For die-hards in McCarthy’s Red California district, DC’s voiceover drama was welcome

For die-hards in McCarthy’s Red California district, DC’s voiceover drama was welcome

  • US News
  • January 13, 2023
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HANFORD, California —

At an Elks Lodge in the Central Valley, Larry Faria stood before a conservative grassroots group called the 1776 Sons of Liberty and asked for a show of hands.

It was Monday night, hours after House Republicans passed a set of operating rules for the new Congress that included concessions made by far-right Kevin McCarthy during the historic 15 rounds of voting it took before he became speaker .

“Raise your hand if you think we stood our ground for valuable concessions,” Faria pleaded.

Hands shot up.

“Raise your hand if you think it should have been a status quo vote for McCarthy.”

Nobody got up.

Sure, McCarthy is the Bakersfield hometown guy who represents the rural, farm-centric Central Valley.

An industrial desert landscape with metal structures.

A view from the Kern River Parkway in Bakersfield.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

But the divisions that have roiled the national GOP, humiliated McCarthy and temporarily halted his long bid for the speaker’s gavel are palpable in his reliably red district, which became even more conservative after the 2021 convention card redraw.

Mainstream Republicans here are excited by McCarthy’s rise and the spotlight he’s shining on the Central Valley, where conservatives have long complained of being drowned out by urban liberals in Halls of Power.

“Kevin is a fighter and he wants to move the country forward,” said Rep. Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), who worked for McCarthy for a decade. “He will be a tremendous advocate for the Central Valley and all Californians to move our country in the right direction, stop inflation, stop overspending, stand up for hardworking families and get on with the border.”

David Bynum, a Bakersfield attorney and a former McCarthy intern, said most local conservatives are thrilled to have one from Kern County speak.

“Anyone who knows him knows he’s a likeable guy,” Bynum said. “He knows your children’s names. The last time I saw him he was at a bakery downtown to get a donut. He comes across as a down to earth local.”

But McCarthy’s embarrassing saga was cheered on his home turf by a vocal contingent to his right, who accused him of being a RINO – a Republican in name only – who cares more about personal power, Washington politics and fundraising than the Central Valley to serve.

“I have never heard anyone say that this was a disgrace or a deception or that it should never have happened. None,” said Greg Perrone, president of the Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly, an activist group he likened to the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

He said McCarthy represents an established GOP that held majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives during the first two years of the Trump administration, and “the agenda they got was zero.”

A horizontal portrait of a man.

Greg Perrone, President of the conservative Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

McCarthy officials did not respond to requests for comment.

As the state GOP has slumped to the right, its influence has declined. Gone are the days of California’s sons Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, who were centrist by today’s standards.

Republicans have not won a statewide contest since 2006, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected and Steve Poizner became insurance commissioner. Among California’s 22 million registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

McCarthy’s rise was one of the few bright spots for state GOP officials who are hoping McCarthy — a veteran fundraiser — will bring money and clout to the country 11 other California Republicans in the house.

“He’s been the most important and powerful Republican in California for at least the last decade. If he’s a speaker, that’s good for [California] Republicans,” said Rob Stutzman, a longtime GOP strategist.

Tim Miller, who worked for the Republican National Committee and left the party after the 2020 election, said he was skeptical McCarthy would be able to do anything meaningful for California given the razor-thin Republican majority in the House of Representatives and dysfunction in Congress deliver.

In California, he said, the GOP “always looks more like the… holdouts than Kevin McCarthy.”

Two adults, four children and a dog in a park.

A family and their dog at Yokuts Park in Bakersfield.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Despite the state’s sapphire tilt, more than 6 million Californians voted for then-President Trump in 2020 — more than any other state in the nation.

The twice-impeached former president remains popular in McCarthy’s Congressional District 20, which stretches from Bakersfield in the north to Hanford and Clovis.

Oil and water dominate local culture and politics. Along Highway 99 south of Hanford, a billboard implores “Pray for Rain” next to a drought-stricken orchard with downed trees. Other billboards berate Gov. Gavin Newsom for not building more dams. There is a jack for an oil pump in the parking lot of the Kern County GOP headquarters.

In the district, Republicans have a 19 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats — the largest gap in the state.

Nevertheless, the Central Valley is changing as a whole. Some counties that were once reliably red are becoming increasingly competitive as the region becomes more Latino and less Republican.

In a district adjacent to McCarthy that includes the southern portion of Hanford, Republican Rep. David Valadao won a narrow race in November and had lost the seat to a Democrat four years earlier.

