If there was one thing Kevin McCarthy looked to remind constituents Thursday, it's that before he became speaker of the House, he was a Driller. His message was well-received by those who were invited to hear it.
Outside downtown’s Fox Theater, a small crowd gathered as early as 1:45 p.m. to line up outside and vie for a good seat at the special homecoming.
By 3:30 p.m., the lower section of the theater neared capacity. In the lobby and along the stairs, garland and balloons bound the building with the pomp and pageantry of Christmas or Independence Day.
Speeches were made in person and on a pre-recorded reel, rotating through friends and colleagues who spoke to McCarthy's character and accomplishments at both the local and national level.
“Imagine he flies all over the country and his top priority is Bakersfield, his hometown,” said Wendy Porter, executive director and founder of the Wounded Heroes Fund. “And that’s a genuine, real thing.”
“Kevin is one of the most honorable people I know,” said state Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield. “His work ethic is unparalleled.”
“My wife has always said, ‘Kevin has the golden touch,’” said Marshall Dillard, a longtime friend and former schoolmate of McCarthy. “And he does.”
At nearly a quarter past four, to the rise of curtains and the tune of a covered version of “Streets of Bakersfield,” McCarthy took the stage.
“I didn’t know who would turn out,” McCarthy joked in his opening remarks.
The afternoon was his homecoming, after winning his bid for speaker of the House nearly two weeks ago. He cast the arduous 15-vote process as an example of his resolve, evoking symbols of small-town virtue and a Midwestern common sense.
“Anybody can win it on the first time,” McCarthy said. “But, you know, to sit there and take it 15 times … but if you came to Bakersfield, you had to work a little harder, you had to invest a little more. And you know what? Those are the values I’m going to take to this job.”
He noted he flew in the previous night.
“It feels good to be back home for the first time since the speaker’s vote,” McCarthy said. “I wanted to have an opportunity to say thank you to the community that pretty much raised me.”
McCarthy was asked by one reporter about the status of the new state-of-the-art Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic he promised in 2018. The project has since stalled.
“Some of the challenges that we had with high speed rail and then they have lawsuits based upon the location it was picked,” McCarthy said. “I think we’ve gone through all those hurdles. We’re just waiting really on the city and county (for) a few decisions there, but we’ve been on this and I look forward to having them around.”
In his speech, McCarthy touched on national topics, from establishing a bipartisan Select Committee on China to the looming debt limit and a new GOP-backed bill that he said in prior interviews would “repeal the funding for 87,000 new IRS agents.” Throughout the afternoon, he criticized California Gov. Gavin Newsom and poked fun at former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
“We believe that our government is not the power — we’re the power,” McCarthy said. “So we created a community to keep (the) government in check and have checks and balance(s).”
He also thanked several of his GOP comrades in attendance, including Fong, state Sen. Shannon Grove and David Valadao, his neighboring congressman.
“We have a majority by five,” McCarthy said. “I would not be speaker if David Valadao was not elected. I’m going to tell you this — I can’t get elected in David’s district.”
McCarthy will now represent different things to different people. To Bakersfield, he's a Bakersfield High School alum and all-star tight end. To the rest of the country, he’s the deciding factor in passage of law, and second in line for the presidency.
He acknowledged the challenges of his new role and forewarned those in attendance that a bumpy road is ahead.
“So, just as running for speaker, there’s going to be some ups and downs,” McCarthy said. “You stay with me … at the end of the road it’s going to be better than it was today.”
At several points, McCarthy connected his national accomplishments to his hometown. His final notes on his goals for energy, education and taxes were punctuated by the Bakersfield High School marching band’s fight song — McCarthy graduated from the school in 1983 — and his photo line was underscored by Jim Ranger, a local guitarist and season 19 contestant of "The Voice" who performed at McCarthy’s request.
“I remember in church, I listened to this young boy sing with a beautiful voice with his mother in church,” McCarthy said. “To root and cheer for him in 'The Voice,' Jim Ranger carrying it on.”
The event, according to Haiden Drake, deputy campaign manager for McCarthy, was not open to the general public and required an invitation.
“It’s mostly friends, family, supporters," Drake said. "We spent a long time talking to voters and getting their input so we have a good idea of who our supporters are."
Some people waiting outside before the event said they had not received a formal invitation, but rather a text or email the day before to show up. Drake said the venue was expected to hit maximum capacity.
“So, he is just doing a ‘thank you’ to Bakersfield, thanking supporters and the community for years of support in recognition of his position as speaker,” Drake said.
When asked about the nature of how public the event was, McCarthy chuckled.
“The first thing is, I sit right here, where am I at right now?” McCarthy said. “You know I love coming back home. It’s something I always continue to do.”
McCarthy pointed out his priority for more telephone town halls, which he said are the number one place constituents seek out for providing feedback, and “asking the tough questions without having to identify themselves.”
“And the one thing I know about people in this community, they’re not shy of giving me their opinion, right?”