For the brief period that he stood at the pinnacle of national politics, Kevin McCarthy cast an odd sort of light on Bakersfield, his unfashionable, hardscrabble home town in southern California that might never have penetrated the national consciousness without him.
The city has none of the trappings of what we think of when we think of the Golden state – no beaches, no cable cars, no redwood forests, and only an intermittent view of the Tehachapi mountains, depending on the intensity of the smog that rises from the inland oilfields and large tract farms that provide its lifeblood. The Beach Boys never immortalized Bakersfield in song – and neither, for the most part, has anyone else.
Yet for the past year, as McCarthy struggled to lead the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the city has enjoyed a quirky notoriety as the place that formed the man that wielded the speaker’s gavel, albeit for an agonizingly – and historically – short time.
Journalists from national publications have dutifully made the trek up from Los Angeles in search of the sandwich counter that McCarthy ran as a young man inside his uncle’s strip-mall yogurt shop (both long gone), or to eat a steak and pasta lunch at Luigi’s, which McCarthy once lauded as the kind of place that is reliably hopping by 11am because the good, hardworking people of Bakersfield start their jobs at sunrise.
The reporters would try to figure out whether the city saw McCarthy as the smiling, happy-go-lucky favourite son portrayed by his friends and allies, or just another ambitious politician more interested in building his power base in Washington than in serving his local constituents.
How much did McCarthy love Bakersfield, and how much did Bakersfield love him back? The responses were mixed then, and they remain mixed now.
“If you went through the wringer he went through, I suspect there’s a little humiliation, a little embarrassment. Maybe he’s licking his wounds and wants to go off into the sunset,” said Greg Perrone, president of the Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly, an activist group that hews to McCarthy’s right. “Still, I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t finish the term that he was elected to serve. That’s not what we expect from our elected leaders.”
The critical voices that fill the letters column of the local paper, the Bakersfield Californian, have been quite a bit blunter. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Kevin,” two of them wrote last week. One added: “You haven’t represented us in a very long time.”
Local Republican officials have been quick to sing McCarthy’s praises since the announcement of his retirement from Congress, calling him optimistic, unafraid of hard work, a patriot, and a “tremendous advocate for the Central Valley”. But others less beholden to him have been notable mostly by their silence.
Bakersfield’s mayor, Karen Goh, who has been photographed with McCarthy on passingly few occasions since she took office seven years ago, issued no statement. When invited to comment on ways in which McCarthy had helped the city in his 16 years in Washington, she told the Guardian she was too busy to respond.
McCarthy’s district, California’s 20th, extends well beyond Bakersfield into the farmlands of Kern and Tulare counties and into the suburbs of Fresno, the largest city in the Central Valley. It was redrawn before the last election to make it more solidly Republican, relieving McCarthy of any significant pressure to fight for his own congressional seat. He scarcely visited during last year’s campaign, focusing instead on raising hundreds of millions of dollars for more competitive districts in California and the rest of the country.
That focus has not always gone down well with his constituents, especially in Bakersfield, whose population has grown significantly more diverse since the days when it was a refuge for poor white farmers from the Dust Bowl and their descendants, giving the area an Oklahoma flavor with rock-ribbed conservative attitudes to match. The city is now majority Latino, and party registration between the two major parties is close to even.
Still, the city may be less remarkable for its changing political complexion than for its relative lack of political engagement. In recent election cycles, Bakersfield and Kern county have seen some of the lowest voter turnout rates in California – just 34% for the 2022 mid-terms, and 58% for the presidential race in 2020 when the statewide average was more than 70%.
Nothing about the place is friendly to politics, starting with a notable lack of public space. Amid the sprawl of highways and mini-malls and residential subdivisions, most political protests – including recent pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations – have been confined to the sidewalks at the intersection of Stockdale Highway and California Avenue, on the western end of town, where the corners are demarcated by a Mobil station, a Shell station, a McDonald’s and a Chick-Fil-A.
Most local political offices are in business parks where the doors stay locked to anyone without an appointment. McCarthy’s own district office rarely engages with the public or with reporters.
With McCarthy now on his way out, Bakersfield’s political profile is likely to dwindle even further. The city has other, mostly dubious claims to fame – as one of the most dangerous places in America for pedestrians, and as an area with one of the highest incidences of police shootings. The city’s website is currently touting a more cheerful statistic – that an obscure financial website named WalletHub has ranked it the 96th best city in the United States to have fun.
That’s slightly less fun than Overland Park, Kansas, in the Kansas City suburbs, but a touch more fun than Toledo, Ohio, where Saturday nights were once infamously described in a John Denver song as “like being no place at all”. Bakersfield’s city leaders are taking that as a compliment.