Rep. McCarthy, Possible Cantor Successor, Walks Fine Line On Immigration

House Republicans are to pick a new majority leader Thursday, following Eric Cantor's primary defeat. The favorite is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, whose district is more than a third Latino.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Today, House Republicans pick a new majority leader following Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat. The favorite is the current majority whip, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California. This morning, we're going to learn more about Mr. McCarthy and spend some time in his home district. He was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, where he and his wife brought up their two children. It's a district that is economically driven by farming and energy and is now more than one-third Latino. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bakersfield's KCW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT A TIGER BY THE TAIL")

BUCK OWENS: (Singing) I've got a tiger by the tail, it's plain to see.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Driving into Bakersfield, you still here country mainstays like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, the cowboys, long-haul truckers and oilmen of the Bakersfield Sound still epitomize this part of California, which today remains the heart of California Republican politics.

CATHY ABERNATHY: The economy is very stable because this district provides the food, fuel and defense for the nation.

SIEGLER: And who gets a lot of the credit? Republican politicians like Kevin McCarthy, says longtime GOP activist Cathy Abernathy. She gave McCartney his first job in politics as an aide to former Congressman Bill Thomas, the man he'd later succeed.

ABERNATHY: He was there for another 15 years. He just rose up the ranks, eventually was district rep and just was a tremendous asset to the office because he was just always working the phones, going to events, bringing people together, adding more people to the system politically.

SIEGLER: McCarthy was elected to the state legislator in 2002 and Congress in 2006, when his mentor Bill Thomas retired. He still keeps close ties to local politicians and business interests in Bakersfield and beyond. Lately, he's forged strong alliances with Silicon Valley. Both of his degrees, including a master's in business, came from Cal State Bakersfield. Dean Haddock, chair of the local Republican Party, remembers fondly how McCarthy started his business here when he was still in college. He won $5,000 in the lottery and used it as seed money to open up Kevin O's Deli downtown.

DEAN HADDOCK: He and his dad actually built the counter that went into his business, in his dad's garage. I mean, he knows how to start a business from the ground up and be successful at it. So, you know, he's always done that politically, too, so.

SIEGLER: McCarthy's business-friendly reputation wins him a lot of cred in Bakersfield and Kern County, which lies on the Southern edge of the fertile Central Valley. But those truckers and oilmen of the Bakersfield Sound, they've lately been joined by immigrants from Asia that have come to run the truck stops and restaurants that line Highway 99. And Latino farm workers have flocked to jobs in the fields, picking everything from cotton to carrots. This is what makes McCarthy's district a little complex.

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SIEGLER: Immigration reform activists regularly hold marches here. This is from a big one last August. They still stage a weekly sit-in at Congressman McCarthy's local district office.

PAOLA FERNANDEZ: The last couple of months have been us trying to connect with him, and him and his office really hiding from us.

SIEGLER: Twenty-nine-year-old Paola Fernandez came to Bakersfield with her parents from Mexico City when she was 4. She says the protests will continue and get louder if McCarthy becomes House majority leader.

FERNANDEZ: I think Kevin McCarthy is a smart man, and I think that he will want to do what is right for the Republican Party. And if they still want to stay relevant, then I think that they have to embrace immigration reform.

SIEGLER: McCarthy has to walk a fine line on immigration. Even Bakersfield's Republican mayor and the local chamber have joined the calls for an immigration overhaul. But the last summer when the issue was the hottest here, local Tea Party groups were also running ads attacking him for being too soft.

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CONGRESSMAN KEVIN MCCARTHY: I get protested on all sides of immigration, what's interesting. And I have a very diverse district. I mean, Cesar Chavez is buried in my district. I have ag, oil, aerospace. The current system, to me, is broken.

SIEGLER: But in that recent local interview, McCarthy quickly went on quickly to say that any immigration deal would come only after the border is secure. And if Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is elected majority leader today, those questions about immigration will no doubt continue. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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