On the night he lost his race for U.S. Senate in 2008, Steve Novick gave one of the more extraordinary concession speeches in Oregon political history. In a freewheeling 18 minutes, Novick didn't concede his Democratic primary race to Jeff Merkley so much as do stand-up comedy.
He compared his failed candidacy to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the racehorse Alydar, and the 1975 Boston Red Sox. He said his campaign staff made him feel like "the young Castro."
But Novick also made a joke that showed he already understood two sets of numbers that night—and where his political future was headed.
The first set showed he would lose to Merkley by 15,000 votes statewide. The second showed he would win Multnomah County—the bluest county in Oregon—by more than 17,000 votes.
"In the immortal words of the Go-Go's," Novick told supporters, "this town is our town."
Four years later, Novick—a 4-foot-9 Harvard wunderkind who likes to make puns about the metal hook in place of the left hand he was born without—is running the only competitive city race that's probably a safe bet.
He faces six little-known candidates for the City Council seat being vacated by Commissioner Randy Leonard—who gave Novick advance notice he'd not seek re-election. Combined, his challengers have raised $12,000. (Novick has 21 times that.) And he is still riding the familiarity from 2008 that has made him Portland's most distinctive political personality since Bud Clark.
That's given Novick, 49, a freedom to brainstorm out loud and use his City Hall campaign as a workshop for his agenda—spitballing ideas he pulls from books and magazines, and disregarding who he might antagonize.
The hot potatoes he's handling are ones that have submarined previous attempts to solve them, including health care, Measure 11 sentencing guidelines and—perhaps most perilously—adding parking meters in neighborhoods and popular business districts from Alberta to Hawthorne.
It's not so much that no one is listening—it's that few are challenging his proposals.
In 2008, Novick says, he'd stop and ask his political consultant if one of his ideas was going to cause any blowback. "I don't feel like I have to do even that," he says.
That's frustrated his opponents, such as neighborhood activist Mark White. "This whole coronation thing with Steve has been really disheartening," White says.
Novick was born in 1963 in Newark, N.J., without a left hand or fibulae in his legs. His family moved to Cottage Grove, Ore., where Novick proved his precocity: When the public school shut down after a failed tax levy, he started attending the University of Oregon at age 13. He got into Harvard Law at 18, graduated at 21 and worked as an environmental lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice.
He moved back to Oregon in the late 1990s and made his name in Salem as chief of staff for the Oregon Senate Democrats. But his own ambition wasn't as clear until he wrote a cover story for WW in 2007 titled "If I Ran," a strategy to defeat U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), largely seen as unbeatable.
Novick took his own advice and ran a stunning underdog race against then-Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who went on to beat Smith.
This time out, Novick's lack of an opponent to eclipse him—or even force him into a fall runoff—has allowed Novick to talk about issues far beyond the reach of city government.
"We can strengthen our economy by making Portland the leader in reducing health-care costs," he says in a TV ad that started airing last week. "We can make a deal with state government: If we send fewer people to their prisons, they send back the savings to spend on prevention."
The health-care plan Novick is shopping is based on one used by the casino workers' union in Atlantic City, N.J., which fights costs by making home visits and regular phone calls to "super-utilizers": patients who have used medical care the most often. The New Yorker reported the program cut emergency-room visits by 40 percent.
Novick's proposed Measure 11 plan is even more audacious, and would require the participation—at least—of the Multnomah County District Attorney, the Legislature and Gov. John Kitzhaber.
He's proposing that the state give each county a lump-sum budget for public safety—including prisons. That could pressure prosecutors to consider the cost of prison sentences when deciding on plea bargains, and whether to seek convictions with expensive mandatory minimum sentences.
"What I'm talking about is going where the money is," Novick says. "What do we spend too much money on in this society? Health care. What's another thing we spend too much money on? Prisons. If you can't get money out of the gas tax, where can you go? Parking."
If anything shows the measure of Novick's confidence, it's his proposal for parking meters. Lots and lots of new parking meters.
The Northwest Parking Plan and its proposed meters remain mired in disputes between city officials, neighborhood associations and business owners more than a decade after it was first proposed. And when then-City Commissioner Sam Adams suggested installing meters on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in 2006, he was howled down so violently by business leaders that he withdrew the proposal.
But Novick has been reading Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic. In his endorsement interview with WW, he volunteered that meters could be installed in Northwest, along Hawthorne, and Northeast Alberta Street as well.
"I think you have to look at putting meters on Hawthorne, and [Northwest] 23rd," he says. "I don't know if it would make sense on Alberta, but I think you'd want to look at that."
Novick's reputation in Portland means longtime meter foes give him the benefit of the doubt. Tom Ranieri, the Cinema 21 theater operator, organized fellow business owners on Northwest 21st and 23rd avenues to oppose the Northwest Parking Plan. But he says Novick could fix it.
"When there's a balanced plan, the businesses will be able to support it," Ranieri says. "A guy like Novick is going to be able to understand that."
Eilien Van Patten, co-chair of the Vernon Neighborhood Association, isn't so sanguine about the prospect of parking meters on Alberta—with its famed Last Thursday events and surrounding thickets of residential streets.
"People would be parking in driveways," she says. "[Candidates] can have all the ideas they want, but before they just blurt out something, they should at least visit. Either he's shooting from the hip, or he doesn't care."
White, co-chair of the city's charter review, says Novick regularly ignores neighborhood sentiment.
"Steve's notorious for not listening to people and just kind of doing his own thing," White says. "You need to respect and value every person who comes before you. I don't think he has that capacity."
Novick disagrees, but his performance at a March 4 candidates' forum on the arts in Portland seemed as if he was honing an act for the Catskills, not City Hall. He offered to create a tournament to name the best rock band of all time, and to "find out if systems-development charges go down better with soothing music."
His jokes so dominated the event that Amanda Fritz contrasted herself against them. "I can't pretend to be nearly as funny as Steve, or at all funny," she said, "so I'm going to actually answer the question."
Stanley Penkin, co-founder of Oregon ArtPAC, organized the forum. "I had the sense he didn't want to be there," Penkin says. "I would say his behavior somewhat trivialized the subject."
Novick maintains he'll keep pressing ambitious changes to how the city works. He says his hero is Bill James, the "moneyball" statistician whose Sabermetric theories transformed Major League Baseball. It's that desire to tackle large, speculative projects that Novick says kept him from running for mayor.
He did mull it. He looked at his personal finances, and saw he didn't have enough money to take a year off work. He's an analyst for the Oregon Health Authority and is now campaigning part time. His girlfriend, Rachel Philofsky, didn't want him all-out on the campaign trail.
And he talked to Erik Sten—the former commissioner Novick says is his local model. Sten told him to run for a council seat, not for mayor.
"Each city commissioner has about 80 percent as much power as the mayor," Novick recalls Sten saying, "with a heck of a lot more time to focus on what particularly interests you. Because you're not expected to show up everywhere. And you can focus.â