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California’s Central Valley front and center as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy takes job

Some diners stand while others sit outside of Luigi's Italian Deli.
Joshua Yeager
Diners wait to be seated outside Luigi’s Italian deli. The restaurant is a Bakersfield institution and stronghold of support for Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — In the 1988 hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” country music icon Buck Owens and fellow country star Dwight Yoakam croon: “How many of you who sit and judge me, have ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?”

Late last week, thousands of miles away from his hometown streets of Bakersfield, Rep. Kevin McCarthy invoked the song as he prepared to embark as the House Speaker of the new Congress of the United States.

It wasn’t easy getting there. What should have been a formality vote among the majority of Republicans who took control of the House after the midterm elections turned into a prolonged session of vote-casting – 15 times to be exact – in which McCarthy found himself challenged for the job he has long sought.

In the end, McCarthy claimed the gavel just after midnight Saturday after a historic round of voting. It was there that the San Joaquin Valley politician catapulted to one of the most powerful positions in Washington, D.C. – and at least for a moment brought this corner of the country front and center.

“I’ve walked those streets my entire life,” McCarthy said in his speech before being sworn in. “I know its people. They’re hard-working, relentlessly optimistic about their future. And I’m very honored to represent them.”

Winding road to speaker

McCarthy represents one of California’s most conservative congressional districts. In November, he cruised to victory with 67 percent of the vote.

Dean of the House Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., swears in Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as House Speaker on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023.
Andrew Harnik
AP Photo
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is sworn in as House Speaker on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023.
I’ve walked those streets my entire life. I know its people. They’re hard-working, relentlessly optimistic about their future. And I’m very honored to represent them.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

With his seat at home mostly safe, McCarthy frequently travels the country, courting major donors for the party and helping colleagues in challenged districts.

Republicans in the southern San Joaquin Valley applauded McCarthy’s success over the weekend while acknowledging the contentious process that saw the party’s hard-line conservatives nearly foil his ambitions.

"While I’m glad we were able to come together as Republicans to elect Speaker McCarthy, I am deeply disappointed in the handful of my colleagues who have treated this process like a game,” Rep. David Valadao, who represents the neighboring House district in Hanford, said in a statement.

McCarthy wryly acknowledged those challenges himself on Saturday.

“That was easy, huh?” he joked. “Never thought we’d get up here.”

In a speech where he hinted at the political direction of the House chamber’s slim conservative majority – which includes addressing the southern border and boosting domestic energy production as well as competing with China – McCarthy also struck a hopeful tone.

“If the son of a firefighter and the grandchild of immigrants can rise to the highest position in the most important legislative body in this country, and if my colleague, Hakeem Jeffries, with his life story, can rise to lead his party, then opportunity and democracy still thrive in America.”

Close eyes on the ‘Bakersfield boy’

Back home, as the process of electing a House Speaker played out on national television, local residents recalled the three-decade rise of the Kern County politician from helping run the family yogurt shop, to working in the California State Assembly, and now second-in-line to the presidency.

As the lunch service bustled at Luigi’s Italian deli, longtime Bakersfield residents watched the historic voting process closely – some in horror, others in glee. The deli – open since 1910 – is a Bakersfield institution and stronghold of support for McCarthy.

Grower Dennis Costa fumed at fellow Republicans as he exited the eatery. He blamed them for trying to keep the “Bakersfield boy” from taking the job.

“I support Kevin McCarthy, and I think what’s going on in the Congress is getting rather ridiculous,” Costa said. “They need to get along and quit acting like a bunch of children.”

Under McCarthy’s leadership, Costa hopes Congress will help the region’s struggling oil industry, a topic that McCarthy addressed explicitly during Saturday’s speech.

About a mile west from Luigi’s, the crowd at the popular Cafe Smitten is much younger and hipper. Sipping cappuccinos and carrying tote bags, they represent a different side of the city, which has been the butt of online jokes as McCarthy fought for the job. Many of the patrons here oppose McCarthy and say the region is much more than what it's made out to be.

“Kevin McCarthy is not representative of all that’s happening in Bakersfield,” regular Jean-Luc Slagle said.

He defended his hometown from the roasting it’s been subjected to on social media over the past week. People outside of Bakersfield have the wrong idea of the place, he added.

Skip Ogle, a longtime Kevin McCarthy supporter, poses with his family outside Luigi’s, a staple of Bakersfield’s Old Town Kern neighborhood.
Joshua Yeager
Skip Ogle, a longtime Kevin McCarthy supporter, poses with his family outside Luigi’s, a staple of Bakersfield’s Old Town Kern neighborhood.

“It’s just an easy target to pick on as a place that’s a little bit behind the times. I don’t think that’s always fair,” he said. “There are some really cool things happening in the city.”

Despite the negative social media chatter about Bakersfield, some of McCarthy’s supporters here believe simply having him in the speaker position is a positive thing.

“It’s a prestigious job,” Republican Skip Ogle, who had been watching the race closely, said hours before the final vote. “I think it’s good for us [in the Valley].”

Ogle, a Bakersfield real-estate appraiser, said he also found some appreciation for the challenge McCarthy received from his colleagues. He said it helped shake up business as usual.

“Overall, this process is going to cause everyone to have a little more humility and a little more thought, and not just go with the status quo,” he said.

Challenges ahead

But governing the unruly conference could prove challenging. A major concession to the party’s more conservative wing allows a single member to call a vote to remove McCarthy as speaker at any time. It’s a rule that many say weakens the powerof the Speaker.

McCarthy’s backers dismissed the Freedom Caucus’ most outspoken members – embodied by Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) – in harsh terms.

“It’s clear this small group of members are more interested in their personal political stardom than governing in the best interest of their constituents,” stated Valadao, the other Valley congressman. “I look forward to working closely with my friend, neighbor, and colleague Speaker McCarthy to help better the lives of Central Valley families.”

Despite the feelings of having a Valley-native as House Speaker, McCarthy will deal in a narrowly-divided House. Still, he pledged to focus on issues that affect all Americans.

His family watched from the balcony as he hammered at the air with the gavel and received claps and cheers from his side of the chamber.

“I hope one thing is clear after this week: I never give up,” he said. “I’ll never give up for you, the American people, and I will never give up on keeping our commitment to America.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.