Wondering why no Oregon Democrat has announced he or she will surf the party's wave from 2006 and challenge U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) next year?
We are, too.
So we asked Democratic activist Steve Novick whether he thought Smith could be beaten. We chose Novick not just because he actually pays attention to this stuff. We also asked him because we know he's been thinking about taking Smith on.
Novick certainly has the résumé.
Raised in Cottage Grove, Novick was precocious enough to enter the University of Oregon at 14 and Harvard Law School at 18. After graduation, he worked at big law firms in San Francisco and New York before going on at age 24 to the U.S. Justice Department. There, he was lead counsel in the Love Canal lawsuit, winning $129 million for the federal government.
He returned to Oregon in 1996, working as issues director for Democrat Tom Bruggere, who ran unsuccessfully that same year against Smith.
In addition to working in 2000 and 2006 against ballot measures pushed by Bill Sizemore and Don McIntire, Novick also worked on Ted Kulongoski's successful 2002 run for governor.
(Full disclosure: Novick has been a regular contributor to WW's election-year Candidates Gone Wild extravaganzas.)
Since April 2006, Novick, 43, has been a senior project manager at Pyramid Communications, working on projects such as helping to improve recycling habits in the workplace.
Novick's brains aren't the only thing that makes an impression on those who meet him for the first time. There's also the fact that he has a hook for a left arm (he was born without it) and is short—4 feet 9 inches, thanks to the fact that he was also born without fibulas in both legs.
So, will he run? Novick says he'll spend the next month or three talking to potential supporters and other possible candidates before making a final decision. But he does add that "someone needs to take the fight to Gordon Smith. And a fighter needs a hard left hook."
Imagine if one of Oregon's two U.S. senators had repeatedly voted against raising the minimum wage, or voted against allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for reasonable prices for prescription drugs.
Imagine if strongly progressive Oregon had sent somebody to the world's greatest deliberative body who voted against investigating Halliburton, and who voted to raid the Social Security trust fund in order to pay for tax cuts for America's richest people.
Imagine if Oregon had a senator who believed that people who work for a living should pay taxes at a higher rate than people who make their money buying and selling stock.
Imagine if that senator was one of the prime sponsors of a massive tax cut for multinational corporations—especially drug companies—that stash their profits in overseas tax havens. A tax cut that George W. Bush's own treasury secretary denounced as favoring multinationals over domestic firms.
Imagine the senator not only voted for the Iraq war, and supported it for four years, but as late as June 2006 gave an impassioned speech defending the war as a noble fight for "freedom." Imagine that in December 2006 he said he was open to supporting sending more troops to Iraq.
Imagine that the same senator openly called for then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to override Oregon's voter-approved Death with Dignity law, opposed a woman's right to choose an abortion and was an unabashed supporter of the Patriot Act.
Imagine the senator was one of Congress' top recipients of trips on corporate jets, accepting rides worth over $69,000 since 2001.
Imagine the same senator voted to allow coal-fired power plants to increase their toxic emissions. Imagine that his position on global warming was so absurd that the Daily Astorian said he had joined the Flat Earth Society. Imagine that he had voted to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Imagine he had voted to give $11.5 billion in subsidies to the oil and gas industries.
Imagine that the senator thought he could pass himself off as a "moderate" by continuously engaging
in transparently political contortions—like taking six different positions on the war in Iraq in six weeks.
If Oregon had such a senator, wouldn't all the pollsters agree that he was a ripe target for defeat by a Democrat in 2008?
Oregon does have such a senator. His name is Gordon Smith.
Smith is going to lose in 2008. Not everyone knows that yet. Few people have paid enough attention to his record to understand how vulnerable he is. But the Republican senator from Pendleton is just that.
Vulnerable despite having more than $2 million ready for his re-election bid.
And vulnerable despite a well-cultivated rep as a moderate, burnished by a national and state press that lauds him and Oregon's other U.S. senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, for bipartisanship (despite the fact that in reality, Wyden and Smith are on opposite sides of most major issues).
Some of those in the know are starting to think about running against him.
I happen to be one of those people.
If I did run against Gordon Smith, here's how I'd beat him.
War: What Is Smith Good For?
In the past two months, the national media have anointed Smith a Republican who courageously shifted his views on the war in Iraq at the risk of alienating his party. Fortunately, Oregon voters are smarter than George Stephanopoulos and other Beltway pundits. I'd beat Smith by explaining his real record on the war.
For four years, as the war's costs rose and the casualties mounted, Smith proudly defended the war. In the fall of 2005, he told an Oregon family who lost a son in the war that they should understand that Bush was right to invade. In June 2006, when it was clear to everyone that our soldiers were caught in the crossfire of a sectarian civil war, Smith gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, praising the war as a noble struggle for "freedom" and against al Qaeda, and opposing a proposal to start setting a timetable for redeployment.
