Republicans in the House of Representatives today have chosen a new majority leader — the No. 2 spot right behind House Speaker John Boehner. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is replacing Eric Cantor, who suffered a stunning primary defeat last week at the hands of a tea party candidate.
By all accounts, McCarthy had the job sewn up even before Thursday’s vote. And it isn’t hard to figure out why. He’s very well liked.
“Kevin is an authentically good person,” says Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council. The ITIC’s member companies include Facebook, HP, Google and Intel.
While McCarthy represents the Central Valley, his relationships with Silicon Valley really set him apart among Republicans.
Garfield says the ITIC named McCarthy its “Legislator of the Year” in 2012.
“He has a high emotional IQ,” says Garfield. “You know, he really knows how to connect with people and motivate them to take action.”
McCarthy was in the state Assembly when he won his congressional seat in 2006. When he arrived in Washington, Nancy Pelosi was speaker and the Republican Party was back on its heels, mired in scandal. McCarthy described it to me this way in a 2011 interview:
“I got in before the party rose up at the time and grew,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re in front of the wave, you can ride some of it.”
Charm and Easy Manner Helped
And ride it he did. McCarthy’s charm and easy manner helped him rise quickly. He recruited young conservative Republicans to run for office — “Young Guns” they were called — and many got elected.
These Young Guns are loyal to McCarthy, but they’ve also complicated his job counting votes as House whip. In several high-profile stumbles, it left McCarthy unable to round up Republican support needed to pass critical legislation, forcing Boehner to rely on votes from Democrats.
Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says that problem will follow McCarthy in his new job as majority leader.
“Because you bring in a group of people driven by a rage against leaders, an unhappiness with the status quo, and you’re the leader,” Ornstein notes. “And you’re in some ways trying to get them to do things that represent that status quo. It’s not going to be an easy task.”
But McCarthy has given Democrats their share of grief.He’s led opposition to federal funding for California’s high-speed-rail, even though the first leg of it goes through his Kern County district. San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren chairs the Democrats’ congressional delegation from California. She says that while she likes McCarthy personally, she’s been dismayed by his penchant for divisive slogans — like “fish versus farms” — pitting growers against environmentalists in the battle for water.
“You know there’s been that kind of false dichotomies that he’s participated in,” Lofgren says. “I think the leader has to play a different kind of role. And I would hope that he would step up to the bat for that.”
McCarthy comes from a racially diverse district — 37 percent of his constituents are Latino. And unlike many in his party, McCarthy says he supports extending legal status to undocumented immigrants, if not a full path to citizenship.
That’s a far cry from passing immigration reform in the House. But Lofgren sees McCarthy’s ascension to majority leader as a chance to fix a dysfunctional situation.
“And I know that Kevin has heard that from his own constituents,” Lofgren says. “Certainly the agricultural community in California has been very vocal about what a catastrophe the current system is.”
McCarthy seems to have little appetite for the media spotlight. He also avoids getting mired in the details of complex issues, something he may need to change as Majority Leader.
But unlike Eric Cantor, one thing McCarthy doesn’t have to worry about is losing an election. Earlier this month he got 100 percent of the vote in the California primary.
For more on what McCarthy’s appointment means for Californians, reporter Mina Kim spoke with Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State University.