Novick no stranger to beating long odds
The political insider, a onetime Justice Department star, transforms
himself into a credible U.S. Senate candidate
Steve Novick's parents and brother all tell the same story about his
decision to leave a well-heeled
he graduated from
As his family explains it, Novick found out that he would have to
defend a giant pharmaceutical firm that had sold an allegedly
dangerous drug and he just couldn't do that.
The only problem: Novick himself says the story isn't true. The firm
did have a drug case that he might not have relished taking on. But he
says he left because he was simply lonely and wanted to come back West.
By his early 20s, Novick had overcome so much in the eyes of those
around him that they had trouble believing that he could fall prey to
the normal doubts and uncertainties of life. Literally from the time
he was born -- when his mother says a doctor saw his deformed feet and
tried to strangle him in the birth canal -- he had been overcoming a
deck stacked against him, often in spectacular fashion.
Now, at 45, Novick continues to challenge the odds. He has turned
himself from a political insider virtually unknown to the general
public into a credible first-time candidate for the Democratic
nomination for the U.S. Senate, one who just might beat the pick of
the party's establishment, House Speaker Jeff Merkley, to face
Republican incumbent Gordon Smith.
Win or lose, Novick has created a political brand for himself. His
political ads have gone viral on the Internet and you can't go to a
Democratic event without seeing people wearing "votehook.com" buttons
-- a reference to the birth defects that are his most obvious feature.
Novick's campaign and life are defined by more than his 4-foot-9
stature and the hook that serves as his left hand. He graduated from
Harvard Law School at 21, and was soon handling multimillion-
lawsuits for the federal government. The son of back-to-the-
Left parents, he still reflexively jumps to the side of the poor and
the working class, the unions and the environment.
Now he's hoping voters will buy a colorful progressive who is always
ready with an acerbic quip -- and who is willing to say tax hikes have
to do more than hit the wealthy but also must touch the top ranks of
the middle class.
"Even if people disagree with you sometimes, they would rather have
somebody who stands up for principle than somebody who is caving," he
says. "We learned that with Ronald Reagan. People disagreed with
Ronald Reagan on a whole host of issues but they were willing to vote
for him because they thought he said what he believed, even if they
thought what he believed was nuts."
Novick's upbringing was far from conventional. His mother was forced
to drop out of college when she became pregnant with him at 18. She
briefly married his biological father, but the marriage soon ended.
Rebecca Novick Harmon says she later learned that her doctor had tried
to prevent her son's birth, and she described a series of challenges
in his early years.
Other doctors, believing he would never walk, wanted to amputate his
feet. She resisted and moved to Massachusetts, where she could get
public funding for an operation to break and reset his legs to help
him walk (nature hikes eventually became one of his favorite
Early on, she says, it was clear her son was bright, memorizing Dr.
Seuss books before he could read.
More remarkably, he seemed perpetually upbeat and determined. His
stepfather, Bob Novick, came into the family when Steve was 5. "He had
a lot of the same characteristics that are the same now," the elder
Novick says. "He was real quick, very cute and very determined and
His mother taught at a Head Start center in San Francisco, and her son
was the only white kid in the class. Within a couple of weeks, by
sheer force of personality, he had turned bullies into friends.
Whether it was hanging laundry or playing pickup softball, he always
wanted to be part of the action.
"I just sort of did what I could do," Steve Novick says. "It's not
like I remember that I had all these obstacles to overcome."
His family eventually settled on a farm near Cottage Grove, where his
mother supported the family as a waitress. There wasn't much money.
But the tight-knit family, which grew to include two younger brothers,
reveled in books, music and plenty of left-wing politics.
"The kid didn't have a chance," says Harmon with a laugh. "He was
raised on Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and one of the first (adult)
books he read -- he was probably 9 or 10 -- was 'Bury My Heart at
Wounded Knee,' " the story of the American West from the Native
When he was 13, Novick's local school shut down after voters defeated
a tax levy. Novick learned he could take classes at the University of
Oregon. Within months, he had entered UO's honors college, and by age
18, had received a bachelor's degree in history and math and was
accepted to Harvard Law.
After law school, Novick tried out big firms in New York and San
Francisco. Feeling adrift, he moved to Washington, D.C., and got his
dream job, working in environmental enforcement for the Department of
Novick plunged into the arcane task of determining the costs polluters
must pay under the federal Superfund law. The new law was still being
interpreted by the courts, and several lawyers involved in the issue
say Novick played an important role in helping make the case that the
government should be reimbursed for all cleanup costs, regardless of
whether the polluter thought the costs were too high.
