When President Trump uttered those now-infamous words about Haiti and the whole of Africa at a White House meeting of legislators a couple of weeks ago, the reaction was swift.
Swift and furious in some cases, swift and skeptical in others.
Some members of Congress, Republicans included, declared the president’s language and attitude toward immigrants from certain nations — Norway not among them — as unacceptable; others denied having heard it or defended the sentiment behind it. (President Trump himself has said he never uttered it; the White House says he simply talked "tough.")
Tellingly, Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader and one of seven legislators at the meeting, said nothing about the president's alleged choice of language or his assessment of the countries to which he applied it. He was one of only two legislators in attendance that day (Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., was the other) to have maintained complete public silence on the matter.
McCarthy's apparent unwillingness to weigh in on the "shithole" controversy should come as no surprise to critics. Within his district McCarthy has a reputation, deserved or not, for avoiding confrontation. And, for the most part, he's been fortunate to not have to.
That's why it's fascinating to see him front and center on one of the most pressing issues of the day, immigration.
As well he should be. His 23rd Congressional District is at the fore of the debate on border security, chain migration and proposed paths to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented resident aliens.
And with DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows eligible noncitizens to remain in the U.S., set to start expiring in March, those conversations have taken on a new urgency.
Kern County has as big a need for a durable immigration solution as any place in the United States: Based on crop value, it's the biggest agricultural county in the nation's biggest agricultural state, and Tulare County, the other half of McCarthy's district, is right behind it.
Immigrants account for roughly 2 million of the farmworkers employed in the U.S. and, according to both UC Davis researchers and United Fresh Produce Association policy analysts, as many as 70 percent of them are undocumented. That's 1.4 million undocumented farmworkers waiting for that knock at the door.
Labor shortages affect growers' ability to complete their harvests — and to turn a profit.
So, immigration issues “hit us really hard here in Kern,"
Beatris Sanders, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said in a recent interview. "It’s a priority for us to have a working system.”
In fact it ought to be a priority for all of Kern County because, as the dominant industry, agriculture's performance reverberates throughout the Central Valley's volatile, unsteady economy. When they're working, farmworkers buy houses, cars, refrigerators and movie tickets. When they're not, crops languish and social programs are stressed.
So it's gratifying to see McCarthy — who did not return requests for comment sent through his press office — stepping forward as one of the leading Republican voices on the issue.
It's unfortunate that he and many fellow Republicans appear willing to hold DACA participants hostage over other elements of comprehensive immigration reform such as Trump's border wall. While that wrangling continues, DACA-documented residents twist in the wind, wondering whether they'll soon be severed from their jobs, schools and families and deported to countries foreign to many of them.
A popular, magnanimous politician like McCarthy, for whom 70 percent of the vote constitutes a close call, can get away with a lot back home in the Valley. The audiences he chooses to engage here — service club luncheon crowds and private fundraiser attendees — tend not to ask hard questions. Last year at about this time a local club, Bakersfield Republican Women Federated, brought him in as a guest so he could blow out the candles on a birthday cake. And so it goes, as in most every congressional district in the country.
But criticism and confrontation? No, thank you. McCarthy rarely debates opponents, although he did sit down for one against Democratic challenger Wendy Reed in October 2016 at KGET. He has abandoned the traditional town hall, opting instead for so-called telephone town halls, in which speakers can be screened (and squelched) and questions evaluated for potential land mines.
Well, if the congressman won't come to you, simply go to the congressman, right? Tell that to some of the constituents who've marched to McCarthy's Truxtun Avenue district office only to find the doors locked and the lights off — on a weekday, mid-morning.
That hasn't merely been the experience of immigration-minded marchers seeking an audience with the congressman. A group that went to McCarthy's office to protest Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's proposal to scale back the size of several national monuments last fall also got the shades-drawn, lights-off treatment.
"We believed staff was hiding in there because standing helplessly outside was a gentleman from one of the fossil fuel extractive industries who had an appointment," Stephen Montgomery, a member of the local Sierra Club, told me in a text last week. "... I suggested he hang by, indicating I thought as soon as we left the lights would come back on and he could have his scheduled meeting."
Impromptu district-office dialogue can be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Town hall meetings can be circuses. But they both demonstrate a willingness to listen, a desire to be heard and the opportunity to persuade. They are a sign of respect.
In McCarthy's case they would chip away at the perception that he is a Starburst-sorting sycophant with selective hearing whose priorities are decidedly East Coast.
But if McCarthy is loath to look criticism in the face here at home, at least he, likely emboldened by Trump's embrace, is these days engaging himself in the sausage making of policy craft.
Here's hoping, as he pushes the Republican side of the immigration debate, McCarthy remembers his economically vulnerable district — including even the constituents who may have forgotten his birthday.
Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.