Knauer (who is now called Haryakasha by co-workers, friends and family) it took more than 22 years.
The name was more than a reward for his spiritual devotion; it was a call to action, to live up to the meaning of his spiritual name – divine lion, noble in demeanor and conduct.
Out of his spirituality, grew his political platform. Knauer has long been a registered Green, devoted to the party’s core principles for environmentalism and social responsibility. Saying that both major parties have become “bogged down with bureaucracy and are bound to corporate paymasters,” Knauer considers the Greens a party focused on serving the people.
Knauer ran for the House as one of only seven Green Party candidates on the ballot for the 2010 midterm elections and the only candidate endorsed by the Green Party in his district. The main Republican opposition, Steve May, dropped out of the race amid controversy. May, a former legislator, convinced a handful of locals, including teens and the homeless, to run as non-endorsed Green candidates in District 17. With May out, Knauer was left to battle it out with two well-known, heavy-hitting Democrats: Ed Ableser and Ben Arredondo.
Knauer’s war chest was more like a piggy bank with about $1,300 to spend on his campaign while Ableser had $40,000 and Arredondo wielded more than $113,000. Despite strong competition, a lack of funding and a district that favored Democrats, Knauer managed to pull in 1,260 votes – more votes than there were Greens registered in the district.
On Election Night, while members of the main political parties congregated at hotels in downtown Phoenix preparing victory and concession speeches, Knauer was at home meditating with three other devotees, to clear his mind.
After group meditation, he went out to dinner with friends, waiting to look at the returns until later that night.
Only a week before, Knauer had his final meeting with fellow Green candidates where he reminded everyone to get the phone numbers of their political opponents so they can make their concessions when the time came. Knauer, having taken his own advice, called Arredondo and Ableser and offered his congratulations.
And now, as Knauer ties up the loose ends of his campaign – shutting down his committee, sending out e-mails, attending rallies and completing the post election financial report – he contemplates his next run for office – spiritually.
“The path is accepting the world in order to transform the world – in God’s own way at God’s own hour,” Knauer says. “I think all of us in our hearts want a better world.”