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One of the more unconventional races in the country this year may pit Democratic challenger Steve Novick against a distinguished Republican incumbent, Gordon Smith, for a U.S. Senate seat in Oregon. It wouldn’t be hard to pick out Novick: he’s 4’9″ and has a steel hook in place of a left hand. And rather than view these traits as handicaps, the resilient, relentlessly upbeat Novick has made them his hallmark. I recently heard Novick give a talk in Manhattan and can’t recall having met a new political entrant in recent years who was quite as persuasive or quick on his feet. Novick may well figure as an underdog in the race, but if 2008 is a year for underdogs, and I expect it will be, Novick is likely to pull it off. No Comment puts six questions to Oregonian Steve Novick.
1. You’re taking on Gordon Smith, whom the accepted wisdom seems to take for the sort of Republican who can win re-election even in a bad year for Republicans. It’s clear, for instance, that he turned from the Bush Administration’s policies on the Iraq War very early on. What makes you think that Smith is vulnerable in 2008?
Well, first of all, we know he’s vulnerable because Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, recently commissioned a poll that showed that I had drawn within six points of him already, 45-39. At this stage, when a lot of people still don’t know much about me, those are extremely worrisome numbers for an incumbent.
By the way, he didn’t turn away from the war early on; he was a staunch defender of the war until December 7, 2006, when he suddenly realized that something was amiss. As late as June, 2006, he gave a speech fiercely opposing any timetable for withdrawal.
But he’s vulnerable for a variety of reasons. He’s vulnerable because he has consistently voted with rich and powerful interests, at the expense of regular Oregonians. He sponsored a special tax break for multinational corporations that had money stashed overseas – a tax break that gave Pfizer alone $11 billion. By contrast, he voted for a Republican minimum wage bill that would have cut the wages of Oregon waiters and waitresses by allowing restaurants everywhere, regardless of state law, to pay less than minimum wage. Billions for drug companies, wage cuts for waitresses – Oregonians won’t like that. They also won’t like it that he voted against investigating Halliburton’s contracts in Iraq,
He ‘s repeatedly voted with polluters – to subsidize the oil companies, to loosen pollution controls on coal companies, for drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. Until quite recently, he went around saying that scientists were evenly divided on whether human activity was causing global warming. The Daily Astorian newspaper said he had joined the Flat Earth Society.
He’s vulnerable because he spent two years as chair of a Senate subcommittee on reducing the national debt. People start laughing when you say that. Obviously, the debt kept going up. And voters are starting to worry about the debt. They don’t like the idea of being in hock to China, at the mercy of foreign governments.
2. Polling has generally put the economy and health care at the top of the agenda for voters deciding on national races. Do you see those as the issues for Oregon as well? The Democratic presidential candidates all seem to have crafted fairly complex healthcare proposals—do you see yourself close to any of them, and if so, which one appeals to you most?
Those are key issues. We need to build an economy that works for all of us, not jut the richest one-tenth of one percent, and we need a health care system that gives everyone access to health care, and we need to control health care costs. As far as the overall economy is concerned, I think our goal should be a modernized version of Dwight Eisenhower’s economy. In the ‘50’s, we made investments in infrastructure and education; we had strong unions fighting for a fair share of the pie for working people; we had a strongly progressive tax system. It was a much more progressive era than right-wing mythology has it. So let’s pass the Employee Free Choice Act to restore a real right to organize. Let’s raise money from a progressive tax system to make investments in infrastructure and education; but instead of the infrastructure for a fossil fuel economy, build it for a post-fossil fuel economy. High speed rail between cities, mass transit within cities. New power transmission lines from Wyoming to California, and the Dakotas to New York, to take full advantage of our wind power potential. Replace thousands of crumbling school buildings with new, energy-efficient ones.
On health care, I like Edwards’ and Kucinich’s plans. There’s a strong argument for single payer, and if we were starting from scratch, that’s where I’d be for sure. And if it gets to the floor, I’ll vote for it. But there’s also an argument that putting everyone who works for an insurance company out of work overnight would be quite an economic shock. Edwards would cover everyone, would leave private insurers in the game, but he would have the government offer its own competing insurance plan; Paul Krugman thinks that would lead to single payer by attrition. I’m also intrigued by Edwards’ idea of replacing the drug patent system, which the drug companies game endlessly in pursuit of profit, with a system of cash rewards for true innovation. Another cost control proposal that I like, by the way, is Senator Debbie Stabenow’s proposal to limit or eliminate the tax deduction drug companies get for prescription drug ads, which drive up health care costs for all of us – and we as taxpayers are subsidizing them.
