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June 29, 2007

Weekend read: Meet Steve Novick

Posted by David Postman at 3:33 PM

When reporters ask long shot political candidates how they think they can win, the answer usually goes something like this: "By putting our children first."

That's one of the different things I noticed about Democrat Steve Novick — though not the first or second, but I'll get to those later. He is running in the Oregon Democratic primary to take on incumbent Republican Sen. Gordon Smith next year. He's not run for office before and likely isn't known widely outside a circle of Oregon political activists, reporters and liberals who have applauded his work opposing conservative ballot measures.

We met at a Belltown coffee shop Thursday and he talked enthusiastically and frankly about the strategy he says he'll follow to defeat Smith. I found out later he had also written much of the same for Willamette Week in January, while still pondering a race. Novick told me:

"What you do with Smith is point out he is a Republican in a period when Republicans are unpopular, and you point to obvious examples of his being extremely Republican."

One example, Novick says, was Smith's vote last year for a minimum wage bill that would have led to lower wages for Oregon waiters and waitresses and others who depend on tips.

"The flip side of that is he has said his greatest accomplishment in the Senate was sponsoring a one-year tax holiday for multi-national corporations that have their money stashed overseas — a tax holiday that gave one drug company, Pfizer, $11 billion, which, as I like to say, is enough to get any company excited with or without Viagara,"

Novick was here for a fundraiser thrown by his co-workers at Pyramid Communications. Novick is the sole employee in the Portland branch of the PR firm. Like Montana's Jon Tester last year, Novick hopes to tap into Seattle's liberal political money machine. I was about 20 minutes into my interview with Novick when I asked him what I guess was an obvious question: How'd he end up with a steel hook instead of a left hand?

"I was just born without it," he said.

"Obviously, politically, it's an advantage. People aren't going to forget the little guy with the left hook. I said in my announcement speech and I'll say it until I'm blue in the face: Oregon families need a senator who will fight for them and a fighter needs a hard left hook.

"And I'll also say until people get sick of it, every politician claims to be for the little guy. But when I say it you can believe it."

He's three inches shy of five feet tall. I told him that'd make it tough to be president since history shows the tall candidate always win.

"Except for James Madison," he says. "Madison was the man."

He probably knew exactly how tall Madison was and what his winning vote percentage was. Novick prides himself on being, as he said, "the campaign guy who is supposed to know the facts."

Here are some quick Novick facts. He went to college at 14 and entered Harvard Law School when he was 18. He was an environmental prosecutor for the Department of Justice and was lead counsel on the Love Canal case. When he returned to Oregon after his DOJ years, he was chief of staff to state Senate Democrats and headed up the Center for Constructive Citizen Action, which opposed a tax-cutting initiative.

"I occupy this position between policy and politics," he said. Oregon Democrats more firmly on the political side have so far declined to challenge Smith. Someone with better name recognition still has time to get in the race, but Novick is running as if Smith is his only opponent.

To do that he has to combat who he calls "some misguided liberals" who have been known to praise Smith for opposing cuts to Medicaid. Novick says the praise is wrongheaded because Smith doesn't say how he'll pay for escalating costs in the program. "Anything he does about spending on good things is just added to the debt," he said.

Smith has also worked recently to establish himself as more protective of the environment and less supportive of the Iraq war. Novick has an answer for the war stance:

"First of all, he is still supporting McCain for president. And how against the war can you be when you are supporting the one presidential candidate who's committed to staying there forever."

Smith and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden appear together at town hall meetings across the state and, as Novick said, "take advantage of the fact that people like to see politician's seem bipartisan."

"But Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith have voted against each other on virtually every issue of any significance for the past 12 years."

Is he arguing that there is a neutralizing effect in the delegation?

"Yes. They cancel each other out. And Ron Wyden is the most popular politician in the state and the message is we need to send Ron Wyden a real partner in the Senate, someone who won't vote to confirm Sam Alito, who wouldn't have voted for the war and would support Wyden's health-care plan."

(I will try to talk to Smith soon, too. We don't have a Senate race next year so we might as well spend some time watching to the south.)

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