"A lot of the precedent that went into the law of Superfund cost
recovery really sprang out of Steve Novick's brain," says Steve Gold,
a Rutgers law professor who worked with Novick.
Novick, whom colleagues called the "king of costs," became one of the
lead government attorneys in legal action stemming from the notorious
Love Canal chemical pollution disaster in New York state.
By the fall of 1995, Novick and other Justice Department attorneys
were locked in intense negotiations with the Occidental Chemical Corp.
over how much the company would pay.
Steve Yablonski, Occidental's lead attorney in the final negotiations,
described Novick as one of the few people who could have successfully
reached a deal that called for the company to pay $129 million in
damages. "He is just several notches above most people," Yablonski
says. "He is a really bright guy, and yet he is not an egghead who
can't function with most people."
Back in Oregon
Itching to get more involved in politics, Novick returned to Oregon to
work on Tom Bruggere's losing Senate campaign against Smith in 1996. A
succession of political jobs followed.
As the caucus administrator for Oregon Senate Democrats in 1997,
Novick always looked for a catchy issue to tweak the Republicans then
in the majority.
"He would whisper something in my ear about the corporate tax rate or
the kicker," recalls Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard, then a state
senator, "and before you know it he and I would sitting down and I
would be writing out some remarks that I would take to the floor and
would just outrage the Republicans. . . . I essentially became a
mouthpiece for Steve."
In 1999, Novick was asked to lay the groundwork for the campaign
against another tax-cut measure from Bill Sizemore. Novick leaped to
Novick became an expert on taxes and government spending, defending a
public sector he saw as under siege.
He encouraged school activists to fight what he saw as overly generous
video lottery commissions to retailers, but when he worked on Ted
Kulongoski's race for governor, he didn't like how the candidate
suggested there was waste in the schools. Novick says he didn't go to
work afterward for the new governor because "I worried that I would be
progressive window dressing in his administration.
Instead, he worked for the new state schools superintendent and then
for a union-sponsored nonprofit that explained and essentially
defended government finances.
Money not a priority
Novick rarely made as much as he had as a lawyer at the Justice
Department, but that didn't seem to bother him. His girlfriend, Julia
Bunnell, an Environmental Protection Agency official in Washington,
explains: "There is so much going on in his mind all the time, he's
always reading, learning and talking and getting information, I'm not
sure he has the time to think about" acquiring things.
Everywhere he went, Novick quickly nested himself in a haphazard stack
of paper that one co-worker joked became a tourist attraction. He was
as unselfconscious about that as everything else. At parties, he'd
plop down on the floor with curious kids to show how his hook worked.
"It's always a sense with Steve that you're joining a merry band of
men," Portland political consultant Mark Wiener says. "He has a
remarkable circle of friends who are in love with him. . . . Steve
Novick has gotten more people to do things than any other adult I know."
For two years running, Novick persuaded friends and colleagues to
parade around Pioneer Courthouse Square on April 15 with signs
thanking taxpayers and chanting things like, "Payin' taxes can be
rough, but they pay for important stuff."
Those on the receiving end of Novick's barbs could feel different.
Anti-tax activist Sizemore debated Novick once and says of him, "I was
just impressed that he was more acerbic and abrasive and in your face
than a typical public figure would be. It would be like he didn't care
much for the normal protocol of niceties. . . . If he wanted to call
people names, he just did."
As Novick gets deeper into his own candidacy, he's become more
careful. In September, he said in an interview that he would be "more
willing to be critical" of the U.S. Senate Democratic leadership than
Merkley. But by April, he said: "I'll be a team player and I want to
help. I think that part of your job is to help (Democratic leader)
Harry Reid be the best leader he can be."
It is a reminder of how far Novick is suddenly attempting to reach up
the political ladder. He has thought of running for office for several
years. In 2001, he prepared to run for a state House seat until
redistricting moved his Southeast Portland home into a neighboring
Then he turned his sights on the congressional seat held by Rep. Earl
Blumenauer, D-Ore., who seriously considered running for Portland
mayor in 2004. But Blumenauer decided to stay put.
Novick considered dropping out of this year's Senate race after his
youngest brother, Mischa, who had struggled with serious back pain,
died of a drug overdose in May 2007. Steve Novick, who talked to both
of his brothers on the phone virtually every day, says softly, "It
helps to have something to do every day that is intense. . . . I miss
him an awful lot."
If Rep. Peter DeFazio -- the consensus choice among Democrats as the
strongest challenger to Smith -- had decided to run, Novick says he
would have bowed out once again.
The Novick brand would have still been strictly for political insiders
Jeff Mapes: 503-221-8209; jeffmapes@news.
©2008 The Oregonian