‘One more embarrassment’: McCarthy debacle wearily received in California home town

Kevin McCarthy’s home town – the hardscrabble city of Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley – has experienced plenty of bruised feelings over the past week, but not necessarily because people have felt the pain of their congressman’s tortured path to the House speakership.

Many have bristled at being under a national spotlight during what even Fox News has described as a political clown show. Local Republicans appeared increasingly defensive as McCarthy fell short in vote after vote – before finally prevailing in the early hours of Saturday morning. Democrats, meanwhile, expressed growing concern that McCarthy had been taken captive by his party’s far-right wing and, especially, by apologists for the violent insurrection at the US Capitol two years ago.

None of it reflected well on a distinctly unfashionable city known for its hot, dusty climate and polluted skies, its big agricultural businesses and the hundreds of oil wells dotting the surrounding hills. “I only wish they would have stopped saying Mac [McCarthy] was from Bakersfield,” a local insurance salesman, Mark Pearse, wrote in a letter to the local newspaper. “We do not need any more negative publicity.”

Reached by phone, Pearse elaborated: “We’re already in the top ten of a lot of negative things. Pedestrians getting run over. Our police and sheriff’s department shooting and killing people. This is just one more embarrassment.”

Certainly, nobody has been out in the streets cheering on the local celebrity. McCarthy’s district office, which sits in a business park next to a cluster of medical offices, resembled a suburban fortress with blacked out windows, a door kept locked at all times, and a sign under the door bell saying the only way to be invited in was to call by phone. Staff referred all questions – even questions about a protest on the anniversary of the January 6 uprising taking place directly outside – to McCarthy’s Washington office.

More forthcoming was Cathy Abernathy, a seasoned Republican consultant who gave McCarthy his first taste of rejection back in 1987 when she turned him down for an internship with the district’s previous congressman, Bill Thomas. (She later hired him anyway and eventually groomed him to succeed Thomas in 2007.)

Sitting in front of a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Abraham Lincoln on Friday, with Fox News reporting the 13th of the 15 vote counts on the television, Abernathy dismissed the week’s drama as an uncommonly visible version of business as usual on Capitol Hill and said the characterizations of McCarthy as weak or politically tone-deaf were grossly unfair.

“This is the way things get done in Washington,” she insisted. “It takes hours and hours to achieve anything … It’s unfortunate that a group of 20 members have given such a negative impression of him. He’s a happy-go-lucky, friendly guy. It’s too bad some people mistake that for brainless.”

McCarthy at Francis Parish school in Bakersfield last year.
McCarthy at Francis Parish school in Bakersfield last year. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Democrats, meanwhile, took advantage of the January 6 anniversary to stage a series of small protests in and around Bakersfield and tell whoever was willing to listen that McCarthy was one of 147 Republican House members who voted against the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president in 2021, quickly forgave Donald Trump for his role in stirring up the Capitol riot, and has sought to build his power base accordingly ever since.

“All of this stems from his decision to kiss Trump’s ring,” said Mari Goodman, one of the protesters outside McCarthy’s district office.

“We’re here to remember the people who were hurt and the damage caused,” said Laura Hardman, one of a cluster of January 6 protesters at a busy traffic intersection in Tehachapi, a farm town in McCarthy’s district 40 miles from Bakersfield. “The leaders are still not accountable.”

Hardman said she took no pleasure in seeing McCarthy struggling to win over House members who were among the biggest apologists for the insurrection. “As one of his constituents, I find it embarrassing,” she said. “I voted for him in 2006, and he worked with us on some issues. But the longer he’s stayed in Washington, the further he’s drifted from his district.”

Such sentiments are a distinct minority view in a part of California that prides itself on bucking the West Coast liberal stereotype. Many of the resentments and frustrations with establishment politics that fueled the rise of Donald Trump seven years ago can be felt in the Central Valley, where farmers and business entrepreneurs often complain that the progressive politicians who run California do not give them the respect they deserve.

That complaint extended, last week, to parts of the media. Abernathy, the Republican consultant, said she’d picked up a distinctly condescending tone from reporters and TV producers. One expressed surprise that a man in McCarthy’s position had not gone to an Ivy League university. (He graduated from the Bakersfield branch of California State University.) Another, searching for a way to distinguish Bakersfield from Los Angeles, its giant neighbor 100 miles to the south, offered: “You people have grit.”

If some people in Bakersfield felt the country was making fun of them and their most prominent native son, though, others were more than willing to go along for the ride. As Mark Pearse, the insurance salesman, asked after a healthy dose of McCarthy-bashing on the phone: “Haven’t you heard me laughing?”


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