McCarthy should not take his constituents for granted, Perrone said.

“For far too long, Kern County Republicans have sat back and said, ‘We’re safe here. We’re conservative,'” he said. “Broadly speaking, the vote shows that’s still the case, but to me it’s like a warning: it’s smoking over there behind that wall and you might need to see if there’s a real fire.”

A man knocks down a gavel in front of the American flag.

Newly elected Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy on January 7th.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

In his after-midnight acceptance speech, McCarthy quoted country music legend Buck Owens: “How many of you who sit here judging me have ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?”

“Well, I’ve walked these streets,” McCarthy said. “I know his people. They are hardworking and are unrelentingly optimistic about our future.”

Bakersfield has long been one of California’s reddest cities. It attracted Dust Bowl refugees who came to work in the fields, bringing with them their conservative, deeply religious views. And it’s the birthplace of country music’s dark “Bakersfield sound” and home to one of its patron saints, Merle Haggard.

McCarthy, 57, has deep roots in the city. The son of a firefighter, he played soccer for the Bakersfield High School Drillers and ran a sandwich shop called Kevin O’s at his uncle’s yogurt shop.

The McCarthy store in a mall on Stine Road is long gone, replaced by Pollos a La Brasa, a Peruvian restaurant next to a massage parlor. There, most guests said they didn’t pay much attention to the Washington drama — and didn’t care.

At a disc golf course near McCarthy’s field office and the dry Kern River bed, a man in a sweatshirt depicting a fetus and the words “Equal Rights for All People” called the speakers’ voices “a clown show.”

The 45-year-old hotel worker, who declined to give his full name, described himself as an “abolitionist” who wanted to criminalize abortion as murder. He said he regrets having previously voted for McCarthy, whom he described as “bought and paid for” by lobbyists.

“Rino!” one of his friends intervened.

A couple is walking near a restaurant in a mall.

Granada Hills resident Danny Efron (right) and his wife Giovanna Efron leave a Peruvian restaurant in a Bakersfield mall where Kevin McCarthy ran a sandwich counter as a young man.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

In Hanford, where the smell of dairy cows is in the air, Adam Medeiros called the McCarthy election saga “a wonderful process of checks and balances.”

Medeiros, a conservative hair salon owner and school board member, competed against his friend Valadao, whose hair he has been cutting for years, in elementary school last June. Medeiros said he felt, like many here, betrayed by Valadao’s vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 uprising.

The redistribution split Hanford in two, and Medeiros ended up on McCarthy’s side of the line. That didn’t stop him from running against Valadao, however, since members of the House of Representatives are not required to live in their districts.

McCarthy is a “career politician” who no longer understands “society and how it works,” said Medeiros.

Did he vote for McCarthy?

“That’s a private question,” Medeiros said, laughing. “But yes, I have. I still think he was better than the Democratic challenger.”

At the Sons of Liberty gathering in Hanford in 1776, where a banner with a bald eagle and an American flag read, McCarthy had no love lost: “We arelovers of God & Country, Family, Community and Faith.”

People stand near a banner with the inscription "We are the sons of liberty.  We are lovers of God & Fatherland."

Members of the 1776 Sons of Liberty attend a town hall meeting at Elks Lodge in Hanford, California.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Dozens gathered during a welcome rainstorm to hear Kings County’s conservative new district attorney condemning California laws reducing prison sentences.

In the audience were cops and farmers, two Hanford councilmen, and a man with a shirt that read, “I’m 1776% sure liberals hate me.”

“I don’t like Kevin McCarthy,” said Jeffrey Mora, former president of the group and field coordinator of the John Birch Society. “He’s not a conservative. I think it’s heavily influenced by globalist politics and in the pockets of lobbyists.”

Mora distributed John Birch Society pamphlets evaluating McCarthy’s voices on various subjects. He was ruled “unconstitutional” for supporting aid to Ukraine and “unconstitutional” for speaking out against government gun control measures.

Faria, a public safety worker and President of the Sons of Liberty, said he had little confidence that a spokesman for McCarthy would bring more resources to the Central Valley.

McCarthy, he said, “is talking a big game” about issues like water infrastructure and storage, “but we haven’t seen any results.”

“We haven’t seen any new dams, groundwater is being pumped out rather than being filled up and replaced. … The lakes are still empty.”

The crowd cheered the congressional defiers who had put McCarthy to the test, then turned their attention to a pressing local issue: the debate over a new roundabout.

Branson-Potts reported from Hanford and Bakersfield and Mehta from Los Angeles. Times contributor Melanie Mason contributed to this report.

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