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As speaker bid falters, mixed views of McCarthy in hometown

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters as he leaves the House floor after the House voted to adjourn for the evening as the House met for a third day to try and elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.
Jose Luis Magana
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters as he leaves the House floor after the House voted to adjourn for the evening as the House met for a third day to try and elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s political troubles don’t stop at the Washington Beltway.

In his Central California hometown of Bakersfield — where oil derricks blanket hillsides and country music fans flock to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace hall — some voters are asking if what has become an embarrassing bid to succeed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came at the expense of the twin engines of the local economy — oil production and agriculture.

McCarthy hails from a conservative, inland region of California far from the liberal strongholds of San Francisco and Los Angeles that doesn’t figure in the California Dream myth of fast fame and easy living. Farming and oil pumping shape the economy — on a recent rainy morning in Bakersfield, fields of oil tanks, warehouses and the leaping flames from a refinery's gas flare stood out against a coal-colored sky.


Outside Ethel’s Old Corral café in the city’s Oildale neighborhood, oil field worker Zane Denio said he wasn’t following McCarthy’s day-to-day travails on Capitol Hill as he attempts to take Pelosi’s gavel. For a third consecutive day 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 is running against him,” Denio said. “I think he’s just another politician. That’s the bottom line.”

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 broad-brimmed cowboy hat, boots and sunglasses as the sun broke through a stormy sky, Denio questioned why McCarthy hasn’t been more outspoken in defense of the industry. The availability of water in a drought-parched state also remains a constant challenge for agriculture, another foundation block in the regional economy.

“He could do more for the folks living in Kern County,” east of Los Angeles where Bakersfield is the county seat. McCarthy’s “salary comes from these fields,” Denio said, waving his hand toward nearby hillsides covered with oil rigs.


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

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

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 is he wasn’t speaker,” Willingham said.

McCarthy has said the U.S. should boost domestic production to help keep pump prices in check.

While the region retains a Republican tilt — McCarthy easily won reelection last year — it has been changing 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.

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

Republicans took the House in November under McCarthy’s leadership, but only by a fragile margin after a predicted “red wave” failed to materialize. McCarthy appeared to misread support among GOP House members, leaving him thus far unable to assemble enough votes to gain the speaker’s post.

McCarthy's trustworthiness has been questioned by colleagues, while public support from Trump has proven unable to move votes in his favor. Meanwhile, Denio and other constituents in his district don’t see him delivering for the region.

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

That could embolden challengers eager to take his seat. “It’s a bat to the head for Kevin,” Martinez said.

Still, local supporters hope McCarthy endures and mounts a comeback; he’s known for surprising his doubters.

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

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

“He’ll be our next president," she said.