The Portland Thorn

Steve Novick charmed voters with his prickly brilliance, gumption and wit. The bloom is off.

Novick was in fifth grade when his teacher asked his mother for permission to paddle the boy. "He just disrupts the class with too many questions," the teacher said.

His mother said no. Bill Trotter, a family friend who recalls the episode, says the young Novick was supremely confident in his own abilities.

"Things would be a lot better if I were emperor of the universe," Trotter remembers Novick, who was about 12 at the time, telling him. "We'd be much better off if people were robots and did what they were supposed to."

Today, Novick, 52 and a first-term Portland city commissioner, is no less confident. He's also often frustrated when others don't follow his lead. Novick remembers the teacher wanting to swat him. He also remembers having preadolescent thoughts about wanting to be emperor of the universe.

As he often does, however, Novick quibbles with the fine print of the narrative: He denies ever saying people should be robots. "I refuse to believe that's an accurate quote," he says.

But one denial isn't enough. After an initial interview, Novick called WW again to insist that the 12-year-old him would have never, ever made the robot comment.

"That makes me sound like a Bond villain," he says. "I am not now nor have I ever been a Bond villain."

And then he again denied having ever wished other people could act like robots.

It was a classic Steve Novick moment: He's at once brilliant, vexing, grandiose, disarmingly witty, argumentative and pedantic—and insistent on having the last word.


Novick's progressive ideals, rabbit-quick wit and willingness to speak his mind charmed a lot of voters when he came from nowhere to run a strong campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2008. He lost the Democratic primary but set himself up for his successful City Council run in 2012.

A Harvard-educated lawyer, Novick brought a wealth of policy work, campaign experience and strong relationships in politics. He campaigned for the City Council, calling for affordable health care, better preparation for a big earthquake and smarter investments in public schools.

He established an offbeat, winning brand: Steve Novick, the anti-politician, gutsy and nervy, looming large at 4-foot-9 and with a hook for a left hand.

Today, however, the Novick brand is in trouble.

In his first 2½ years in office, Novick has taken on some of the city's most stubborn and vexing problems and scored some small victories, and he remains one of the few politicians to speak his mind, whatever the cost. (See sidebar, below.)

He has also ignited voter anger, antagonized colleagues, lowered policy debates into personal attacks, brushed off simple political niceties and lectured citizens on why they need to pay more taxes.

Novick's manner might be all right if he were also effective. Despite a few small successes, he hasn't been, and the style that defined him is wearing thin.

No one at City Hall advocates that government plays a bigger role in our everyday lives more than Novick. Yet no one has done more in the past two years to generate antipathy toward city government—and seems more unaware of his impact.

While Portlanders are still sore about his efforts to pass a street fee to pay for fixing roads, one of his bureaus is considering requiring parking permits for all Portland streets without meters. (State law would need to change first.)

"He waded in and made big proposals," says Jewel Lansing, a former city auditor and author of a book on Portland history. "He's had a hard time showing what he can do."

Three months ago, according to political insiders, polls showed Novick's unfavorable rating with voters had jumped to more than 40 percent—an almost unheard of degree of unpopularity for an incumbent city commissioner, and numbers that make him vulnerable as he seeks re-election in 2016.

In an interview with WW, Novick acknowledged polls show his popularity is falling, largely because he and Mayor Charlie Hales bungled their plan for a street tax to finance road repairs and maintenance.

His slide comes just as he is building a re-election campaign, and his long-time backers—primarily unions and progressive activists—wonder what's happened to him. He fought the invasion of Uber, the ride-sharing app giant, likening the company's name to the Nazis. Then he flipped and sided with Silicon Valley billionaires.

"I have a lot of respect for his intellect and his accomplishments," says Mark Sturbois, legislative chairman with Communication Workers of America Local 7901, which represents drivers for Union Cab. "I don't understand how he can turn his back on working people, as he has on this Uber deal."

A year ago, Novick told WW he could not think of anything he would have done differently in office, and saw no need to change. Since then, he's been sipping humility to see if he can acquire a taste for it.

Novick acknowledges he has a habit of needing to win every argument, making him difficult to work with. He says he made a New Year's resolution to control his anger. At the same time, he doesn't think his intemperate outbursts—often witnessed by those around him—have been the problem. 

