Bakersfield City School District

‘He’s Bakersfield’: Kevin McCarthy’s constituents know him better than he knows himself

For two decades, Julie and Jared Vawter have been among the Republicans whose votes for Kevin McCarthy sent him from his conservative inland California hometown of Bakersfield to Sacramento and then Washington DC, where he rose through the GOP’s ranks in the House of Representatives and, this year, was elected speaker.

That climb came to an abrupt end last week, when a small group of rightwing Republicans revolted against McCarthy and, with the help of Democrats, made him the first speaker removed from the post in the chamber’s 234-year history.

A week and two days after McCarthy’s downfall, the Vawters affixed McCarthy campaign pins and made their way to the monthly meeting of the Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly (GBRA), a conservative group where some members were partial to the rightwing insurgency and its leader, the congressman Matt Gaetz.

“He was a man that I feel has integrity,” Jared Vawter, 64, said of McCarthy. “And, to me, that’s one of the most important things for a congressman, is that he stand up and do what he says and says what he does.”

“And reach across the aisle,” 60-year-old Julie Vawter added in the banquet room of a Bakersfield institution, Hodel’s Country Dining, just after the prayer that closed the GBRA’s meeting. “Because we have to have that. We want that from their side. We gotta have that from our side. We can’t be the Matt Gaetz, who [has] a solid line and won’t budge.”

Standing on the other side of the hall, Joyce Perrone said she saw McCarthy’s downfall as the type of change that may have been a loss for Bakersfield’s famed son, but was long overdue for Washington’s political class, whom she viewed as derelict in reducing the national debt, and securing the country’s border with Mexico.

“I think we welcome the chaos,” Perrone said. As for McCarthy: “He’s a good fundraiser, good speaker, he did some things, but I think people are tired of the status quo.”

There’s no telling what comes next, either for McCarthy or for Congress. House Republicans have found no exit from the power vacuum McCarthy’s ouster created, and without a speaker, the chamber is essentially nonoperational.

There appeared to be a breakthrough on Wednesday, when McCarthy’s deputy Steve Scalise won the party’s nomination to replace him, but he dropped out a day later after concluding he could not attain the near-unanimity required among House Republicans to win the speaker’s gavel.

A sign for Bakersfield over Sillect Avenue at Buck Owens Boulevard on 20 April 2022. Photograph: Lisa Mascaro/AP

The consequences of McCarthy’s downfall for Bakersfield are far less apparent. The 58-year-old former speaker says he has no intention of resigning, and the district he represents, which includes about half the city’s neighborhoods and portions of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and San Joaquin valley, is considered the most Republican-leaning in the state. But McCarthy’s ouster could damage his formidable fundraising operation, while Democrats in Bakersfield and the surrounding Kern county believe they have more momentum than one would think in the traditionally conservative area.

“Nobody has ever accused Kevin of not working hard, that’s for darn sure,” said Greg Perrone, the GBRA’s president. “He’s not a Harvard-educated or Ivy League-educated guy. Nobody has ever said he’s a slacker. He’s Bakersfield.”

Politically conservative, culturally distinct and inland from California’s populous and picturesque coastline, Bakersfield has ever-expanding neighborhoods surrounded by the pump jacks and orchards of its two main industries, agriculture and oil – which together make the air there the worst in the nation.

Half of the city’s 400,000-plus residents identify as Latino. Bakersfield is also home to a growing Punjabi Sikh community; to the descendants of the midwesterners who migrated to California during the dust bowl of the 1930s; and to a population of Basque sheepherders who arrived at the dawn of the 20th century. The city’s poverty rate, at 16%, is above the national average, according to Census Bureau data, and its rate of youth disconnectedness – the population aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working – is among the highest in the country, according to the Social Science Research Council.

McCarthy’s origin story involves him winning a $5,000 lottery ticket and, at the age of 21, using the money to open Kevin O’s Deli in a corner of his family’s store, McCarthy’s Yogurt, on Stine Road in south-west Bakersfield. Though he has occasionally fudged the details, a fact-check by the Washington Post found, McCarthy put his experience as an entrepreneur at the center of his pitch as a politician, which began when he applied for an internship with the Republican congressman Bill Thomas while attending California State University, Bakersfield.

Though his parents were Democrats, McCarthy recounted in a 2014 Fox News interview that he contrasted Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s plea for Americans to wear sweaters at home to cope with rising heating prices with Republican Ronald Reagan’s description of the country as a “shining city on a hill”, and decided the latter was for him.

“I knew what I wanted to believe. I believed in an entrepreneur, in greater liberty and freedom,” he said.

Bakersfield City School District / Homepage
Bakersfield City School District / Homepage

A view of the Kern River oil fields, in Bakersfield on 24 January 2023. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Thomas’s chief of staff, Cathy Abernathy, turned him down for the position in Washington DC he applied for in 1987, so McCarthy asked to work in his Bakersfield office, and was accepted. He dove so deep into the tasks before him – answering the phones, tracking down delayed passport applications, sorting out constituents’ immigration troubles – that Abernathy realized McCarthy needed help.

“He was on the phone so much and doing so much stuff that … he had his own intern,” she recalls.

McCarthy later joined Thomas’s staff as an aide, where he met Mark Martinez, a political science professor at his alma mater. In the late 1990s, before McCarthy would win his first election as a trustee of the local community college, Martinez invited him to address his introduction to American government class.

