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Far-Right Critics Vex McCarthy in His Bakersfield District, Too

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Representative Kevin McCarthy’s past runs deep in this Central Valley town, far from the glamour and money of his state’s metropolises to the north and south. Bakersfield is where he was born and raised, went to college and ran his first business selling sandwiches out of the back of his uncle’s yogurt shop on Stine Road.

But Mr. McCarthy’s agonizing present can be glimpsed here, too.

The Republican divisions obstructing Mr. McCarthy’s decade-long ambition of becoming speaker of the House have been playing out on both the national stage in Washington and a far smaller though equally telling one in his hometown and home district. It is easier to find detractors on his far-right flank than die-hard supporters, in what should be friendly home turf for California’s top Republican — one of the reddest cities in one of the bluest states in the country.

Mr. McCarthy still wins re-election in the district with two-thirds of the vote, but the passionate minority of the majority has become his Achilles’ heel, as it has been on the House floor this week.

“I think it’s great that Matt Gaetz has a group up there that’s bringing attention to what’s wrong,” said William Paulovitz, 78, referring to the firebrand Florida Republican who has been one of the far-right rebels blocking Mr. McCarthy’s bid for speaker. Mr. Paulovitz, a retired businessman, dismissed his representative’s run for speaker in a place that representative knows all too well — outside Luigi’s, a popular lunch eatery that has long been a piece of Mr. McCarthy’s self-spun Bakersfield lore.

Mr. Paulovitz’s wife, Cathie, 74, a real estate agent, added of Mr. McCarthy, “I don’t think he’s thinking of the people standing here in front of Luigi’s.”

Hatched from a now-faded oil industry and powerful agribusiness companies, Bakersfield has remained a conservative stronghold in a state where Democrats rule, from the capital in Sacramento to the liberal bastions of the Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay, whose popular culture and Big Tech represent all that many conservatives think is wrong with America. A welcome winter rain has tamped down the Central Valley dust, but high winds have sent tumbleweeds bounding down the city’s wide boulevards.

But the Bakersfield of Mr. McCarthy’s youth in the 1960s and 1970s is not the Bakersfield of today.

Mr. McCarthy’s old sandwich counter — Kevin O’s, tucked inside his uncle’s McCarthy’s Yogurt — is long gone. It has been replaced now by Pollos a La Brasa, a Peruvian restaurant, in a dingy strip mall alongside Los Hermanos Market and Young Health Spa, a massage parlor. Told of Mr. McCarthy’s roots there, Jose Gomez exclaimed, “Oh, no way!” Mr. Gomez was unloading his delivery of crates of Modelo, Pacifico and Victoria beer on Thursday as managers at Los Hermanos recovered from a power failure after a morning rainstorm.

The sandwich counter that Mr. McCarthy ran as a young man is long gone, having been replaced by a Peruvian restaurant.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County are now predominantly Latino, and Democrats are making inroads. The erosion of white control and the anti-establishment shift of conservatism after the rise of Donald J. Trump have helped spark a bitter shift rightward in many places, including in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We’re not more conservative — we’re more angry,” said Greg Perrone, the chief financial officer of a geothermal energy services company and the head of the Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly, a conservative activist group.

The organization is Kern County’s answer to the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right House Republican group with no formal structure or membership list that has dogged and undermined Republican leadership since 2015.

Similarly, the Republican Assembly is an informal group with an inchoate ideology, but one that regularly vexes Mr. McCarthy — “the tyranny of the minority,” as Mark Salvaggio, a former Bakersfield city councilman and political independent, put it.

Mark Salvaggio, a former Bakersfield city councilman, said that a veterans outpatient clinic that Mr. McCarthy has promised Bakersfield for more than a decade still has not materialized.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Cathy Abernathy, a longtime Republican consultant in Bakersfield and a McCarthy ally who guided him through his first years as a congressional intern, equated the group with the Republican rebels trying to block his speakership, calling both groups “a minority of a minority of a minority” who are “behaving like kids with a new babysitter — how far can they push?”

Members of the Republican Assembly say they are generally aligned with Mr. McCarthy ideologically, but like his ultraconservative opponents in Washington, they see him as part of the establishment, and they don’t trust him. Mr. Perrone, the head of the group, said the congressman had never attended one of its events.