"I stew about things too much," he says. "It's about controlling the anger in the world inside my brain."

Novick says the real issue for him is that he has taken on long-standing, even intractable problems, such as street repairs and budget inefficiencies.

"I'll just keep on doing my job," he says. "Hopefully we will have enough accomplishments to keep me in the job."

In Novick's second-floor City Hall office hangs a portrait of Robert F. Kennedy. Disheveled stacks of newspapers fill a window seat, and thick, open binders with policy papers cover his meeting table. A note from conservative radio host Lars Larson, calling Novick his "favorite pinko," dangles from a bookshelf. In a back corner, a small dog bed awaits Novick's two corgis, Pumpkin and Checkers (the latter named for Nixon's cocker spaniel).

From this perch, Novick spends his days mulling city problems: the lack of affordable housing, poor academic achievement among high-school students, and the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Novick studies up for most issues as if preparing legal briefs. Staffers get emails sent at 2 am with links to newspaper articles or studies about whatever is on his mind.

Colleagues respect his desire to tackle big issues. "He's a very smart person," says City Commissioner Nick Fish, "who is often most comfortable at 30,000 feet looking at policy issues."

The City Council may be the wrong fit for a political activist who, in the words of one city official, "clearly has enjoyed being a one-man band."

In Portland's unusual form of government, commissioners run bureaus in addition to casting votes. And that's also been difficult for Novick, who for years as a political activist and consultant talked about his ideas but rarely had to be responsible for making them work.

"It went from him yelling at people," says his chief of staff, Chris Warner, "to people yelling at him."

Novick acknowledges his limitations in the position. "Any kind of political job is a struggle between the things you want to work on and the things you have to work on this minute," he says. "I knew that was going to be a struggle, no matter what. There's always the crisis of the day."

Novick oversees the Bureau of Transportation as well as the Bureau of Emergency Management and the Bureau of Emergency Communications, the agency that runs 911.

Those are nuts-and-bolts assignments for a man more accustomed to writing white papers and designing partisan electoral strategy. Novick, in effect, now has to make sure the streetcar runs on time.

Carmen Merlo, director of the Bureau of Emergency Management, says Novick has never canceled one of their every-other-week meetings, no matter how immersed he was in other matters. "He cares deeply about the work that we do," she says. "He's always made time."

That was clear on a recent, gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon, when Novick came to Friendly House in Northwest Portland to talk with residents in the Willamette Heights neighborhood about earthquake preparedness. The neighborhood is prone to landslides and has few options for getting emergency vehicles in or out. Novick was scheduled only to make opening remarks, but he stayed and listened for two hours. "He wanted to hear neighbors' concerns," Merlo says. (Novick's wife, Rachel, whom he married last year, works as a staff assistant in Multnomah County's Office of Emergency Management.)

Novick's playful sense of humor comes through in press releases. After Gov. Kate Brown took office in February, Novick blasted the news media with a message for Brown: "Get a corgi." "Governor Jerry Brown of California owns a Pembroke Welsh corgi, Sutter, who has played a key role in his administration," Novick wrote. "The lesson is clear: If you're the governor of a Pacific Coast state, and your name is Brown, you'd be crazy not to get a corgi."

Earlier this month, Fish announced he'd hired Michael Jordan, a career Oregon bureaucrat and former director of the state Department of Administrative Services, to run the city's Bureau of Environmental Services. Novick didn't miss a beat. He sent a press release urging Fish to hire Scottie Pippen to run the Water Bureau. "The utilities should work together as a team, and with Jordan and Pippen you get a championship team," Novick said.

On May 6, the City Council held a perfunctory vote to issue permits for this year's Rose Festival. Ten Rose Festival princesses, wearing identical gray suits and colorful blouses, arrived and stood before the council, each giving a brief speech about her interests.

Hales smiled. So did City Commissioners Fish, Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman, all attentive and polite.

On the far left, Novick stirred. He looked away. He yawned.

When it came time to vote on the permits, Novick suddenly engaged and used a tough-guy tone with the festival's CEO, Jeff Curtis.