“Kevin didn’t understand what a lecture was,” Martinez recalled. “He came in, and he was actually trying to rally the troops.” The rhetoric fell flat at Cal State Bakersfield, which, unlike some of California’s other public universities, is a commuter school of politically moderate students who are often starting families or looking to change careers, Martinez said.

“How do you do this?” McCarthy whispered under his breath to Martinez. “I said, ‘Kevin, this is a lecture – lecture on campaigns.’” A spokesperson for McCarthy declined to comment about this incident.

By 2002, McCarthy had won an assembly seat in the state legislature and, by the end of the following year, was made the Republican minority leader.

“McCarthy leans to the middle. He supports most abortion rights, but opposes spending tax dollars on abortions,” the Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton wrote in a 2003 profile. McCarthy also called for the creation of an independent commission to handle redistricting, because “the present system protects incumbents and produces extremists”, as Skelton tells it.

Thomas opted not to run again in 2006, and that year, McCarthy took over his old seat. By 2014, his colleagues had elected him GOP majority leader in the House, the post just below speaker, making McCarthy the least experienced lawmaker to occupy the job in history, according to a University of Minnesota study.

McCarthy and former president Donald Trump during an event on California water accessibility, 19 February 2020 in Bakersfield. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

He threw his support behind Donald Trump in 2016, developing a close relationship with him during his presidency that included signing on to a baseless lawsuit trying to overturn his re-election loss in 2020. Daylight appeared between them in the wake of the January 6 attack, when McCarthy said on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility” for the sacking of the Capitol but he wouldn’t vote to impeach him.

In an interview with Bakersfield broadcaster KGET two days later, Thomas, McCarthy’s former boss, faulted him for “months of supporting those outrageous lies of the president” but said he hoped that when Joe Biden takes office, “the Kevin who spoke during the impeachment … will be the Kevin leading the Republicans on the floor of the House”.

Instead, McCarthy traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to made amends, paving the way for him to emerge as the Republican frontrunner for next year’s election, and McCarthy to be elected as speaker – but only after a grueling 15 rounds of voting, thanks to opposition from many of the same GOP lawmakers who would vote to eject him months later.

During his rise, McCarthy worked to make sure his roots as a small businessman were publicly known. Every few years or so, his social media accounts would share a photo of the Kevin O’s menu, or a shot of a young and mustached McCarthy at work at the deli. But at the strip mall on Stine Road where he once did business, no sign of his family’s eponymous shop remains. Today, the L-shaped building is home to a closed-up discount store, a Spanish-language church and a butcher shop where the owner, Abel Roman, is weighing whether to vote for Trump next year, or even vote at all.

“Right now, I’m not pro-Biden, neither Trump,” said Roman, who immigrated from Peru 25 years ago. In 2020, he skipped voting because he “didn’t feel it’ll make any difference”. Ahead of next year’s elections, he’s similarly apathetic, and skeptical about whether politicians have the will to address why the costs of goods at his store are rising or why it’s so hard to get a loan.

For the Democratic party in Kern county, McCarthy’s ouster could provide another boost in the rise they believe they’re on. The city is filling up with new residents from pricier coastal areas, who are bringing their more liberal values with them, said Christian Romo, the county Democratic party chair. The GOP still has the edge in voter registration in Kern county, but only by about 7,000 votes, while Democrats have effective control of the Bakersfield city council, thanks to an alliance with a moderate Republican.

McCarthy’s district is still so thoroughly Republican that Romo views it as unconquerable. But next door to him is David Valadao, a Republican congressman who represents the remaining neighborhoods of Bakersfield and a swath of Central Valley farmland that voted for Biden in 2020. Romo says the spectacle of McCarthy’s defenestration will be part of their pitch to independent voters, whom he expects will decide whether Valadao is replaced by a Democrat next year.

“It’s embarrassing that our local leader, right, ‘our local hometown guy’, had to go through 15 rounds of votes, and now was … the only speaker to ever be stripped of his power. I mean, that’s embarrassing for Bakersfield. It’s a scar in Bakersfield,” he said.

Bakersfield City School District / Homepage
Bakersfield City School District / Homepage

People walk in a city park near the Kern River oil fields, in Bakersfield, California, on 24 January 2023. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

McCarthy was a prodigious fundraiser, channeling the tens of millions he would reap to Republican candidates in last year’s midterms. James Brulte, who was the Republican minority leader in the state senate during McCarthy’s time in the assembly, worries about his ability to continue that from the diminished rank of speaker emeritus.

“I don’t think this affects any individual race one way or another,” Brulte said of his removal. “But, given McCarthy’s prolific fundraising ability, given the fact that there is no Republican speaker right now, every day that goes by, that probably hurts Republicans, collectively, on the margins, primarily because of the fundraising impact.”

Only eight Republicans voted for McCarthy’s removal, but with the party appearing as disunited with him gone as it was with him as speaker, Martinez thinks he may take a stab at returning to the post, even though he has said he does not want it.

“He could become a big player and start doing stuff for the community and the region, if he was … genuinely concerned about doing what representative government is supposed to do. But that’s not where he’s at,” Martinez said. “Kevin, if he stays in Congress, is going to want to become speaker again.”

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