In December, after Democrats parlayed the majority's opposition to the war into the majority in Congress, Smith suddenly announced that he believed our current policy in Iraq was "absurd" and "criminal." That's what made the headlines. But in the same speech, Smith said he was open to the idea of sending more troops to Iraq. For weeks afterward, he said he might support a "troop surge." Then he said he was against it.
When Eugene's Register-Guard asked him in mid-December if he had any regret or remorse for his four-year support of the war, Smith was quoted as saying, "That's all history." Then he said on Jan. 8, "I don't have enough information to say I'm against the [troop] surge." Now, he says he's against it but won't vote for the bipartisan resolution against the escalation, because he finds the resolution "demeaning" to President Bush.
If I ran against Smith, I'd ask him a few questions. "You think this war is 'absurd' and 'criminal'—but you wouldn't vote to stop it because you were afraid of insulting George Bush? You think it's 'absurd' and 'criminal'—but you have no remorse or regret over supporting it for four years? You think it's 'absurd' and 'criminal'—but you support a presidential candidate in Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who's sworn to continue it? How many 'absurd, criminal' policies does a candidate have to support to lose your endorsement?"
If I ran, I'd point out that in January 2004 I was in Iowa working on the presidential campaign of anti-war Democrat Howard Dean. But any D could make a strong anti-war case against Smith.
Of the rich, by the powerful, for the special interests
Abraham Lincoln believed in government of the people, by the people, for the people.
I'd beat Smith by showing he believes in government of the rich, by the powerful and for the special interests. Time and again he has voted to make the huge gap between the rich and powerful and the rest of us—the rising inequality that Democrat Jim Webb discussed in his successful campaign last year against now-former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)—even worse.
Last week, Smith voted against allowing an up-or-down
vote on an increase in the minimum wage. He's repeatedly voted against lifting the minimum wage. Once, he voted for a poison-pill Republican version of a minimum-wage increase. But his vote would have actually cut the pay of Oregon waiters and waitresses by overriding Oregon laws and letting employers with tipped employees pay less than the minimum wage.
It's not surprising that Smith won't help people who work for a living. He prefers people who make their money buying and selling stock.
Like other Republicans, Smith voted in 2003 to cut the top tax rate on capital gains and dividends to 15 percent. "Capital gains" largely means money made buying and selling stock. Smith's vote means that people who work for a living pay a higher tax rate than people who buy and sell stock. If a waitress and a firefighter have taxable income as a couple of $65,000, and one of them gets a $1,000 raise, they pay federal taxes at a 32 percent rate—7.65 percent in Social Security and Medicare taxes, plus 25 percent in income taxes.
But if billionaire investor Warren Buffett makes $1,000 in a stock deal, he pays only 15 percent. Buffett himself has pointed out that because his money all comes from investments, he pays a lower tax rate, as the world's second-wealthiest person, than his secretary. Buffett thinks that's crazy. So does Smith's Senate compadre, Ron Wyden, who has introduced a bill to tax capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income. Yet it doesn't seem to bother Smith.
But Smith's favorite people aren't even people. They're multinational corporations who stash their money overseas.
U.S. tax law encourages U.S. multinationals to keep their money in other countries. The law says that if they make money in another country, they don't have to pay U.S. taxes on it until they bring it back here. Since postponing paying taxes saves you money (you get the use of the money in the meantime), they have an incentive to postpone bringing it back. (When they do bring it back, the taxes they pay are reduced by whatever they pay in the other country, which makes sense.)
The law is problematic enough even when the companies really are making their money overseas. But tax experts such as Martin Sullivan, editor of Tax Notes, see overwhelming evidence that corporations use accounting tricks to artificially shift billions of their profits to overseas tax havens, in order to avoid paying American taxes.
Congress should certainly do something about this. At a minimum, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has suggested for individual taxpayers, Congress should treat transactions in tax havens as sham transactions, and tax those "overseas" profits at the same rate it taxes the profits of regular American domestic non-multinational corporations.
Smith had a different idea. He was the prime sponsor of a bill in 2004 that gave these multinationals a one-year tax holiday. If they brought the money home that year, they would pay only a 5.25 percent tax rate—less than what working Americans pay in Social Security taxes alone.
Big drug companies are especially good at stashing profits overseas. So when Smith's bill started moving through Congress, The Wall Street Journal reported June 14, 2004, "Big multinational pharmaceuticals and technology companies are salivating."
And no wonder. Pfizer alone got a tax windfall of $11 billion from Smith's bill. That's "billion" with a B. That's enough to get any company awfully excited—even without Viagra.
