As speaker bid falters, mixed views of Kevin McCarthy in his California hometown

As speaker bid falters, mixed views of Kevin McCarthy in his California hometown

BAKERSFIELD – House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s political woes don’t stop in the Washington Strip.

In his Central California hometown of Bakersfield — where oil slicks blanket the hills and country music fans flock to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace — some voters are questioning whether what has become an embarrassing effort to succeed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came at the expense of the twin engines of the local economy – oil production and agriculture.

McCarthy comes from a conservative, inland region of California, far from the liberal bastions of San Francisco and Los Angeles, that doesn’t figure in the myth of the California dream of quick fame and the easy life. Farming and oil pumping shape the economy — on a recent rainy morning in Bakersfield, fields of oil tanks, warehouses and flames dancing from a refinery’s gas flare stood out against a charcoal-colored sky.

Outside Ethel’s Old Corral Cafe in the city’s Oildale neighborhood, oilfield worker Zane Denio said he wasn’t following McCarthy’s daily struggles on Capitol Hill as he tried to pick up Pelosi’s needle. For the third day in a row Thursday, McCarthy failed to win enough Republican votes to claim the job, leaving his future prospects uncertain.

The registered Republican has voted for McCarthy in the past, but next time? That “depends on who’s running against him,” Denio said. “I think he is just another politician. This is the end.”

Denio said he cares about the oil industry and its good-paying jobs, but he sees them under constant attack from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Democratic-dominated Legislature pushing the state toward a green energy future. .

Wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, boots and sunglasses as the sun broke through a stormy sky, Denio asked why McCarthy hasn’t been more outspoken in his defense of the industry. Water availability in a drought-parched state also remains an ongoing challenge for agriculture, another fundamental block in the regional economy.

“He can do more for the people who live in Kern County,” east of Los Angeles where Bakersfield is the county seat. “McCarthy’s salary comes from these fields,” Denio said, waving at the nearby hills covered in oil rigs.

McCarthy’s sporadic appearances in the district are also a concern for Andrew Willingham, a manager at the lively Pyrenees Cafe in downtown Bakersfield, which is popular with oilfield workers and dependent on their patronage.

McCarthy “definitely spends a lot more time in Washington than here,” said Willingham, a registered independent who calls McCarthy “a good person” who has left generous coffee tips.

But he worries the state is losing oil workers to Oklahoma and Texas and wants McCarthy to be more vocal in support of those jobs. While he would like to see McCarthy preside over the House, “he might be able to focus more energy on Kern County if he wasn’t speaker,” Willingham said.

McCarthy has said the US needs to increase domestic production to help keep pump prices under control.

While the region maintains a Republican slant — McCarthy easily won re-election last year — it has changed like much of California, gradually becoming more diverse and Democratic. Former President Donald Trump carried Kern County by double digits in the 2020 presidential election.

For Mark Martinez, chairman of the political science department at California State University, Bakersfield, the tumultuous congressional sessions leaving the House without a speaker expose weaknesses in McCarthy’s leadership that have damaged his reputation.

Republicans took the House of Representatives in November under McCarthy’s leadership, but only by a slim margin after a predicted “red tide” failed to materialize. McCarthy appears to have misjudged support among GOP House members, leaving him thus far unable to garner enough votes to win the speakership.

McCarthy’s credibility has been questioned by colleagues, while public support for Trump has proved unable to swing votes in his favor. Meanwhile, Denio and other voters in his district don’t see him delivering for the region.

With Bakersfield in a rare national spotlight, “it’s really embarrassing,” Martinez said. Whether McCarthy wins the speakership or not, “Kevin is going to come out of this looking very, very weak.”

This could encourage challengers eager to take his place. “It’s a stick in the head for Kevin,” Martinez said.

However, local supporters hope McCarthy will persevere and bounce back; he is known to surprise his doubters.

Christy Ferguson, who owns Zingo’s Cafe and an adjacent cocktail bar in Bakersfield, recalled McCarthy’s help in securing $25,000 in pandemic financial aid that she invested in her businesses.

Ferguson, a Republican, was puzzled by McCarthy’s political struggles in Washington. “I think he should be a speaker,” she said, predicting even greater success in the future.

“He will be our next president,” she said.

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