Steve Novick is the one to watch in Oregon politics

Election 2008.

Oregonians, Steve Novick likes to say, want someone a little different in their politicians, and he’s just the man for the task.

At 4’9″ tall, with a prosthetic hook for a left hand and a campaign built on audacious television commercials and Web pages, Novick could wind up being the nominee of Oregon Democrats to take on U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R) after Tuesday’s mail balloting is completed.

Democrats in Oregon are prepared to give Barack Obama a big win at the top of Tuesday’s ticket, and Novick, 45, hopes the enthusiasm will help him upset Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley of suburban Portland for the Senate nomination.

Novick was born with a missing left hand and missing fibula bones in his legs, and in his campaign he has referred to his disabilities with humor, boasting of “a hard left hook,” and in a popular television commercial, opening a beer bottle with his hook. His campaign has attracted a following among young voters, and apparently among indie rock bands as well, as evidence by this MTV clip.

Novick clearly is a candidate who’s a little different. His life story goes beyond battling disability. At age 14, when a budget failure caused schools in Cottage Grove, Ore., to close temporarily, Novick started taking classes at nearby University of Oregon. He did so well he was admitted, graduated at 18, and went on to Harvard Law School. After private law practice, he joined the U.S. Department of Justice and was a prosecutor on several high-profile cases, including the 1995 case that settled the Love Canal toxic cleanup. Returning to Oregon, he worked on a variety of Democratic and progressive campaigns, and currently is senior project manager for Pyramid Communications, a consulting firm working primarily with non-profit organizations.

Novick is in a dead-heat race with Merkley, with the latest poll showing him with a lead of 29 percent to 23 percent, leaving an astounding 43 percent undecided a week before the end of voting.

Merkley polls better against the incumbent, however, in a Rasmussen Reports poll released on May 10, showing Smith with a narrow 45 percent to 42 percent edge on Merkley. Smith leads Novick 47 percent to 41 percent. The poll shows both Democrats narrowing Smith’s lead since February, placing him in a vulnerable position for fall.

Smith, a former president of the state Senate, won election to the U.S. Senate in 1996, succeeding longtime Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, the most successful Republican in Oregon history. He was re-elected by a strong margin in 2002, and without the unpopularity of the Bush Administration would be a strong favorite this year. He has cast himself in the Hatfield mold, that of a moderate Republican willing to buck party leaders on selected issues, including Iraq.

Speaker Merkley has paid his party dues, serving five terms in the Legislature, the last as speaker. Also linked to progressive causes, he was Oregon executive director for Habitat for Humanity, later serving as director of housing development at Human Solutions, an affordable-housing organization. After college at Stanford and graduate work at Princeton, Merkley specialized in defense research at the Congressional Budget Office before returning to Oregon in 1991.

The state’s Democratic establishment (a bit of an oxymoron) backs Merkley, whose credentials would seem to fit a Senate position. But Merkley’s traditional-styled campaign has failed to match the enthusiasm generated by Novick, who has proved to be an aggressive and well-informed debater, literally standing on a soapbox to reach the podium. Novick entered the race April 18 last year, relatively unknown and challenging a two-term incumbent with access to financing from his own wealth as well as national party sources. Democratic leaders were not impressed, and began the search for a strong candidate that wound up with Merkley. But the speaker entered the race late, after Novick had started to attract attention.

An Oregon friend who likes Merkley but voted for Novick, summed up the feelings of his colleagues, “People seem to feel that if you want the prize, you’ve got to go after it. More to the point, an orthodox campaign won’t beat Smith, but an audacious one just might.”

Novick’s use of humor, including making fun of his own disability, hasn’t always gone down well with voters, and it’s given Merkley an edge at times. But it caught attention, and the upstart was able to follow with concrete ideas and knowledge of the issues. Both candidates take mainstream Democratic positions, well to the left of Smith.

If he pulls upsets of Merkley and Smith, Novick will certainly present a different image in Washington. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) will no longer be the shortest member of the Northwest delegation, and Novick will be a Mutt-and-Jeff combination with Oregon’s other senator, Ron Wyden (D), a former college basketball player who stands well over six feet tall. Novick would fill the shoes of former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan), whose World War II wounds made him a visible statement for overcoming disabilities.

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