Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsTomorrow is the presidential primary in both Oregon and Kentucky, but it’s also a key Senate primary in Oregon, where two Democrats are facing off to see who will get to take a crack at unseating Gordon Smith, the sole GOP senator on the West Coast.

When Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley announced his bid for the nomination in August, it looked like a win was inevitable. He was hand-picked by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But over the past few months, activist and underdog Steve Novick has surged from behind in the polls and now appears to have a decent chance of grabbing the nomination tomorrow.

Smith is seen as one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in the Senate this year, at least in part because of his environmental record. He maintains only a 32 percent lifetime score (PDF) from the League of Conservation Voters, though he did earn a 73 percent score in the 110th Congress. His environmental transgressions include voting against action on climate change, voting in favor of a Republican budget plan that included drilling in ANWR, and in 2003 claiming that scientists are still “evenly split” on the question of whether humans are causing global warming.

Enter Novick, a party activist who graduated Harvard Law at age 21 and went on to a career as an environmental lawyer in the Department of Justice. In the late ’80s and early ’90s he worked in what was then called the Land and Natural Resources Division, handling civil enforcement under the Clean Air and Water acts, as well as Superfund cases, among them the $129 million settlement with Occidental Petroleum for the cleanup of Love Canal. After leaving the DOJ, Novick came back to Oregon, where he’s served on the board of the Oregon Environmental Council for most of the last ten years, working on issues like toxics, river preservation, and global warming action. He’s also worked as a consultant to 1,000 Friends, the smart-growth land-use group, on “takings law” ballot initiatives.

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Oh, and he’s 4’9″ and has a metal hook for a left hand, which he references frequently. Grist caught up with Novick recently to find out more about his environmental agenda, tattoos, and whether he thinks he has a chance tomorrow.

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What did you learn at the Department of Justice about the role of the federal government in enforcing environmental standards?

If Congress passes good laws, and the president signs them and you enforce them, they make a difference. Before the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed, two-thirds of the lakes and rivers in America were considered unswimmable and unfishable, and that number was cut in half over the next [decades]. And before the Clean Air Act was passed, in most major American cities there were dozens if not hundreds of days a year when the air was considered unsafe to breath, and you were told to stay home, and those numbers have been greatly reduced. What that shows is that when there is political will to get good things done, good things can happen.

How did you first become interested in environmental issues?

Growing up in Northern California and Oregon in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was always interested in environmental issues. They’re pretty much in the water. I remember passing out “Save the Whales; Boycott Japanese Products” leaflets when I was twelve.

What would be the top three things you’d push for in the environmental realm should you get to the Senate?

The biggest thing obviously is global warming, and we’ve got to throw the kitchen sink at it in terms of conservation and developing renewables. That involves higher fuel efficiency standards for cars, investment in mass transit, higher energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances. I think that the federal government has a role to play in providing incentives, positive and negative, for state and local governments to adopt strong energy efficiency standards.

And obviously we need a pretty dramatic investment in developing renewable energy. I don’t think we can count on the market to do all of that. If we’re going to get 20 percent of our power from wind, which some people think that we could, that means a lot of wind farms not only in places like Oregon but in places like Wyoming. If you’re going to get that power to the rest of the country, you need to build new transmission lines, and the federal government is going to have to do that.

What made you decide to jump right into the Senate race, rather than a local race first?

I’ve been pretty heavily involved in local and state politics for the past 12 years, and what happened in this race is that nobody in the congressional delegation wanted to run. None of the state-wide electeds wanted to run. And as a fairly prominent figure in the progressive community, I looked around and realized there wasn’t anybody who had as good a chance of winning as me. And it was simply a matter of preemptive guilt. I didn’t like the idea that 15 years from now I might look around and see that we haven’t done anything on global warming, and the health care system continues to collapse and the level of inequality, which is now as bad as it was in 1929, continues to get worse. I didn’t want to have to look around 15 years from now and think, “Gosh darn it. I could have helped prevent all this if I just had the guts to run against Gordon Smith.”

Your opponent in the primary, Jeff Merkley, has gotten endorsements from some big enviro groups like Sierra Club. What do you think makes you better on environment than he is?

I think a major difference between his campaign and my campaign in general is that I think that we have to have a serious discussion with the voters about what the problems really are in some detail, and what we need to do, in some detail. It’s not enough to just say “Let’s adopt the Sanders-Boxer bill, and reduce emissions by 80 percent.” I think we need to explain to people that 30 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation, and and 40 percent comes from buildings, and that means electricity, and that whenever you leave your heat or air conditioning on when you’re out of the house, you’re contributing to global warming. People should know that 50 percent of electricity comes from coal. And I think that unless you start talking to people in some detail about what the problem is, then you’re going to start encountering political resistance as you start taking steps to address it.

You’ve been the real underdog in this fight. What do you think are your chances for beating this guy, who has much better name recognition in the state?

All the polls so far have shown me ahead. They’ve got more money. So they’re spending it now, because Chuck Schumer as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, has steered a lot of out-of-state money to him. In April, we out-raised them $107,000 to $60,000 in-state, but they still out-raised us significantly. It’s a matter of the better campaign versus the more well-funded campaign. We’re confident we’re going to win, but we know they have the financial advantage.

Does the environment seem like an issue that Oregon voters are going to rally around this year?

I think that the environmental issues will be part of a wider array of issues where we demonstrate that Gordon Smith sides with powerful corporate interests rather than the interests of regular Oregonians. So voting to loosen pollution controls on coal plants fits nicely with voting against investigating Halliburton’s contracts in Iraq. People care about the environment per se, but they also care about the general question of is this guy representing us, or is he representing a few powerful interests.

Why are you the man to beat Gordon Smith this year?

I provide a starker contrast with Gordon Smith than anybody else running. And one of the major ways I do that is I spent the past 8 and half years suing polluters, and he spent the last 12 years voting with them. I’ve also spent much of the past ten years fighting to prevent the right-wing initiative machine from bankrupting the state of Oregon, while he has spent the past eight years helping George Bush bankrupt the country. And in a year where voters are truly tired of politics as usual and are looking for something different, Gordon Smith is a fine, traditional politician who promises everything for nothing, and has excellent hair, looks great in a suit, and drives a white Mercedes. And I’m 4’9″ with a left hand made of stainless steel, I acknowledge that we can’t have everything for nothing, and I drive a Chevy Prism.

I know the Willamette Week asked you this question, but I liked the answer. So what tattoo would you get, were you to get one that embodied you as a candidate?

We’ll, I’m scared of needles, so I kind of cheated and said that I would have inscribed on my prosthetic left arm the slogan that Woodie Guthrie used to have on his guitar, which was, “This machine kills fascists.” I thought about doing that in the past, but I thought it would be presumptuous.