EDITOR’S NOTE: This column originally ran in The Sacramento Bee on Nov. 7, 2010.
Visit Kevin McCarthy in his hometown of Bakersfield, and he might take you to one of his favorite lunch spots, the diner at the Westchester Bowl. Chez Panisse it's not. But the fish and chips aren't bad, and Rep. McCarthy is no rube.
Due in no small part to McCarthy's effort, voters dumped Democrats from the majority in the House of Representatives on Tuesday and with them the only speaker ever to come from California, Nancy Pelosi.
California will lose clout when the San Francisco Democrat passes the gavel to her presumed successor, Ohio Republican John Boehner.
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But while Pelosi's clout wanes, voters empowered a workaholic partisan from California's oil patch who is in line to become House majority whip, a position two steps below speaker. It has been a lightening-fast ascent in a place where seniority counts.
McCarthy, 45, has no Ivy League parchment. A master's degree in business from California State University, Bakersfield, was good enough.
He sleeps on a mattress in his office, and flies home to Bakersfield each weekend to be with his wife (he married his high school sweetheart), their two teenage children and the voters who first sent him to Congress in 2006.
"I can't believe they let me in this building," he says, clearly pleased to be a member of Congress.
McCarthy is the protege of Rep. Bill Thomas, who was the House Ways and Means Committee chairman until giving up the seat to McCarthy. Thomas, known for his command of policy and for being unnecessarily combative, taught McCarthy this lesson:
"You have to know the policy, and you have to be in the room, because they're going to make the decision whether you are in the room or not."
McCarthy may be a politician without pedigree, but he is "in the room."
He ran unopposed this year, just as he did in 2006 and 2008. No other Republican has announced plans to seek the position of whip.
"Every election is won before it starts," he says, a phrase he lives by.
As whip, McCarthy would ensure his party has sufficient votes for the issue of the day. It's a position once held by Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, known as the "Hammer." McCarthy would be kinder and gentler, but no less determined.
As Republicans prepared for the 2010 election, McCarthy was responsible for recruiting candidates from across the country who could win.
During the campaign, attention focused on the bizarre, like the weird candidate who denied she was a witch, and the other who is said to have worshipped Aqua Buddha, whatever that is.
Some Republicans may go to extremes in the next Congress. McCarthy no doubt will challenge President Barack Obama whenever possible. But Democrats would be making a mistake to view him as part of a fringe.
McCarthy is a pro-gunner, who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But that's not his focus. Bills he introduced during his years in the California Assembly between 2002 and 2006 mainly focused on cutting taxes and reducing government regulation.
"We need to do what Americans want us to do -- get us working again," McCarthy told me by phone from his D.C. office during a call placed at 8 p.m. his time. "Job creation and cutting government spending. Our focus should be on that."
In 2008, McCarthy was the chairman of the Republican National Committee's platform committee, responsible for writing the document on which the party would run. It is fundamentally conservative, opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. But it focuses on economic issues and offers olive branches to the not-quite hard core.
"We do not fear disagreement, and we do not demand conformity," it says.
Similarly, McCarthy took the lead writing the "Pledge to America," offering the Republican vision that focuses on limiting government spending and reach, but says little about abortion or marriage -- a point that riled some conservatives.
Within the California GOP, McCarthy is suspect. When he first ran for the Assembly in 2002, Howard Ahmanson Jr., the wealthy Orange County Christian conservative, spent heavily to defeat him.
As Assembly leader, McCarthy was responsible for delivering votes on key legislation, compromising with Democrats, to the consternation of some conservatives.
"He is a good kid, a nice guy," said California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, who was Senate leader when McCarthy was Assembly leade. "I don't think he is a tea party guy."
Burton and his older brother, the late Rep. Phillip Burton, created the political machine that helped bring Pelosi to power. McCarthy is part of a machine, too, a far less well-known operation one created by Thomas.
The Thomas-McCarthy operation includes Rep. Devin Nunes; Assemblywoman Jean Fuller, who won a state Senate seat on Tuesday; Shannon Grove, who won an Assembly seat; and Connie Conway, elected last week as Assembly minority leader.
Republican consultant Mark Abernathy, who runs campaigns for McCarthy, balks at the term "machine," preferring instead the word "school." McCarthy and other members focus on retail politics, far removed from Meg Whitman-like media campaigns.
"Any time two people get together, Kevin McCarthy will be there to meet with them -- and he will listen to what they say," Abernathy said.
The Thomas-McCarthy "school" emphasizes the inside game, counting votes, developing relationships, not giving catchy interviews, which is for the best because McCarthy can get tongue-tied.
"The fundamental emphasis is on electing Republicans rather than purifying the Republican Party," said Roman B. Buhler, who was Thomas' counsel and now is a consultant in Washington, D.C.
McCarthy and crew have aligned themselves against the GOP by advocating open primaries. They also push to turn over the power to draw legislative districts to a commission, a concept approved by California voters on Tuesday, and fought by Pelosi and many Republicans.
These days, many Republicans view delivering money back to California as somehow sinful. But McCarthy learned from a master. Thomas is said to have delivered $722 million in transportation money in 2005, part of which went to build the William M. Thomas Passenger Terminal at Bakersfield Airport.
McCarthy believes Congress needs to mend, not end, earmarks. He is a skeptic of green ideas, like high-speed rail, and would prefer to spend on new freeways.
He reflects Kern County, where voters by 54 percent to 46 percent supported the failed initiative to overturn California's law limiting greenhouse gas emissions. In Pelosi's hometown, voters rejected it 18 percent to 82 percent.
As Pelosi and her California lieutenants lose positions of power, Republicans likely will ascend: David Dreier from the San Gabriel Valley to Rules Committee chair. Jerry Lewis from Redlands is expected to chair Appropriations. Ed Royce from Orange County expected to chair Financial Services. McCarthy likely will be whip.
"We don't have the speaker. But we're going to have people in key and influential positions," Dreier told me.
Like the outgoing speaker, McCarthy breathes politics, and that's probably not bad for the state. California probably won't produce another speaker for many years. But if another does come from this state any time soon, the person might come from a town where bowling alley food is good enough.