“You’d expect for a conservative organization, he’d drop by and say hi,” Mr. Perrone said. “But the more time you’re in Washington, the more time you’re in Washington.”

Aides to Mr. McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahead of last year’s nonpartisan primary, he defended his ties to the region. “I will always continue to fight for Kern County,” Mr. McCarthy told a local TV station, KGET-TV. “I will always listen. We might not agree 100 percent, but I will listen to you and tell you directly what we’re trying to do and accomplish.”

Ken Mettler, a past president of the California Republican Assembly, the state organization that the Bakersfield group is part of, was practically gleeful about Mr. McCarthy’s struggles in the House. Mr. Mettler challenged Mr. McCarthy in the primary in 2016, and earned 13 percent of the vote. He has been taking shots at his congressman ever since.

Mr. McCarthy at an event in 2018 for the renaming of a post office in Bakersfield after the country singer Merle Haggard, whose family members were in attendance.Credit…Henry A. Barrios/The Bakersfield Californian, via Associated Press

Mr. Mettler uses the same language as Mr. McCarthy’s biggest Republican detractors in the House: a glad-hander on the outside but a “hatchet man” behind the scenes; “a creature of Washington” who has spent his time building his own power base instead of the party’s.

To Mr. Mettler, Mr. McCarthy’s public humiliation over his quest for the speaker’s gavel is “karma.”

“He spent so much time, money and Republican treasure against Republican members, he was part of the reason why there was a subdued red wave in November,” Mr. Mettler said. “But enough Freedom Caucus patriot-types survived, so the chickens have come home to roost.”

Mr. McCarthy was one of the three self-proclaimed “young guns” of the 2010 House Republican leadership, along with Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, and Paul D. Ryan, the former speaker. The “young guns” cultivated the Tea Party movement, only to have it ultimately turn on them, defeating Mr. Cantor, driving Mr. Ryan to retirement and blocking Mr. McCarthy’s first run for speaker in 2015.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Mr. McCarthy went to the House floor to hold Mr. Trump culpable for the riot. But he voted against Mr. Trump’s impeachment and then, within days, traveled to Mar-a-Lago to make amends with the former president.

If Mr. McCarthy is responsible for anything, it is a lack of foresight, said David Bynum, a former college intern in Mr. McCarthy’s office who is now a Republican consultant in Bakersfield and a McCarthy supporter. The Republican leader knew he had a problem with his far-right flank after Jan. 6, Mr. Bynum said, but did nothing to fix it.

“He’s had a year or two to figure it out,” Mr. Bynum said. “The party had two years to say, ‘Hey, if Kevin can’t walk the line, who can?’ But no one’s coming forward.”

If Mr. McCarthy is ultimately denied the gavel, Mr. Bynum said, he thinks Mr. McCarthy will not run for re-election. That, he added, “would be a huge loss for the community, but there aren’t that many people savvy enough to realize it.”

Hatched from a now-faded oil industry and powerful agribusiness companies, Bakersfield has remained a conservative stronghold in a state controlled by Democrats.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

A House speaker has the ear of the president, regardless of which party that president represents, Ms. Abernathy said. Two large military bases in the district need protecting. The oil industry could use a boost, and California’s water wars have only intensified with a prolonged drought. The West’s giant federal irrigation systems are caught between the Central Valley’s farmers and California’s environmentalists, fishing industry and cities.

Mr. McCarthy, ever affable, has built up plenty of local goodwill. Teo Medrano, 62, called him “a pretty cool guy” as he headed inside Donna Kaye’s Cafe for breakfast. But he said he had not been watching the speaker’s showdown closely.

“They’re going to make the right decisions for him,” he said with a cheerful wave.

Another sentiment is less charitable: Mr. McCarthy long ago turned his sights on national power and forgot about Kern County. Mr. Salvaggio, the former city councilman, pointed to a veterans outpatient clinic that Mr. McCarthy has been promising Bakersfield for more than a decade — and that still hasn’t materialized.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in there,” said Shawna Kidwell, 42, awaiting a table at Luigi’s. “Politicians are all the same.”

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