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Kevin McCarthy: Political skills trump policy

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, shortly after being named House Majority Leader. (Photo: Associated Press)

Kevin McCarthy, the newly minted House Majority Leader, rose speedily through the GOP ranks during his time as a California legislator – and used political instincts he honed in Sacramento to achieve power in Congress.

“In 2000, I introduced Kevin McCarthy to a friend of mine; I said, ‘Pay attention to him – someday this guy’s going to be Speaker of the House of Representatives,” said Jim Brulte, the current chair of the Californian Republican Party, who served as the GOP leader of both houses. “He was smart and the ultimate team player.”

“It is significant that, on some important issues, (Democratic Senate President pro Tem John) Burton will cut his deals with McCarthy and ignore the Democratic caucus,” the California Journal noted in a 2004 analysis of McCarthy’s role.

In only his fourth term in Congress, McCarthy was elected to the House’s second most powerful position after the Speaker. This was after he won his primary election unopposed in June in the 23rd Congressional District.

With Congressional approval ratings at a record low 16% according to a June Gallup survey, McCarthy’s new position is not without risks. While McCarthy currently has support from both establishment Republicans and the Tea Party, he may find increasing difficulty in the coming years to keep both groups satisfied as his district grows more diverse.

“The question moving forward in this new job is whether he decides to redirect his focus from politics to policy or whether he’s content to let his colleagues take the lead on the key issues while he focuses on maintaining and expanding his party’s majority,” said Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

During his time in the state Assembly, McCarthy was known as a deal-maker, especially on the state budget. McCarthy became minority leader only two months after Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, and worked closely with him to unite the party by engineering difficult votes on controversial issues.

“It is significant that, on some important issues, (Democratic Senate President pro Tem John) Burton will cut his deals with McCarthy and ignore the Democratic caucus,” the California Journal noted in a 2004 analysis of McCarthy’s role.

Those who have worked with McCarthy insist his unwavering work ethic and sharp attention to personal detail resonated with the rest of the caucus.

“He struck me during those days as a nice guy, well-spoken but not especially effective in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly and in a capital city dominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,” noted newsman Mark Gladstone, who covered McCarthy in California.

“He’s very personable and shows congeniality and genuine concern by taking the time to remember things about peoples’ personal lives,” said Sabrina Lockhart, who served as aide to Assembly GOP Leader Connie Conway of Tulare. “It helps to have a personal relationship to make a difficult conversation easier.”

Others agreed about McCarthy’s people skills and congeniality.

“He struck me during those days as a nice guy, well-spoken but not especially effective in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly and in a capital city dominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,” noted newsman Mark Gladstone, who covered McCarthy in California. “McCarthy wasn’t particularly outstanding, but when he went to Washington he became a big deal,” Gladstone wrote in a June 16 opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle, where he now works as an assistant city editor.

McCarthy organized movie screenings, group dinners and morning workouts with his colleagues. He has consistently gone the extra mile in establishing political connections, sending flowers to legislators’ spouses on anniversaries and once even gifting iPods to fellow Republican legislators.

“I think at the end of the day, the best asset Kevin has is this incredible ability to hear people and listen, not let it go in one ear and out the other,” said John Kabateck, the executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “You see that with the direct eye contact with people, it’s very genuine. What we love is that he always colors in his speeches with personal stories that aren’t made up.”

Others attribute his seemingly swift and unexpected rise to power to decades-long strategizing and effective networking at the local, state, and national levels.

Former California Journal Editor A.G. Block said support for McCarthy included legislators and staff from both parties, lobbyists, journalists, and political consultants who praised the Bakersfield Republican’s ability to work across the aisle while, at the same time, invigorate the GOP caucus.

“Even though he hasn’t been in elected office for that many years, he’s been building his political network and foundation for a political career for decades,” said Schnur. “Personal touches are certainly valuable… but it’s worth assuming that the relationships he formed in the Young Republicans 20 years ago have been just as valuable to him as the connections he forged since he went into office.”

In 1995, McCarthy served as the chairman of the California Young Republicans and, from 1999 to 2001, he was chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. In 2002 he joined the state Assembly, serving as Republican floor leader in his freshman term in 2003. During the 1990s he worked as the district director for Congressman Bill Thomas, a former House Ways and Means Committee Chair whose seat McCarthy ran for and won in 2006. Thomas backed McCarthy with money and endorsements.

Former California Journal Editor A.G. Block said support for McCarthy included legislators and staff from both parties, lobbyists, journalists, and political consultants who praised the Bakersfield Republican’s ability to work across the aisle while, at the same time, invigorate the GOP caucus. At the time, the nonpartisan publication named McCarthy “Rookie of the Year.”

Brulte agreed.

“Kevin knows good policy is good politics,” said Brulte. “He also understands that politics is a team sport and the team that stays together wins more than the team that fractures.”

McCarthy’s Congressional district is 35 percent Hispanic. The population of his home base, Bakersfield, is nearly 46 percent Hispanic.

Now, McCarthy faces the challenge of keeping the Republican Party unified at the federal level while fighting for the interests of his district – a district in flux that may find itself at odds with the national GOP.

Two issues in particular plagued McCarthy’s predecessor, Eric Cantor, and eventually cost him his seat in Congress: his seeming disconnection from his district, and his alleged willingness to compromise on immigration reform.

Unlike Cantor, McCarthy maintains a strong relationship with his district.

“It appears from a great distance that Cantor’s greatest problem was not one of public policy, but that he was inattentive to the district,” said Schnur. “If you’ve seen the TV ads McCarthy’s been running in Bakersfield, it’s clear that he won’t make the same mistake.”

However, other criticisms conservatives had of Cantor may prove even more of an issue for McCarthy. Conservatives believed Cantor to be too far left on the issue of immigration reform.

Until recently, McCarthy was even more so.

In the past, McCarthy has taken a lenient stance on immigration, expressing support for giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status.

McCarthy’s Congressional district is 35 percent Hispanic. The population of his home base, Bakersfield, is nearly 46 percent Hispanic.

“We have done polls of voters in Kern County and while it’s still a largely Republican and conservative district, fully one-third of its voters are Latinos. This will continue to grow over time,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “So, the issue of immigration is a particularly difficult one for him, since immigration reform (particularly a path to citizenship for those here illegally) is of high salience to Latino voters.”

Bakersfield’s population has increased 40 percent since 2000; with that growth has come a gradual change in demographics. While non-Hispanic whites made up 70 percent of the population in 1980, they accounted for only 37 percent  in Bakersfield in 2010.

McCarthy seems to have revised his position on immigration since becoming Majority Leader, telling Fox News’ Chris Wallace that “I’m on record saying nothing about immigration, until we secure the borders. The borders are not secure.”

The complicated situation McCarthy finds himself in may cause him to lose the balance he has so skillfully kept between district and national interests.

In the end, McCarthy’s success as Majority Leader may rest on his ability to bring about meaningful legislation, not just rally behind it.

“He’s demonstrated a tremendous set of political skills; he’s very good at reading people,” said Schnur. “But his challenge moving forward is whether he can build on those political and people skills with an equally significant set of policy chops.”

Ed’s Note: Mia Shaw, a student at UC Berkeley,  is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California’s Sacramento Center.


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