3. You’re 4’9” and have a steel hook in place of a left hand. Your campaign literature turns this to advantage, dubbing you as “left hook.” Tell me how you expect your physical stature and disability to figure in the campaign—other than as making you an easy candidate to recognize?
Being easy to recognize is a huge plus. And fortunately, my physical attributes play into my message very easily. I’m going to the Senate to stand up for the little guy. Every politician says that, but when I say it, you can believe it. And we do need someone to fight for us in the Senate – to fight the drug companies, the coal companies, and the warmongers. I’ve spent my career fighting powerful interests – polluters, extreme right-wingers who sponsor ballot initiatives to destroy all government, contractors of the Oregon Lottery who were getting extravagant payouts with money that was supposed to go to schools. And yes, a fighter does need a good left hook.
In addition, I think that as a person with an obvious disability, I have a special opportunity, and perhaps a special obligation, to be an effective spokesman on the rights of people with disabilities, both in the campaign and as a Senator.
4. Is it true that you’re a high-school drop-out?
Junior high – in Cottage Grove in 1976, ninth grade was junior high. Yes. In 1976, the schools of Cottage Grove closed for a few months, because voters refused to approve a budget levy. To fill the time, I started taking classes at the University of Oregon, which was right down the road. I did okay, and I asked the U of O if I could just stay there as a full-time student. They said yes. It was the ‘70’s; they were very mellow about it. So I wound up graduating at 18. Which was very lucky for me, because it meant that I graduated in 1981 – just before Reagan started slashing student aid.
5. You spent several years working as a lawyer at the Department of Justice. Today the department seems to be suffering from a major crisis of morale and public confidence. What do you see as the causes of this crisis, and how would you, as a senator, go about curing it?
I spent eight great years enforcing environmental laws at Justice. The major cause of the crisis is very simple: The people in charge, both at Justice and in the White House, have been people who don’t believe in the rule of law, and who believe that both the Justice Department itself and its client agencies should serve a narrow political agenda rather than fulfilling their historic missions. To give one example that is close to home for me, while my old friends at Justice have been bringing lawsuits against coal-fired power plants for Clean Air Act violations, the Administration has been trying to change the regulations – in a way utterly inconsistent with the underlying law itself — to effectively exempt those plants from having to comply with the Clean Air Act. The political agenda is set at EPA, not at Justice itself, but it’s still demoralizing for Justice people, although they are soldiering on.
So the obvious solution is simple: Put people in charge, in the White House, at Justice itself, and in its client agencies, who do believe in the rule of law and in the missions of their agencies. That’s primarily the President’s job. But if we have another rogue President, a Senator can oppose bad nominees for high positions at Justice and elsewhere. And a Senator can support the mission of Justice and the agencies, through the funding process and by pursuing a proactive policy agenda.
Hopefully even Mukasey will be an improvement. I opposed confirming Mukasey – how can you not admit that waterboarding is torture? – but I do think he has a higher regard for the rule of law than his predecessor.
6. Oregon also has a reputation for strong interest in environmental issues, such as conservation and global warming. But these questions have only been on the periphery of Washington politics for the last decade. Any chance in your view that this will change? Do you expect them to play a serious role in the senatorial campaign?
It’s changing every day. Washington responds to public pressure, and voters are increasingly concerned about the environment. It might not be among people’s top three concerns, but it matters. We were pleasantly surprised, when we did our poll, to see how much Gordon Smith’s anti-environmental record mattered to people. Oregon is a greener state than most, but I bet other candidates around the country are seeing the same thing. Al Gore, coupled with the vastly improved performance of the mainstream media on the issue, have put global warming squarely on the table. People are also aware that air pollution causes asthma. Some believe that mercury poisoning causes autism.
Environmental issues will be front and center in my campaign. Gordon Smith’s votes for polluters are important in and of themselves, and because they are part of a pattern of supporting special interests over the rest of us. My eight years enforcing environmental laws, which included recovering $129 million in the Love Canal case, are a key feature of my biography. And I can’t not talk about global warming. Even if my pollster told me that nobody cares, I’d have to talk about perhaps the gravest threat human beings – not to mention lots of other species – have ever faced.
More information about the candidate and his campaign is available at www.novickforsenate.com.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”