"I want you to take note these are revocable permits," Novick said. "If the Rose Festival starts acting up and causing trouble, we can take them away."

He was joking. "It was just me being silly," Novick says now. At the time, only a few people laughed.

It's the street fee, however, that has defined Novick. And it's an ugly tale.

Novick and Hales last year pushed to introduce a street fee to raise as much as $46 million a year for the Transportation Bureau.

The battle Novick took on was enormous and difficult. Portland streets face a $1 billion backlog in repairs. Yet even a city willing to tax itself to put art teachers in schools has resisted paying more for roads.

A previous transportation commissioner, Sam Adams, beat down doors across the city in 2007, explaining in exhaustive detail the benefits a transportation tax would bring. He didn't succeed.

Still, Adams' failure left the door open for another try, in part because Adams had worked to build a base of support for the idea.

Not Novick. In a series of town-hall meetings, Novick lectured as much as he listened. Len Bergstein, a longtime City Hall lobbyist, described Hales and Novick's attitude this way: "We need money, and who cares if you're not going to come along on this? We're going to do it. Here's your spinach. Eat it."

Hales and Novick made a political mistake that politicians with their experience shouldn't have made: You need three votes on the five-member City Council to get anything passed. They launched into their campaign for a street fee without that third vote.

Fish and Saltzman said they would support a plan that went to the voters. Fritz wanted a fee that didn't unfairly hit low-income Portlanders. Adding either provision would have given Novick his majority.

Instead, he and Hales proposed a flat $144 annual residential fee with no referral to voters. The move all but guaranteed they wouldn't get the third vote.

"They were a little too timid about not trusting voters," Saltzman says. (Hales declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Novick and Hales had failed to do other important  groundwork. When businesses objected to their fee, Novick and Hales suggested imposing one on homeowners and adding businesses later—an idea that struck many as unfair. They quickly retreated.

"It was premature to roll something out," says Corky Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association and among 24 members of Portland's street fee advisory committee. "It wasn't cooked yet."

Novick himself was ill at ease with what he had signed on to. "For me to support something that's regressive is kind of astonishing," he told WW last July. "I object to this idea with 96 percent of the fibers of my being. But I object to letting the streets continue to deteriorate—and continue to have inequality in terms of pedestrian safety within the city—with 100 percent of my being."

It soon became clear Hales and Novick were improvising. Novick quickly switched to a plan that would base the street fee on income. He says he had a three-vote majority for that plan but lost it when small businesses complained. (Novick won't say which commissioner pledged to support the plan, but it was Fritz. She declined to be interviewed for this story.)

"The lesson is," Novick says today, "we need to have people sign in blood."

The Portland Business Alliance, essentially the city's chamber of commerce, also didn't like an income tax and threatened to refer the street fee to the ballot. Hales and Novick gave up after that.

The street-fee debate revealed Novick's tendency toward personal attacks when he doesn't get his way. When Saltzman appeared to question the need for road funding, Novick threatened to pull his endorsement in Saltzman's 2014 re-election.

Novick used some wit when he went after Fish, who complained that Novick's street-fee plan lacked low-income discounts. Novick sent Fish a letter that starts "Dear Captain Renault." It was a reference to the film Casablanca, in which the hypocritical, corrupt French officer Renault pockets his roulette winnings and then shuts down Humphrey Bogart's bar because he is "shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here."

Novick's point in labeling Fish as a corrupt and hypocritical Vichy official was to highlight that Fish's own bureaus, water and environmental services, also lacked low-income discounts. "I was not going to let Nick get away with making arguments against the street fee that applied equally to his bureaus," Novick says.

Fish wonders about Novick's willingness to make policy debates personal.

“You don’t burn bridges,” Fish says. 

It was Novick's response to the Portland Business Alliance that made people at City Hall wonder if he had lost his way.

"The Portland Business Alliance and its allies," Novick said on Dec. 17, 2014, "would rather burn the city to the ground" than adopt anything remotely resembling an income tax.

Novick says the remark looked off the cuff but was a calculated quote aimed at getting attention. It did, further alienating business leaders. "When people are opposing me on something, I might use more colorful language," Novick says.

