Just eight years ago, Steve Novick was the liberal hero, the guy who offered a left-wing alternative to the Democratic establishment’s hand-picked candidate for U.S. Senate, Jeff Merkley.
Novick started out that race as a virtual unknown among average voters, but soon gained national attention, such as this from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “He’s never run for office before, he’s 4-foot-9 and he has a hook for a hand, as a result of a birth defect. But he’s brilliantly managed to turn his shortcomings into a political asset.”
Novick’s looks were unconventional for a political candidate. But his resume was stellar. His TV ads playfully noted one while quickly pointing out the other. One spot featured three tall, news anchor-handsome men claiming to be Novick and taking credit for an impressive array of accomplishments: graduating Harvard Law School at 21, taking on big polluters and winning. Finally, Novick came on camera for the punchline: None of those guys claiming to be him actually was Steve Novick, but other than that everything they said was true.
The approach almost worked. Novick lost to Merkley by less than three percentage points. And he won Multnomah County, the heart of Oregon liberalism, by a whopping 10.
Four years later, Novick easily won a seat on the Portland City Council. Under Portland’s unique commission system of government, City Council members are legislators and executives, with each overseeing their own portfolio of city agencies. Novick asked for and got the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and he promised to fix the city’s aging streets.
That is where his trouble started.
Two years ago, Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales unveiled their plan to pay for better roads: A street fee that they said did not require public approval.
“If the voters are really mad at us, we’re both up for reelection in 2016,” Novick said at the time, “they can throw us out.”
Many voters, particularly small business owners, disagreed with that take. They registered their displeasure at public hearings and in writing. At one public forum, a restaurateur summed up the mood of the crowd:
“I am one of the owners of a restaurant group here in Portland. We have 150 employees, and Seattle is looking really good for our next project,” she said, to applause.
Novick and Hales suggested a series of compromises aimed at taking some of the sting out of the fee, or at least making it more politically palatable. But they could never find a third vote on the council.
The street fee actually ended with a win for Novick — this past May, Portland voters agreed to create a 10-cent per gallon gas tax for road repairs.
But along the way, Novick gained a reputation for being prickly, arrogant and dismissive of people who disagreed with him. When the Portland Business Alliance objected to one proposed compromise, he said the city’s largest chamber of commerce “would rather burn the city to the ground” than support a progressive income tax.
But some fights, he avoided. When ride-hailing service Uber started operating in Portland without city government’s approval, Novick initially called the company “a bunch of thugs” and vowed to fight. But Hales wasn’t sure Portland could win a legal fight, and Novick’s own political consultant, Mark Wiener, signed on to work for Uber.
Eventually, Novick went along with a deal to allow Uber entry. For many on the left, once Novick’s political base, the decision to play nice with a wealthy, law-skirting company from Silicon Valley felt symbolic of something larger.
In hindsight, Novick said he wishes he’d stuck with his initial instinct.
“Portlanders like the idea of fighting big, powerful special interests, and so I wish I had not taken the temperate advice of the mayor and had said, ‘No, we’re going to stand and fight,’” he said in an interview. “I don’t think that affected a large percentage of the electorate, but I do think there’s a portion of the hard left, of which I am normally a part, that was very disappointed.”
This fall, it all caught up to him. Bookstore owner Chloe Eudaly ran to the left of Novick — just as he had against Merkley. She pushed plans for rent control and other measures to curb rising housing prices.
She’d never run for office before, and Novick outspent her nearly 6-to-1. Yet on election night, she beat him so soundly that he conceded just minutes after ballots were due.
“I had been telling people for months I thought there was a significant chance I was going to lose. I was a lot more prepared to lose than my campaign advisors,” Novick said. “I looked at the fact that I got 43 percent of the vote in the primary, and nobody had ever heard of my opponents.”
Novick said Eudaly ran a great campaign, and he takes some of the blame for his loss. He also blames the national mood — the general anti-government sentiment that led to the election of Donald Trump as president.
But he also says Portland’s unique form of government hamstrung his efforts to find new money for road repair.
“When you give someone a bureau, two things happen: That bureau becomes really important to them and all the other bureaus become less important,” he said. “In this system of government, it was much harder to get people to stick their necks out for new funding for transportation, because only one of us was transportation commissioner.”
Novick is the first incumbent city commissioner to lose in Portland since 1992. But Oregon’s largest city has also had three straight one-term mayors, suggesting it’s a pretty hard place to govern.
“The idea that each of the commissioners run certain bureaus, that means you really cannot set citywide priorities,” he said. “Portlanders would be much better off with more typical, a mayor, a council, a city manager…. I think this is a nightmare form of government.”
Novick spent his holidays packing up and looking for a job, ideally one that lets him work on income inequality. He said he’s not interested in running for office again, at least not soon.
Seconds later, though, he throws out an elected office that does intrigue him: Multnomah County district attorney.
“Some progressives around the country are beginning to realize that in our criminal justice system, the DA holds all the cards. And if we need to do real criminal justice reform, we need to have people running for DA,” he said. “Also frankly, I kind of like the idea of being the crusty old DA in the original ‘Law & Order,’ saying, ‘Make the deal!’”