BAKERSFIELD — Less than five years ago, Kevin McCarthy was a Bakersfield Republican sitting in the California Assembly. Today, the 45-year-old son of a firefighter will be sworn in as the third-highest-ranking member of the GOP’s new majority in the House of Representatives.
The position of House majority whip — the cat-herder responsible for making sure the votes are there — is a reward for the years McCarthy has spent on the road hunting for candidates, as his recruiting prowess was a major force in shaping the GOP majority that will battle President Barack Obama.
Many of the new Republicans McCarthy enlisted are people like him: self-made, small-town folks without an Ivy League pedigree.
“He just makes you feel like you’ve known him your whole life,” said Rep.-elect Steven Fincher, R-Tenn., a farmer who said it was McCarthy’s 2009 visit that convinced the novice that he could win.
At 6 feet 1, with an easy smile and full head of prematurely gray hair, the relentlessly sunny McCarthy has a pristine conservative voting record, but he isn’t going to be railing about the evils of same-sex marriage or abortion.
“I couldn’t tell you if Kevin is moderate or conservative,” said Mike Franc, who analyzes Congress for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“He’s got an aggressive nature — but he does it with a smile on his face,” said Brian Walsh, the political director of the National Republican Congressional Caucus.
McCarthy, whose district includes the North County and inland regions down to Arroyo Grande, smiled coyly at the descriptions. “I was never a joining kind of guy — never joined fraternities in college or anything,” he said recently.
He’s a blue-collar, state-college guy who says that “things don’t come easy to me, so I have to work harder at everything” — and he does.
Married to high school sweetheart Judy, who he asked out during sophomore biology class, he sleeps on a mattress in his congressional office because he doesn’t want to force his family to move to Washington. (He’s going to share an apartment this year.) He calls and sends text messages to his kids several times a day and returns home every weekend.
His meteoric rise from Bakersfield to Sacramento — where he was the first freshman to become Assembly GOP leader — to Washington began with a winning lottery ticket. It continued as he bonded with colleagues over poker tables, basketball courts, late-night flash-card sessions, back-road diners and the shared camaraderie of what’s become a lifestyle of 20-hour days.
He combines ambition, says his mentor, former House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, “with an incredible likeability. People like to be around Kevin.”
For McCarthy, that geniality was nurtured by the fourth-generation Kern County resident’s parents — conservative, Dust Bowl Democrats who showed him a relentless work ethic and an open mind.
“I used to go over to their house even when Kevin wasn’t there,” said Marshall Dillard, who was the star running back of the Bakersfield High School football team that McCarthy played on. “An African-American guy going to an Irish-American’s house — and I always felt welcomed.”
McCarthy wasn’t a star on that team, Dillard said. But the gritty tight end was the player the coach trusted to shuttle in the plays. “And he was always making us laugh. He would believe in you even when you had doubts about yourself. He would make you feel like you could walk on water.”
McCarthy admittedly didn’t apply himself in high school. After graduation, he took classes at a community college and worked as a seasonal firefighter. He’d drive to Los Angeles to buy old cars, fix them up and then sell them for a small profit.
His life changed the day he bought a winning lottery ticket. He invested the $5,000 in the stock market and dropped out of school to open a sandwich shop, Kevin O’s Deli.
Soon, owning a small business began to shape McCarthy’s smaller-government-is-better philosophy. He bristled at rules that hampered small-business owners. He sold the business for a small profit and used the money to get an undergraduate business degree at CSU Bakersfield and later a master’s in business administration.
He always had a passing interest in politics, “at first, just because I thought it would help me make contacts in business,” he said. As a student, he answered an ad placed by Thomas, who was looking for interns. Rejected at first, McCarthy volunteered to clip news stories for free.
Eventually, McCarthy became district director, learning every nook of the region. He started creating a network by becoming national chairman of the Young Republicans. In 2002, he was elected to the Assembly.
In Sacramento, McCarthy shared a house with other members. He set up a poker table in one bedroom and extended an open invitation to colleagues.
Though outnumbered, the GOP caucus grew tight. He screened videos of floor debates and drilled the others with flash cards on the chamber’s rules so they could gain leverage by outmaneuvering Democrats.
In 2006, he succeeded the retiring Thomas in Congress. Much like he did when he ran for his first Assembly term, McCarthy traveled to the districts of what would be his fellow freshman class members and raised money for them. During plane flights, he pored over minutiae from the Almanac of American Politics so he could converse about their issues.
Tapped by the GOP leadership to head its 2010 recruiting effort, McCarthy didn’t search for the next politician in line for a seat, but instead dug for nontraditional candidates who could tap into voters’ growing frustration.
One result: Heritage Foundation’s Franc found that of the 87 incoming GOP House freshmen, only a handful have any sort of Ivy League connection — roughly the same number as the nine incoming Democrats.
Many of the new GOP members have a strong connection to McCarthy. He’s also in regular contact with former House Majority Leader and tea party patron Dick Armey, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Thomas.
Starting today, McCarthy faces new challenges. For the first time in his political life, he will be part of the majority.