He now regrets the statement—after his mother took him to task for it. "Even if it's true," Novick recalls his mother telling him, "you don't want to sound like you're at war with people all the time."


Novick spent many years a lone champion of his best causes and as someone who became accustomed to standing out.

He was born Steven Sobol—no middle name—in 1963 to Becky and Isaac Sobol, students at Antioch College, an Ohio liberal arts school whose motto is: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

Novick spent the first six weeks of his life in Newark, N.J., where his parents had gone for a college work-study program. He was born without a left hand or fibulas in his legs. He underwent surgery at age 3 to straighten one leg. When he was about 4, the Sobols divorced, and Novick rarely had contact with his father.

Novick's mother later married Bob Novick, founder of an underground newspaper in San Francisco. Bob Novick says his adopted son has always figured out how to deal with his physical limitations. "It's given him a lot of will and determination," he says. "He's been a fighter in that way."

His mother, who now goes by Becky Harmon, taught Head Start and had Novick in her classroom. She recalls that period as the only time other children teased him about his physical differences. Novick, then 4, decided he had had enough of the other boys' bullying.

“He chased them all, brandishing his hook,” Harmon says. “They were laughing, but they were running.” She says Novick,  who doesn’t remember the incident, later befriended the taunting boys, wrote a play for the class and gave them all parts.

The family moved to Cottage Grove, Ore., when Steve Novick was 10. In 1976, the South Lane School District shut down after local voters rejected a tax levy. Novick—who'd been allowed to skip sixth grade—enrolled at the University of Oregon, using federal money available to him because of his disability. He was 14. He graduated four years later and earned a diploma from Harvard Law School when he was 21.

Novick insists he was never made to feel different, despite his standing out, physically and intellectually. If kids made disparaging remarks, Novick says he didn't hear them. "I don't know that I was really all that different," he says. "I was treated well."

As a lawyer in Washington, D.C., Novick spent nine years with the U.S. Department of Justice suing polluters. He returned to Oregon in 1997 and bounced between political jobs, working as a policy aide on statewide campaigns for Govs. John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski.

In 2007, he wrote a cover story for WW called "If I Ran," in which he made the case against then-U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). He took himself up on the challenge, and lost a highly spirited race against Jeff Merkley, who went on to defeat Smith in the fall.

His experience running in the 2008 U.S. Senate race showed Novick enjoyed the spotlight. He considered running for governor, state treasurer and Multnomah County chair. He took up causes—the financial cut bars get from lottery games that he considers excessive was a favorite target—and became a go-to source for reporters who needed an informed, witty quote.

But a political mentor, then-City Commissioner Randy Leonard, effectively handed Novick his council seat in 2012.

Leonard says City Hall isn't the easiest place for a first-time politician to learn to be effective. Newbie city commissioners face much more public scrutiny than rookie state legislators, for example, and city commissioners work with only four other elected officials, not dozens. "It is just so critical to go out of your way to work well with people," Leonard says.

It's unusual for Portland City Council members to lose re-election. It's happened only four times since 1984, and not at all since 1992, when a homebuilders lobbyist named Charlie Hales knocked out incumbent Commissioner Dick Bogle.

No big-name opponents have surfaced yet to run against Novick in 2016. Nick Caleb, a Concordia University instructor, challenged Saltzman last year when he campaigned on the $15-an-hour minimum wage and won about 20 percent of the vote. Charles McGee, co-founder of the Black Parent Initiative, is also considering a bid.

It's not yet clear if the unions that backed Novick in 2012 will do so again or go looking for another candidate.

Novick has repeatedly called into question the amount of money spent on the Portland Police Bureau, sometimes lumping in the city's fire department with the police budget. He once mulled the possibility of closing some fire stations at night when they get fewer calls. 

That irks Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland firefighters' union, which endorsed Novick in his first City Council race. "You don't have to attack the other departments in the city to get where you want to go," Ferschweiler says. "There was a hope we would have more of a champion."

Novick says the fire station idea came during a time of necessary budget cuts, adding it wasn't something he wanted to do. "If you have to cut something, you should look at the data to see where it's the least irresponsible to cut," he says.

Novick says he knows there are people he worked with as an advocate whom he has let down.

