House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., likes being considered an underdog.
It’s that attitude that got him through the 15 rounds of voting it took the House to agree on giving him the speaker's gavel, and he says it comes from his hometown of Bakersfield, California.
”When you think about Bakersfield, we work hard here. We care for our land. It's more generational,” McCarthy explained in an exclusive interview with Spectrum News. “We never give up. People underestimate us. And we work harder than anybody else. And at the end, we got a good chance of winning.”
Bakersfield is a small city of just over 400,000; often overlooked by the more glamorous towns and cities along the California coast. The state's 20th Congressional District remains a Republican stronghold in a sapphire blue state. McCarthy, the son of a firefighter and a stay-at-home mom, graduated from Bakersfield High – home of the Drillers, a nod to the oil fields surrounding the city.
Spectrum News accompanied the newly minted Speaker back to his alma mater for the first time since he was elected to the top position in the House. Students stopped him for photos, replying in shock when McCarthy told them he still lives part time in Bakersfield.
His friend Michael Stewart, a former professional football player for the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins-turned-school teacher and football coach, greeted his former teammate with a handshake and a hug.
“How you been?” McCarthy asked Stewart after their embrace. “I’ve been living vicariously through your Facebook!” The two men burst into laughter.
“He’s a good dude, he’s going to change things,” Stewart told Spectrum News. “The thing I love about Kevin, for me, he keeps it the same. I know he’s got the political thing going, but I appreciate that he can do this and come back to our old high school.”
Sitting in his high school gym, beneath a banner on the wall reading “Once a Driller Always A Driller,” McCarthy said maintaining his roots has been of personal importance as he ascended into power in the House. He frequently mentioned his father throughout the trials of the speaker election.
“You know, my father always told me it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” McCarthy said after being given the gavel.
His father, Owen, passed away after a three-year battle with cancer at the age of 58. McCarthy turned 58 at the end of January.
McCarthy choked up when asked what his father would think seeing him ascend to the role second in line to the presidency.
“He would be very proud,” he said with tears in his eyes. “My father loved politics and history. He loved to debate and he loved to argue, and he and his friends would always get together to solve all the world's problems. And he probably tried to give me advice every week.”
Those who knew McCarthy in high school say they are unsurprised by his success. Marshall Dillard, who played on the football team with McCarthy, said his leadership skills shined even then.
“It was our freshman year, we're getting ready to play this one school, North High,” recalled Dillard, now an elementary school principal in Bakersfield. “Their football team used to put on their helmet some pretty bad language towards people of color when they'd get ready to play them."
"Kevin came up to me after practice, him and a couple other players and you know, he said, ‘Marshall, we know what they're all about at their school, but they're not going to touch you. They're going to come through us before they even get to you and they're not going to come through us.”
After high school, McCarthy tried to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I tried to be a fireman, but they had a nepotism clause," he recalled. "So I took the test, but I couldn't get hired. I did three seasons as a seasonal firefighter."
McCarthy said his real break began when he won $5,000 on the California Lottery, which he used to start a business.
“I was going to junior college, I wanted to buy [some] kind of a franchise like a Subway, but no one would loan me money because I was only 20 years old," he said. "So I took a risk and I opened a business, a deli.”
McCarthy says that experience taught him that being a business owner means being the first to work, the last to leave, and the last to get paid. It also taught him about dealing with the government, sparking an interest in politics.
That interest grew after he sold the sandwich shop and used the proceeds to pay for tuition at California State University, Bakersfield, where he became the first member of his family to finish a four-year college program. He completed his undergraduate degree in 1989 before going on to get a Master of Business Administration in 1994.
During his time in college, McCarthy became involved with the Young Republicans, and that's when things started to click for the budding politico.
“He was involved in the Young Republicans at the time, so he invited myself and my husband, who was my boyfriend back then, to join the Young Republicans,” said Susie Aspeitia, a friend of McCarthy’s from his time at Cal State Bakersfield. “We would just do a lot of campaigning together and phone calls and door knocking, hanging the information on the door handles and just working different events.”
Aspeitia, who says she attended the McCarthy’s wedding and considers the couple “lifelong friends,” admits that when she joined the Young Republicans, she has no idea that her friend would become Speaker of the House.
But when he first ran for Congress, she recalled, “I started to think 'gosh, you know, he's really going places.'”
“I don't think people really catch that personality, you can see a glimpse of it, those that are just watching him on TV, but he really is a very genuine nice person,” Aspeitia added.
But his first attempt at actually working in politics was a failure.
“I turned him down for a Washington internship because we only had room for four and all the students want to work in the summer,” said Cathy Abernathy, who worked for then-Congressman Bill Thomas and is now the Kern County GOP Chair.
Instead, she recommended he intern in the district office in Bakersfield, with much better results. “He was here about a month as an intern before I hired an intern to be his intern, because he was just always on the go and working the phones.”
McCarthy went on to run for office himself, getting elected to the California State Assembly in 2002. His fellow Republicans elected him minority leader during his first term in office. And then four years later, the chance to represent Bakersfield in Washington opened up when Thomas decided to retire.
“It all kind of revolves right around this community that gave me an opportunity. It helped me in my business. It helped me in my education,” said McCarthy. “I applied for a summer internship, you know what, I got turned down. But the uniqueness is I'm now elected to the congressional seat I couldn't get an internship for.”
“Only in America could that happen," he added. "And I don't know if maybe only in Bakersfield today could that happen.”
McCarthy has been positioning himself to assume the top spot in the House since 2015, when then-Speaker John Boehner announced his abrupt retirement amid unrest within the conference. At the time, McCarthy was his second-in-command, serving as majority leader.
“Speaker Boehner comes to me two minutes before he's going to announce to the conference [that] the Pope is coming and then he's going to leave. We're sitting in the majority, and it became a shock to everybody. And I was walking in and I did a bad press interview, and it became a bigger problem. And so I stepped back, maybe never having that chance again,” reflected McCarthy.
McCarthy was referencing a 2015 Fox News interview in which he seemed to imply that the Republican-led investigation into the death of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi had hurt Hillary Clinton politically. His remarks ignited a firestorm within the conference, leading to the ascension of Speaker Paul Ryan instead.
“When I came back to be minority leader, here I was in the minority, the only chance ever to be speaker again, you had to win the majority. People underestimated whether we could win seats,” said McCarthy, who said he is proud that the GOP has been able to expand not just their majority, but the views of those around the table.
"There are more Republican women," he said. "There are more Republican minorities, there are more Black Republicans since the reconstruction. And I really wanted to make sure that we reached everybody in America, that we expanded our party, and that's what we're doing.”
The path forward to being a successful speaker is filled with landmines for McCarthy. With a slim majority and an unruly faction of his own party to contend with, McCarthy has an uphill battle ahead of him when it comes to negotiating a farm bill and avoiding a default on America’s credit.
“I think the values of Bakersfield are that you don't give up. Let them underestimate [and] you just work harder. But at the end of the day, we'll be better.”