Bakersfield, California gave the world Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Chief Justice Earl Warren, and—perhaps—the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Provided the GOP majority leader is elected speaker this month as expected, Kevin McCarthy is poised to become the most powerful California Republican in Washington since Ronald Reagan himself, but his hometown is a world away from the glamorous land of swimming pools and movie stars—more Texas than Southern California, more Friday Night Lights than Oscar Sunday.
Just over 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Bakersfield is part of what the writer Gerald Haslam, a native son, calls “the other California,” the vast inland expanse where oil and agribusiness reign, the political outlook is deep red and the old-fashioned, small town verities endure, despite the area’s explosive growth of the 1980s that has made it the ninth largest city in the state, with a population of 375,000.
“Beautiful Downtown Bakersfield,” the seat of the single most productive oil-producing county in the nation, was once the butt of endless Johnny Carson jokes (One of Johnny Carson’s questions: “Why do people in Bakersfield wear pointed shoes? To kick the cockroaches into the corner.”), and it’s long used to being the sort of place the smarty-pants set makes fun of. In that sense, McCarthy’s constituents share a common understanding with those in so many other GOP enclaves in the deepest red swaths of the country that the House Republican caucus increasingly reflects.
But the skills and conservative values that McCarthy has honed in five decades in and around his hot and dusty hometown—and in four years representing the community in the State Assembly in Sacramento—will define his leadership of the House.
McCarthy’s background, and his approach to the issues, both stand in stark contrast to the last Californian to head the House: former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, now the minority leader. Her liberal San Francisco district is as different from McCarthy’s—which voted nearly 2-to-1 for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012—as night is from day. The two Californians are widely understood to have almost no personal relationship, much less common policy ground, and their districts share few attributes.
McCarthy learned his trade at the hand of his mentor, longtime former Rep. Bill Thomas, the powerful local congressman and crusty chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, whose district office he once ran, and who was often ranked among the smartest, hardest-working and meanest members of Congress. By contrast, McCarthy is a sunny hail-fellow-well-met. Friends and political opponents alike describe him as an operative’s operative, skilled at the inside games of redistricting, candidate recruitment, organizing and electioneering—a kind of Karl Rove without the condescending streak. His opposition to government regulation, support for business and a live-and-let live approach to most hot-button social issues reflect his constituents’ views.
Most every weekend, McCarthy still makes the tortuous commute home on United Airlines through Denver to Bakersfield, whose municipal motto is: “Life As It Should Be.” He travels around his district—the single most Republican one in the state—and at Saturday lunch is apt to be found at Luigi’s, a century-old Italian deli and restaurant in Bakersfield, where his favorite dish is steak and pasta.
“He’s a true representative of Bakersfield, more than anybody probably ever could be,” says his onetime colleague, former Democratic State Sen. Dean Florez, who shared the weekly commute to Sacramento with McCarthy and other legislators on a single-engine rattletrap plane they called “the crop-duster,” and remains a friend.
“He doesn’t come from an Ivy League School. He’s truly a very simple, logical, let-me-tell-you-how-I-see it kind of person,” Florez says. “I think that’s what sometimes people don’t get about him. There are so many angles in politics. He’s not really an angles kind of guy. He just kind of says what he feels.”
But the 50-year-old McCarthy is also indisputably ambitious. He was elected minority leader of the California State Assembly as a freshman (a feat made easier by term limits that propelled new blood to the top), joined the House Republican leadership team just two years after his election to Congress in 2006 and after Eric Cantor’s unexpected primary defeat last year became the least-tenured majority leader in the history of the House.
“He was bold,” recalls Herb Wesson, who was the Democratic Assembly Speaker at the time of McCarthy’s ascension as minority leader and is now president of the Los Angeles City Council. “I can remember him coming up to me and wanting to get this extremely large office, one that had been built for Willie Brown,” the longtime Democratic speaker. “And wanting to be called the ‘Republican leader,’ not the minority leader.”
Kevin Owen McCarthy, now 50, grew up in a middle-class, old-line conservative Democratic home, one of three children of an assistant city fire chief. His dad cut the kids’ hair, and his family’s idea of a special treat was an occasional dinner at Bob’s Big Boy. As a child, McCarthy struggled with tongue thrust, or a reverse swallow, which affected his speech. He overcame the problem with the help of a speech therapist by fifth grade, and today is the most voluble of pols—albeit one with an occasional penchant for misspeaking, as when he recently called Hillary Clinton “untrustable” or referred to Hungary as “Hungria.”
By his own account, he was an indifferent student and far from a standout as a tight end on the Bakersfield High football team, the Drillers, which holds the state record for the most high school wins in California history and whose most famous alumnus was Frank Gifford. No matter his skill, though, “just to play on that team was impressive,” recalls Pat Preston, himself a Bakersfield grad and later head coach, who in McCarthy’s day coached a rival team in nearby Hanford. “It was a very competitive program.”
After graduation, McCarthy enrolled in Bakersfield College, the local community college, but dropped out after winning $5,000 on the second day of the new California state lottery in 1984. He invested some of the winnings in the stock market and used the rest to open a neighborhood deli, which he ran for two years, before selling the business and using the profits to put himself through Cal State Bakersfield, where he later also earned an M.B.A. At the same time, he went to work Thomas’s office—at first as an unpaid volunteer clipping newspapers, because he’d been rejected for a staff job. In 1992, he married his high school sweetheart, Judy Wages, with whom he now has two college-age children.
Disenchanted with Jimmy Carter’s leadership and inspired by California’s own Ronald Reagan, McCarthy began drifting toward the Republican Party—a transformation solidified by his experiences running the deli and later a baseball batting range. In college, he was elected chairman of the California Young Republicans and later headed the national organization.
“We first crossed paths in the early ’80s, walking precincts together and phone-banking,” recalls Larry Starrh, who runs a family almond and pistachio ranching operating outside Bakersfield and remains close to McCarthy. “Then as he went to work for Bill Thomas, we bent his ear a lot, especially on ag issues. This community is based on really hot summers and working in the dirt, and there’s a real work ethic that comes out of that. There’s a real grounding in that, and Kevin has it.”