Smith's justification for his bill was, of course, "jobs." But the bill didn't have any enforceable requirement that companies use the money they brought home to invest in job-creating activities. Big winner Pfizer certainly didn't create jobs: The drug giant announced 10,000 layoffs recently.
Even Bush appointees knew that Smith's bill was a joke. The Washington Post reported on Aug. 19, 2005, that Treasury Secretary "John W. Snow objected that the measure would unfairly benefit multinational corporations over domestic firms, while White House economists said it would produce no substantial economic
benefit." Phillip L. Swagel, former chief of staff for Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, said that as far as stimulating the economy goes, "you might as well have taken a helicopter over 90210 [Beverly Hills] and pushed the money out the door."
There are numerous other examples of Smith's favoritism toward the rich and powerful for a Democratic candidate to point out. Smith voted in 2005 against a congressional investigation of Halliburton's contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Smith voted in 2005 against allowing Medicare to negotiate reasonable prices with (yes, again) drug companies. Smith fought in 2005 to preserve a very special tax break for wealthy financiers with part-time homes in the Virgin Islands. And, consistent with his mushiness over multinationals, he voted in 2005 against a budget amendment that would have repealed tax incentives for domestic companies that move manufacturing plants offshore.
If I ran against Smith, I'd certainly be able to create a contrast on the inequality issue. I helped to spearhead the successful fight against Bill Sizemore's massive school-killing tax cut for the richest Oregonians in 2000. I advised Wyden on his bill to tax capital gains at the same rates as wages. I was the largest individual contributor to Oregon's 1996 minimum-wage initiative that raised the wage above the federal level. (OK, I only gave $200, but it was more than anyone else.) And I would fight for legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act, to give workers a real right to organize in unions and negotiate for a fair share of the pie.
But any decent Democratic candidate could take advantage of Smith's record.
Mortgaging Your Future, Raiding Social Security
Pundits say voters don't care about deficits and the federal debt. But I think that's changing. Voters are—and should be—worried that every time Congress increases the debt, it's a charge to the credit card of every American, which we'll all have to pay back.
I'd beat Smith—who, comically enough, served in the last Congress as chairman of a subcommittee on "debt reduction"—by pointing out that he did as much as anyone in Congress to turn the Clinton surpluses into the more recent Bush deficits. When you vote for every tax cut in sight, and support a multi-hundred-billion-dollar war, and won't let Medicare negotiate with drug companies, and don't even try to investigate Halliburton's boondoggles, that's what you get: debt.
Bush and Smith have been crowing recently that the deficit—the annual additional charge to the national credit card—went down to around $250 billion last year. But that's misleading. In fact, the real deficit was over $420 billion. As it's long done, the government hid the real deficit by raiding the Social Security surplus, which last year was $176 billion.
That Social Security surplus results from an increase in the Social Security tax that was passed in 1983, to prepare for the day the baby boomers retired. But Bush and Smith decided to start raiding it, to pay for tax cuts for rich people and the war in Iraq. Now, when the baby boomers start to retire, the surplus won't be there to pay their benefits, and we'll be looking at either cutting Social Security, raising taxes or cutting other services that Smith "supports," like Medicaid.
If I ran, I'd have some advantages on fiscal responsibility. As a federal Justice Department environment division lawyer from 1987 to 1996, I helped the government's balance sheet by forcing polluters to reimburse the government for more than $100 million in cleanup costs. In Oregon, I have successfully fought since 1999 against real waste in government—the state's absurd overpayments to lottery retailers.
But any good Democrat will look more fiscally responsible than Smith.
Trashing the Environment
Everyone knows Smith campaigned against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—then voted for it in 2005 when it was part of a budget bill.
I'd use that fact in environmentally conscious Oregon to beat Smith. But I'd also use these facts:
When the Bush administration started loosening the rules that apply to toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, and Democrats tried to stop them, Smith voted in 2003 to let the toxics fly, endangering public health.
Smith voted in 2004 against restoring the tax on oil and chemical companies that financed the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program. (He'd rather have you and me pay for cleanups, out of general tax revenues—or have no cleanups at all.)
Smith has repeatedly voted against raising gas efficiency standards for cars. (He's sometimes supported weaker increases.)
Smith voted for an energy bill in 2005 that gave $11.5 billion in subsidies to the oil and gas industry.
And on global warming, Gordon Smith—as the Daily Astorian put it—belongs to the "Flat Earth Society." In 2003, Smith had an op-ed in The Oregonian reciting the oil industry myth that "just as many scientists" believe that human activity isn't causing global warming as believe it is. Smith's op-ed triggered a horrified response by a group of scientists who pointed to the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue. But Smith was undeterred: In 2005, he was among the minority of senators who voted against a simple resolution saying, essentially, "Global warming is real and bad, and we should do something about it."