"It's hard to have to disappoint my natural allies and say, 'I actually agree with you, but I have to explore other options because I'm not sure that's going to work,'" Novick says. "It's also hard when your natural allies disappoint you."

But Novick says he will not change one thing: His determination to talk about and try to resolve some of the city's more stubborn issues—fixing streets, making Portlanders safer from natural disaster, fighting inequality brought on by increased development and other forces.

“If that costs me re-election,” Novick says, “then getting people to think about these issues will be my legacy.” 

Steve's Job

It's not all been about the street-fee fiasco for City Commissioner Steve Novick. He's had some modest success, and some other struggles, during his 29 months in office.

Vista Bridge

People have been jumping to their deaths from the Vista Bridge ever since the West Hills span was built in 1926. The Northwest Examiner in 2011 drew attention to the need for the city to do something about it. Nothing happened.

In 2013, four people jumped to their deaths off the Vista Bridge, and Novick took action. "It is time—past time—to do what we can to stop the dying," he said at the time.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation that Novick oversees built a 9-foot-tall suicide barrier—black fences with a curved overhang at a cost of $236,000.

Some admirers of the historic bridge decried the aesthetics of the barrier. Novick stood firm. Months later, a suicidal man was able to get around the barrier, but emergency responders talked him down. Novick credits the barrier with giving them time to coax the man to safety.


Novick charged into office vowing to make health care services less expensive. That's not something a city commissioner has lots of control over. However, Novick does oversee the city's 911 system.

"I have this little piece of the health care system," he says. "It would be nice to make it more efficient."


"When we get a medical call, the priority is to send out fire and ambulance right away, and then the ambulance only gets paid if they send someone to the emergency room," he says. "There's sort of an incentive to go to the emergency room. In some jurisdictions, they have a nurse triage system when somebody calls 911."

Novick would like to replicate this. "You ask a couple of questions, and if someone's not in immediate danger, you might say, 'Do you mind if I pass you on to a nurse?'"

So far, the idea remains just that—an idea.

Disabled parking permits

Motorists with disabled parking permits enjoyed limitless free parking on metered downtown streets when Novick took office.

And disabled parking permits were about as easy to get as medical marijuana cards, making it easy to abuse the system. The Oregonian reported on thousands of placards statewide issued to dead people but being used by non-disabled drivers in 1999.

And in July 2013, the Portland Tribune highlighted the problem and suggested a simple fix: charge disabled motorists for the placards, eliminating cheaters and freeing up parking for drivers with true disabilities.

Novick took note of the Tribune story. "I had no idea this was such a big issue that other cities were dealing with," he says. "Then I went on a walk with our parking enforcement officers, and I was like, 'Good Lord, this is amazing.'"

City Hall officials had been looking at the problem for at least six years, and former Mayor Sam Adams had created a task force. No one could agree what to do.

"I said, 'We're going to do something. Let's figure out what we can do,'" Novick says.

Five months later, in December 2013, the Portland City Council unanimously approved a resolution that required permit holders to pay for parking.

The new rules also made accommodations for disabled drivers, including letting them exceed posted time limits in some cases.

"This is something that had been languishing for six years," Novick says, "and we were able to get council to approve a framework within six months."


When the San Francisco ride-sharing giant crashed the gates of Portland, announcing Dec. 5, 2014, it would offer its services in Portland without city approval, Novick was incensed.

As the commissioner overseeing the Bureau of Transportation, Novick had the taxi industry under his purview, and he hated the idea that a billion-dollar bully was pushing its way into the city illegally.

Novick was on the Dec. 5 conference call Mayor Charlie Hales had with David Plouffe, Uber's senior vice president of policy and strategy. Plouffe was stunned when Novick roared into the speaker phone, "If you come in and break the law, we'll throw the fucking book at you." ("Drive," WW, Dec. 31, 2014.)

Novick's outrage helped prompt Uber to back off, but the company essentially got its way.

Critics complained that allowing Uber to flood the market would hurt existing taxi drivers. Novick disputes that, saying the city's approach to regulating cabs was arcane.

"It doesn't seem like the existing system is working for the little guy," he says. BETH SLOVIC.

WWeek 2015

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