Every so often, Rep. Kevin McCarthy tosses out a catch phrase that's popular in this southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley: "Once a Driller, always a Driller."
It's a hometown high school thing. McCarthy played football for the Bakersfield High School Drillers. It's also a not-too-subtle message that the Republican congressman remembers where he came from — a gritty town built by ranchers and roughnecks, and bypassed by big city folks speeding along Interstate 5.
With McCarthy the odds-on favorite to succeed John A. Boehner as speaker of the House of Representatives, an ascension that would make him one of the most powerful politicians in the nation, friends and foes alike in the Central Valley want and expect him to remember those roots.
"If I'm not on the farm and my shadow isn't on the field, usually bad things happen," said Larry Starrh, co-owner of Starrh Ranch in Shafter.
Bakersfield is no dusty little farm town — it's home to more than 360,000. But compared with the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, just on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, the city has an air of a simpler, hardworking life.
McCarthy's political image feeds off that. The son of a firefighter, he married his high school sweetheart, Judy, and is often spotted at the bustling Luigi's restaurant, a downtown haunt, on Friday nights. He went to Cal State Bakersfield for his bachelor's degree and an MBA. He opened a deli — Kevin O's — and raised his children — son Connor, 21, and daughter Meghan, 19 — all in the town where he was born.
Starrh has known McCarthy for decades and doesn't believe he'll be entranced by the trappings of Washington. He hopes McCarthy, with his well-honed political skills and genuine pleasant nature, will be able to navigate the partisan treachery and defuse the Republican uprising in Congress that led to Boehner's departure, announced Friday.
"I wouldn't wish that job on anyone," Starrh said. "But you need good people to step up and take the heat."
Breaking the partisan stalemate won't be easy. The next speaker is expected to have an even more difficult time because party hardliners who pushed Boehner to resign have become emboldened and are pushing harder to resist compromise.
Bakersfield is the largest city in McCarthy's 23nd congressional district, which swallows up most of Kern and Tulare counties and stretches from the southwest San Joaquin Valley to the Mojave Desert. The district covers the heart of the California oil country and includes some of the most productive, and lucrative, farmland in the nation.
McCarthy, 50, has the good fortune of representing one of the most conservative congressional districts in a state dominated by Democrats: GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won the district by an almost 2 -to-1 margin over President Obama in 2012.
Among the area's vibrant tea party contingent, McCarthy evokes both hope and trepidation.
Bakersfield tea party leader Tom Pavich praised McCarthy for aggressively recruiting and raising money for conservative congressional candidates across the nation, which helped the GOP take control of the House in 2010.
But Pavich, a grape grower, criticized the congressman for being too closely aligned to Boehner and his conciliatory ways. The Republican leadership in Congress, which includes McCarthy as Boehner's top deputy, failed to take a hard line to repeal the Affordable Care Art, eliminate the national debt or rein in Obama by taking impeachment "off the table," Pavich said.
"His response to us is that he hasn't always been able to vote his conscience, because the leadership has asked him to vote in certain ways," Pavich said. "Now that he's going to be speaker, that'll be his decision. So hopefully we'll see a much more conservative voting record … by him and Congress."
Since being elected to Congress in 2006, McCarthy made his presence known in California by clashing with Democrats and environmentalists over his efforts to bring more water to farmers, and by aggressively opposing any federal involvement in the high-speed rail system championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
On immigration, McCarthy takes a more nuanced approach: His district is 35% Latino and dominated by an agricultural industry dependent on farmworkers. The congressman sticks to the party line by calling for tougher border enforcement and against "amnesty" but has expressed support for providing legal documentation for law-abiding migrants to work and pay taxes.
The leader of the United Farm Workers, a union headquartered in McCarthy's district, blames McCarthy and the rest of the House Republican leadership for being the primary impediment to comprehensive immigration reform, saying they are held hostage by the tea party wing of the GOP. In protest, UFW demonstrators have continually camped outside McCarthy's office in Bakersfield.
"We expect more from him," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who on Saturday was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the grape strike in Delano. "If he's in that position, he's the leader. He needs to figure it out. He can't continue to be dominated by a certain segment of his party."
Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, however, said those most in need in the Central Valley may have the most to gain with McCarthy's expected rise to speaker. McCarthy's predecessor in the House, GOP stalwart Bill Thomas, was known for delivering federal support to the district when he was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Think what a speaker could do, Perez said.
"Kevin McCarthy is an extremely talented, sophisticated operative," said Perez, a Democrat who grew up in east Bakersfield. "What it means to have someone of his caliber overseeing and fighting for literally the poorest place in the county, to me is very exciting."
But this might be wishful thinking. McCarthy and other fiscal conservatives have pushed to end so-called earmarks, or funding for special projects in legislators' districts, making that part of his task much tougher.
Thomas, now retired and still living in Bakersfield, said McCarthy's rapid rise to power in Congress shouldn't have surprised anyone.
McCarthy started his political career as a volunteer assistant in Thomas' district office and in 2000 was elected to the board of the Kern Community College District. Two years later, he was elected to the Assembly, becoming Republican leader within a year.
In 2006, McCarthy was one of the few Republican newcomers to be elected to Congress in a year the Democrats swept Republicans out of power. McCarthy has worked feverishly to recruit Republican congressional candidates across the nation, building his political clout by helping Republicans instead of strong-arming his way to the top, Thomas said.
Republican colleagues elected him majority whip after he won his third term. Four years later, after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's shocking defeat in Virginia, McCarthy rose to fulfill that post.
"Kevin is someone who came in the minority, and helped created a majority, and helped nurture that majority," Thomas said.
Good fortune has helped. As a young man, McCarthy used proceeds from a winning lottery ticket to open the deli in Bakersfield. He later sold the business to help pay for college.
"He has always been ready when an opportunity opened up," Thomas said.