Dan Walters: Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy becomes House majority leader

07/29/2014 5:53 PM

08/01/2014 8:43 PM

Kevin McCarthy may be a one-man refutation of the old adage that “nice guys always finish last.”

McCarthy is a genuinely nice guy who won a seat in Congress just eight years ago after a brief stint in the California Legislature, but is poised this week to become House majority leader and could, if Republicans continue their hold, become speaker in a few years.

That is, in congressional terms, a meteoric rise and it happened because McCarthy is a nice guy.

He cultivated personal relationships with other politicians, helped them raise money and win elections and was well-positioned to move up when Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost a primary to a tea party challenger.

After Cantor’s loss, there was much media speculation that a tea party-backed candidate would replace him as majority leader, but within a few days, McCarthy, calling on those relationships he had carefully nurtured, claimed the position without serious opposition.

A congressman whom McCarthy had helped win his Louisiana seat, Steve Scalise, will take McCarthy’s old post of majority whip.

So who is Kevin McCarthy and what does his elevation mean for California?

McCarthy grew up in a blue-collar Democratic family in Bakersfield and at 21, used a $5,000 lottery win to open a delicatessen.

He sold the deli to finance his college education, turned an internship with Bakersfield Congressman Bill Thomas into a staff job, won a seat in 2000 on the local community college board and then two terms in the Assembly (where he became minority leader) before replacing Thomas in Congress in 2006.

“My style is very collective,” McCarthy told Politico, a political website, after winning the majority leader’s position. “I like to have a lot of input from others. I like committees to do their work, empowering committees. I like accountability in the process.”

McCarthy is, in current ideological terms, a pragmatic conservative and he’s in a position to help California, whose congressional delegation is fragmented and often suffers from an Anywhere-But-California syndrome in Washington.

But he is a Republican leader from a deep-blue state whose Democratic politicians have a very different take on what the feds should be doing for them.

Immigration reform, a big issue in McCarthy’s agricultural district and for the state, is one potential point of friction.

Another is Gov. Jerry Brown’s bullet train project that would run through McCarthy’s district. He vociferously opposes it and pledges to block further federal financing.

Bullet train advocates believe that if they can lay some track in McCarthy’s district, he will become more supportive. But for now, he’s a big impediment.

“It’s a relationship that probably needs further development,” Brown said this week in Mexico.

Indeed it does.

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