If Rep. Kevin McCarthy becomes the House Majority Leader on Thursday as is widely expected, his climb from California freshman in 2007 to the second-most powerful member of the House will be the slowest ascent to leadership in his political career.
His fastest rise came in 2003, just a year after he was elected to the California State Assembly, when Republicans unanimously picked the 38-year-old freshman from Bakersfield to be the GOP leader in the lower chamber. It was an achievement that those who knew him chalk up to the young McCarthy’s raw political talent, gregarious personality, voracious work ethic, and a little bit of Irish luck in the form of a brief period of six-year term limits that created power vacuums faster than state legislators could fill them.
But McCarthy needed more than luck to deliver Republican votes in the Democratic-controlled chamber during the tumultuous period that followed Gov. Gray Davis’ recall and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election. Fabian Nunez, the Democratic Speaker when McCarthy was GOP leader, said the Republican delivered with a political skillset that resembled three-dimensional chess.
“He dives into the details of what voters think and what the voting patterns are of the districts are like,” Nunez said. “He often knew the best answer for a member before the member did.”
Nunez and McCarthy met on the first day of freshman orientation and quickly became friends and basketball partners, despite their roles as political adversaries as each rose to become the leader of his caucus. During McCarthy’s three years as leader, Nunez worked with him often to forge bipartisan deals on the state budget, agriculture issues and government reform.
“Kevin was political, but he was genuine. If he said to you, ‘I support you on this issue,’ he supported me on that issue,” Nunez said. “There was never any going back with Kevin on a commitment and that made him the type of person people wanted to be around because you could make a deal with him. When he said something he really meant it.”
Donna Lucas, deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Schwarzenegger, said much of McCarthy’s success then came from pure political talent.
“He’s probably one of the most skilled politicians I’ve ever met. He does his homework, he’s really smart, he’s very well read and he’s very disarming when you meet him. He’s a people person, which politics is all about,” she said. “I don’t know how the guy has the energy.”
Not everyone in Sacramento remembers McCarthy entirely fondly, including some Democrats who describe him as a policy lightweight in the State Assembly and now.
“His ascension in Congress to us is just sort of baffling. Our impression was that it takes a long time in Congress to build up a record to become majority leader,” said a senior staffer who worked with McCarthy at the time. But even that staffer acknowledged McCarthy’s work ethic. “Look, the guy busts his ass. He was an animal.”
McCarthy’s tenure lasted three years, until he ran for and won the congressional seat of his former boss, Rep. Bill Thomas. But for the son of a fireman and protégé of the longtime congressman, the rise to the highest climbs of power does not seem to have changed him.
“His constituents love him. They absolutely adore him,” said Barbara O’Connor, Emeritus Professor of Communications and Director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University at Sacramento. “He is not somebody who gets isolated from his district. He comes home all the time. He grew up here. They like him. Plus he’s too smart a politician to ignore that.”
Just as McCarthy has focused his time in Washington on winning and growing the Republican majority, he spent much of his time in Sacramento recruiting and supporting fellow Republicans in an effort to win seats in the Assembly, a goal he never achieved but a process that won him allies and supporters nonetheless.
“I remember during one election season, he and Schwarzenegger said their goal was to take five seats away from us,” Fabian Nunez said. “The next day when they didn’t pick up any seats, Kevin called a press conference to celebrate the fact that Democrats didn’t take any Republican seats. It shows you his ability to adapt to a situation in a way that was good for him and his caucus.”
Nunez said that what’s good for his caucus was ultimately what drove McCarthy then and will likely be the key to his approach as majority leader. “The advantage of dealing with Kevin McCarthy in leadership is you know what you’re going to get with him,” Nunez said. “The disadvantage is don’t expect Kevin to move too far outside of the Republican box. He doesn’t put his members at risk.”