As a former federal Justice Department lawyer who spent over eight years suing polluters, and a nine-year board member of the Oregon Environmental Council, I'd be able to draw a stark contrast with Gordon Smith on the environment. But so could any good Democratic candidate.
Uncivil on Liberties
Ten-plus years ago, Smith's ad wizards put him in a sweater and had him tell the camera, in effect, "Yes, I'm pro-life, but that shouldn't bother you—I'm not a radical anti-choice activist, I'm just a nice man in a sweater."
But one sweater doesn't make a social moderate.
Smith remains opposed to the right to choose an abortion. He voted in 1999 against a resolution supporting the Roe v. Wade decision. He'll support any anti-choice Supreme Court nominee who gets nominated.
Smith is still the man who encouraged John Ashcroft to overturn the will of Oregon voters on death with dignity.
And Smith is a staunch supporter of the Patriot Act, with its ever-growing restrictions on civil liberties.
As they demonstrated once again last November by beating the anti-choicers' latest initiative, Oregonians believe in civil liberties. That's one more reason that Smith is going to lose in 2008.
Someone Is Going to Beat Him
Someone is going to beat Smith. Now-former Sen. Mike DeWine had a much greater claim to "moderation" than his fellow Republican Smith—and DeWine lost last year in Ohio. Lincoln Chafee had no real liabilities in Rhode Island other than the "R" by his name in 2006—and he lost, too.
Smith won his last race in 2002 because it was a Republican year, and even Oregonians weren't yet disgusted with George W. Bush. Now, they are—and an aggressive candidate will go to every corner of the state, pointing out that when Bush was taking the country to hell, Smith had his hand on the handbasket every step of the way.
The Democratic candidate against Smith will take a lesson from Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Nobody thought Kulongoski would win re-election last year. But he made a simple statement, about himself and his Republican opponent, Ron Saxton: "You know whose side he's on."
It is painfully clear whose side Gordon Smith is on.
And it isn't yours.
Steve Novick's email address is email@example.com.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
Gordon Smith is no dummy.
He witnessed the Democratic sweep of both Congress and the Oregon Legislature last November and must have realized that his re-election in 2008 would be difficult, despite the $2 million-plus war chest he has built up.
Even so, the potential Democratic candidates who might have the best shot at unseating the Republican senator have demurred, for the moment. The biggest of these, ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber, has taken himself out of the mix.
So have former state Sen. Randy Leonard, who's having too much damn fun roiling the Portland City Council, and 10-term U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio. The Eugene Democrat has said he won't take on Smith, given that DeFazio's now chairman of a key Transportation subcommittee that allocates billions of dollars.
DeFazio's Oregon Democratic colleagues, such as Reps. Earl Blumenauer and David Wu, haven't ruled out running against Smith.
Both could raise serious cash. But both also would be betting their House seats on a Senate run that could leave them out of a job.
Blumenauer, who now sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, has mused before about risking his safe congressional seat and decided against it. In 2003, he dithered for months about running again for Portland mayor before taking a pass.
Wu is a formidable fundraiser. But his alleged assault of a woman when they were at Stanford University in 1976 would be a Republican operative's wet dream in a statewide race.
Besides, like DeFazio, both congressmen are now in the Democratic majority and may be less willing to gamble away long-sought juice on a run against even a vulnerable incumbent Republican like Smith.
Other names that are tossed about are new House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland), whose spokesman said Monday that Merkley is too focused on the current legislative session to think about a 2008 contest.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown (D-Portland) or Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene) could make a pitch that it's been 40 years since Oregon sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. But Brown says a U.S. Senate race is the last thing on her mind given that she and other legislative D's "have been handed the opportunity of a lifetime." Walker says it would be a very expensive and exhausting race, and not on her radar screen.
The name that comes up most often among Democrats is onetime gubernatorial candidate Sen. Ben Westlund (D-Bend), who in December changed from an independent to a D (after leaving the Republican Party earlier in 2006). He now says he's too focused on the current legislative session to think about it.
One who has said he's interested in a run is independent John Frohnmayer, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and brother of Dave, president of the University of Oregon. But John Frohnmayer is having trouble gaining much traction.
Or there's this guy named Novick. —Henry Stern
Steve Novick's résumé also includes stops as caucus administrator for Oregon's Senate Democrats; policy adviser for now-former Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn; legislative coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education; and communications director for Citizens for Oregon's Future, a nonprofit think tank focusing on taxes and budgets.
In the 2002 election, Smith beat Democrat Bill Bradbury 56 percent to 40 percent.