Last Updated: May 13, 2008: 7:27 AM EDT
Email | Print    Type Size  -  +

The unlikely candidate

A pint-sized populist is Oregon's Democratic front-runner.

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, Fortune senior editor

steve_norvick.03.jpg
Hard left hook: Senate candidate Steve Novick.
commercial1.03.jpg
Short selling: Novick's TV ads play up his diminutive stature.
commercial2.03.jpg
"Steve Novick always finds a way to get things done."

(Fortune Magazine) -- All of 4 feet 9 inches tall, with a hook for a left hand and a résumé devoid of any time in elected office, aspiring U.S. Senator Steve Novick would be easy to write off as unelectable. That's clearly the view of the Democratic Party, which has put its weight behind his rival in the race to unseat Oregon Republican incumbent Gordon Smith in November.

But this populist, anticorporate progressive - Novick is best known as the EPA lawyer who sued Occidental Chemical for polluting the Love Canal and got a $129 million settlement in 1995 - has emerged as the odds-on favorite heading into the May 20 primary. Credit his quick wit, self-deprecating sense of humor, and unorthodox campaign.

Novick actually plays up his stature and handicap, which are due to a birth defect. His hilarious campaign ads have become a sensation on YouTube - and have helped vault him to a double-digit lead in recent polls.

One commercial shows Novick sitting at a bar poring over hot-button issues with a companion who's most interested in trying to pry open a beverage. "U.S. Senate candidate Steve Novick fought corporate polluters," intones the voice-over, "but would you want to have a beer with him?" Novick grabs the bottle from the guy and pops the cap with his prosthesis. Cue the credits: "Steve Novick always finds a way to get things done."

Another spot shows three political types claiming to be Steve Novick until the camera pans over - and down - to the diminutive real Novick ("I don't look like the typical politician," he says, "but I won't act like one either.")

Junior high school dropout

Novick bills himself as a junior high school dropout, perhaps to heighten his underdog appeal. While that's technically true, he's no autodidact. He left because his school closed when his hometown couldn't pass a budget. He enrolled at the University of Oregon at age 14; by the time he turned 21, he had a Harvard Law degree.

This is his first run for office, but Novick comes across as a little guy's little guy who's unafraid to stand up to established interests. Naturally he loathes corporate polluters. He's pro-transparency and thinks the IRS should send a thank-you note to every taxpayer explaining where the money is going. He's pro-gay marriage. He advocates putting an end to Smith's reign of corporate welfare and has singled out a tax cut that gave Pfizer (PFE, Fortune 500) an extra $11 billion. "Eleven billion dollars!" Novick says. "That's enough to get any corporation excited - with or without Viagra."

Novick has a beef with both Big Pharma and health care. "We have a practice of paying doctors and hospitals by the procedure, which encourages them to perform the service," Novick says in a nasal tone that could pass for Wallace Shawn's character in The Princess Bride. His solution: something more akin to paying docs a flat salary. He also endorses halting tax write-offs for pharmaceutical advertising as a way to lower costs and discourage people from asking for medicine they don't need.

The issue hits close to home. Novick isn't sure why he was born without one hand or a fibula in either leg. But his mother thinks it was because her doctor insisted she wasn't expecting and prescribed pills to induce menstruation. Novick doesn't hold a grudge. In fact he seems entirely comfortable in his own skin. But let's put it this way: if he were a comic book hero, Big Pharma would be his nemesis. To top of page