Local Republicans: McCarthy's rise to speaker a win for Kern

Jan. 8—In the wee hours of Saturday morning, after 15 rounds of voting spanning four days, Kevin McCarthy officially secured his position as the 53rd U.S. House speaker.

"As speaker of the House, my ultimate responsibility is not to my party, my conference, or even our Congress. My responsibility — our responsibility — is to our country," McCarthy said in his opening remarks. "Two months ago, you voted for a new direction for our country. You embraced our Commitment to America. And now, we are going to keep our commitment to you."

McCarthy won the seat by a nose — not his own, of course, but rather by 14 of the 20 hard-line Republicans who earlier caused a four-day gridlock under the banner "Never Kevin." A few others voted "present," which made it possible for McCarthy to win 216-212.

"While I'm glad we were able to come together as Republicans to elect Speaker McCarthy, I am deeply disappointed in the handful of my colleagues who have treated this process like a game," said Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford. "It's clear this small group of members are more interested in their personal political stardom than governing in the best interest of their constituents."

According to Kern County Republican strategist Cathy Abernathy, the credit goes to McCarthy.

"The results were to the credit of the man who has committed so much time and effort to make the monumental change of party control in the House of Representatives," Abernathy said.

Abernathy dismissed the characterizations of "chaos" surrounding the four-day bid for speaker, especially those claims that warned of it stalling legislative work in the House.

"This is not shocking that it doesn't move quickly," Abernathy said. "Normally, you're sworn in on Jan. 3 and you don't come back until the State of the Union on the 20th, so it's not like work wasn't getting done. To say it's 'chaotic' is absurd to me."

Javier Reyes, who is president of the Kern Young Republicans, said he was certain of McCarthy's chances.

"Democracy can be messy and debate can be healthy," Reyes said. "What we witnessed over the past four days was a messy and at times unhealthy process. But that was necessary for Congress to select the next speaker of the House."

The changed votes during the 15 rounds of voting came at the reported expense of concessions made to the House Freedom Caucus, through the release of the Republicans rules package on Friday, which revives a single-person "motion to vacate" the speaker's chair, among other measures.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, eliminated the vacate rule in 2019. She told reporters on Friday that its reinstatement would be "ridiculous."

"That's not some shocking rule," Abernathy said. "I don't think the American people even once thought about that rule that doesn't really have any impact — it's internal politics and I think you'll find that won't be utilized."

Abernathy brushed aside the narrative that McCarthy gave up too much for the gavel in return, saying that nothing is yet concrete.

"Kevin McCarthy hasn't agreed to anything that those 202 members who have supported him over the last two months would have a problem with," Abernathy said.

While much of the package is noncontroversial, it does make it easier for smaller sects in Congress to stall the passage of bills, more difficult for the House to pass spending bills, alter taxes and raise the debt limit.

The speaker, who controls the House floor and its abiding rules on behalf of the majority, exercises control through the rules committee, which determines how bills — the heart of legislative functions — are considered. Democrats and skeptics alike worry that any concessions made to this process may control who is allowed to amend a bill and by essence inhibit a bipartisan process.

McCarthy eschewed concerns, asking reporters present Saturday morning to not "judge us on how we start, watch how we finish, and I think by having the disruption now really built trust with one another and learned how to work together."

But some areas of legislation require bipartisan support in real time, such as numerous spending bills and raises to the federal debt limit. Despite anyone's best intention, if these bills are not passed, the government shuts down. If the borrowing limit is not raised, the government enters into debt default.

A small batch of protesters stood outside McCarthy's Bakersfield office on Friday. The office, tucked in the back of a business park, is veiled by a tree-lined courtyard and framed by tinted windows.

One protester, Dee Dominguez, mentioned how it was weird to her that an elected official's office was hidden away while "everyone was out in the open downtown."

The protesters demanded that McCarthy make himself more accessible to his constituents, not just to those who agree with him politically or "to those who donate to his campaign."

"Since Kevin McCarthy has finally achieved his lifelong dream of becoming speaker, I am concerned that he and his staff will be even less concerned and attentive to his constituents," said Mary Helen Barro, vice president of Kern's League of Women Voters, on Saturday.

Several prominent local Democrats did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

Critics over the duration of the vote questioned not only McCarthy's ability to reel in his party in Washington, but also how accessible he will be to his constituents in the Central Valley, which includes areas of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties.

"He has been plenty busy ever since he got to Congress," Abernathy said. "What has changed is that, with the way the lines are drawn, he will be spending a lot of time in Fresno County, so it's a little more difficult to represent a district that is north-south when it used to be east-west."

Due to redistricting based on the 2020 census, McCarthy splits his time between district offices in Bakersfield and Fresno. Most calls to his Bakersfield office are, however, redirected to Washington, D.C. At the protest on Friday, the office doors were locked.

As far as politicians go, McCarthy is relatively well-received. In the 2022 midterm election, he received 67 percent of the vote. In the two decades he has represented the region, he's been afforded comfortable leads and consistent donations to his campaigns.

"(McCarthy) will continue to be a strong voice for the Central Valley, and I look forward to continuing to work with him to strengthen and revitalize our state and nation," said California Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield.

And California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said: "I am thrilled to congratulate a leader in our party, a critical ally to the (CAGOP), and a dear friend, Kevin McCarthy, on earning the support of his peers to serve as our country's speaker of the House."

And in turn, he has touted himself as a champion for the region's chief economies — oil and agriculture. Local Republicans believe McCarthy's presence will reignite the engines of Kern's local economy — oil production and agriculture — and maybe even erode some of the many stereotypes about Bakersfield.

"I think it's huge to Kern, Fresno and Tulare county — three rural California counties that feed the nation — that have a speaker that appreciates what we do here," Abernathy said. "That's a big victory for ag production and energy production."

She and other Republicans believe McCarthy will use his position to keep a pulse on federal drilling and land use policies — "to bring Kern's economy into the meetings" — and prioritize the counties' continuing issues on water storage — the last which especially plagues an area that for several years has recorded above-average drought conditions.

Reyes said that McCarthy, himself a former chairman of the Kern Young Republicans, meets with the group monthly. He added that McCarthy is out and about in the community, that "his constituents pass by him at the grocery store, see him out at lunch, can meet with him at his district office."

"I think his accessibility will remain very consistent," Reyes said.

Despite chairing the Young Republicans for six years, Reyes said he doesn't have any political aspirations so long as "people like Kevin McCarthy are leading Congress." To Reyes, McCarthy represents the low-income, working-class families of Bakersfield, like himself.

"If not in Bakersfield, then somewhere in the Midwest, perhaps a community down South in a rural area or a family living in the Northeast trying to pay their heating bill in a cold winter," Reyes said. "I think Kevin McCarthy knows what it's like to balance a budget, provide for a family, so that regular family men like me don't have to run for office."