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McCarthy's constituents 'don't blame him,' but worry about losing their voice in Congress

Bakersfield, CA - December 6: Long time Bakersfield resident Billie Jo Medders, 92, watches the Fourth 2024 Republican presisential debate at a watch party at K C Steak House in Bakersfield, CA Wednesday December 6, 2023 in Bakersfield, CA. (Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)
"Who knows what's gonna happen next?" says Billie Jo Medders, who has known McCarthy since he was a child and worked with him at his predecessor's office. (Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

Billie Jo Medders can recite her history with Kevin McCarthy like a well-worn catechism. Before he was a congressman, before he was California's first Republican speaker of the House, he was the little boy who attended preschool with her daughter, the 13-year-old with a mouth full of braces, the newlywed who met his wife at Bakersfield High School.

"And then he came into our office," said Medders, who worked for three decades for then-Rep. Bill Thomas, McCarthy's predecessor in Congress. And the rest is history.

Beneath twinkling Christmas lights at a downtown Bakersfield bar on Wednesday, Medders and the Republican women seated around her were still processing McCarthy's announcement earlier that day that the longtime Central Valley representative is retiring from Congress by the end of the year.

The decision prompted sadness, but not surprise, in McCarthy's home district, the most Republican in California. To his constituents in Bakersfield and the surrounding area, the writing had been on the wall for the last two months, after bitter infighting among House Republicans led to McCarthy's historic, humiliating ouster as the 55th speaker of the House.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy standing at a lectern with a large U.S. House emblem, three American flags behind him
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield speaks to reporters hours after he was ousted as speaker of the House on Oct. 3. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

"I am sad to see him retire, because I'm selfish, and I want people like Kevin McCarthy in Washington, D.C.," said Annette Londquist, the head of Bakersfield Republican Women, a club that counts McCarthy among its 515 members. "But with everything that's happened to him, I understand that it would be hard to continue."

McCarthy's announcement Wednesday capped a tumultuous year in the House, where Republicans have a razor-thin majority and discord among party members. McCarthy endured 14 failed votes in his quest to become speaker before he compromised with his hard-line GOP opponents, agreeing to restore a rule that made it easy for any House member to call for a vote to remove him from the top post.

That compromise clinched McCarthy's victory in January and led to his ouster in October. Angered by his decision to work with Democrats to stave off a government shutdown, a group of eight hard-right Republicans led by Florida's Rep. Matt Gaetz were joined by Democrats in a historic vote to remove McCarthy as speaker.

The move prompted fury in Bakersfield, where McCarthy, known simply as "Kevin," is beloved by many.

"I don't blame him,” said Jacquie Sullivan, Bakersfield's now-retired longest-running city councilmember, of McCarthy's decision. She sat with Medders on Wednesday night at a watch party for the GOP primary presidential debate. "He was so mistreated."

Medders added: "’Round here, Matt Gaetz is not a good name to mention. He's just upset the whole apple cart, you know? Who knows what's gonna happen next?"

Several people gather in chairs near at large-screen television in a warmly lit bar
Members of Bakersfield Republican Women and others shared their reactions to McCarthy's decision Wednesday while attending a GOP presidential debate watch party at a local bar. (Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

During McCarthy's grueling quest for the speaker's gavel in January, Bakersfield resident Kathy Scrivner was on her knees in front of the television, praying that her fellow congregant at Valley Baptist Church would be victorious.

Scrivner's eyes filled with tears when she learned McCarthy was retiring. But, she said, she understands the stresses of serving in public office: Her son is on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, her sister is Kern County's district attorney, and Scrivner herself is a Kern High School District trustee.

"I don't think that regular laypeople know how difficult it is," she said. "It's hard, being criticized day and night."

McCarthy is the third congressional leader that California has lost this year. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco stepped down from the House's Democratic leadership in January, and longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein died in September. Just two Californians still hold leadership positions: Reps. Pete Aguilar of Redlands, chair of the House's Democratic Caucus; and Ted Lieu of Torrance, House Democrats' vice chair.

Read more: Kevin McCarthy will retire from Congress at end of year

McCarthy has represented the Bakersfield region in Congress since 2007, taking over for Thomas, who had served for 28 years. So the coming change is unusual and, for some, unsettling.

“He's said he's fighting for us, he's fighting, he's fighting — and now he quit,” said Greg Perrone, 59, president of the Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly, the more conservative GOP club in town. He said he is neither "a McCarthy fan" nor a "McCarthy foe," and doesn't blame the congressman for being "probably a little battle-weary," but chided McCarthy for not finishing out his term.

"He's leaving an open seat, so now we have no voice," Perrone said.

Perrone said he had hoped McCarthy would use his influence and fundraising prowess to continue to push Republican priorities through Congress.

No date has been set for a special election to serve the last year of McCarthy's current term. Candidates running for the full two-year term that starts in January 2025 have until next Wednesday to file paperwork.

"I'm hearing from everybody," said Cathy Abernathy, a Republican strategist and consultant for McCarthy who gave him his first job in politics as an intern in Thomas' office.

Abernathy is a consultant for several possible candidates for McCarthy's seat, including state Sen. Shannon Grove, who has not announced whether she'll run. Assemblymember Vince Fong, who previously worked in Thomas' and McCarthy's offices, said Thursday he would not vie for the congressional seat.

McCarthy's departure will also be a rude awakening for Republican leaders across the U.S., said Jim Brulte, former chair of the California Republican Party.

The road to the House majority runs through New York and California, Brulte said. McCarthy's biggest legacy will be helping to deliver the House majority for the Republicans in 2010 and again in 2022, raising money and selecting diverse candidates who were good political fits for their unique districts, he said. McCarthy understood, Brulte said, that "if you don't have the majority, you can't govern."

Read more: Who will replace Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy in Congress? Here are possible candidates

A handful of congressional districts in California have been in a tug-of-war for years between the two major parties. Democrats flipped seven seats in 2018, and in 2020 Republicans took four back.

New leadership in the House, including a new speaker, Mike Johnson (R-La.), will have to spend time boning up on the races and the swing districts in the Golden State that McCarthy "instinctively knew, because he's been involved in California politics for over a quarter of a century," Brulte said.

"It's a huge loss to California," he said. "And it's a huge loss to the Republicans in Congress. Even the Republicans in Congress that didn't appreciate Kevin may come to appreciate him a lot more in December of 2024."

McCarthy, who grew up in Bakersfield, won his last election by more than 34 percentage points. Former Bakersfield Councilmember Mark Salvaggio, 73, an independent, said McCarthy would have overwhelmingly won reelection again — but, he said, getting ousted as speaker was "embarrassing" and "humiliating."

A regular letter writer to the Bakersfield Californian, Salvaggio said letters to the editor have become increasingly critical of McCarthy in recent years. Despite the congressman's relative popularity in his home district, few people jumped to defend him, Salvaggio noted. Others criticized the congressman for spending little time with his constituents, he said — particularly compared with his new neighbor in Congress, Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), who holds frequent town hall meetings in his district.

But McCarthy "has been detached from his district," Salvaggio said. "I recognized that Kevin becoming speaker was good for his district and for fellow Republicans in the state … but it never panned out because of his short tenure."

At the debate watch party, Medders — years after she and McCarthy worked on the same team doing constituent services for Thomas — still proudly recalls how she helped the onetime speaker get elected to Congress, recording his first radio advertisement and eventually serving as his delegate appointee for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012.

"The world is his oyster,” Medders said of McCarthy; after he leaves office, "he will be able to do whatever he wants."

Nelson and contributing Times staff writer Seema Mehta reported from Los Angeles.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.