Kevin McCarthy Has Built a Career by Building Relationships

Even before House Speaker John Boehner decided to step down from the dais and turn in his gavel, a blueprint for future House leadership was already being drawn up. The foundation was built on the idea of maintaining some of the existing leadership structure while also drawing in more conservative elements, typified by members of the Freedom Caucus. The Hill’s Scott Wong reported in mid-September:

With Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) job in doubt, House conservatives have been holding internal talks about a new leadership coalition that could include Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker and more conservative members occupying lower rungs on the leadership ladder. . .

One Freedom Caucus member involved in the discussions personally informed McCarthy over the summer recess that the majority leader could have his support for the top job in the event Boehner resigns or is forced out this fall.

That type of coalition, in which the breadth of the caucus’ ideological position is represented is appealing to many members who feel left out of the current structure.

“Everybody has a stake in it,” Rep. Mark Meadows, who introduced a measure to oust Boehner earlier this year and co-founded the Freedom Caucus, told The Hill.

The idea that Rep. McCarthy, the California Republican, who has navigated a meteoric ascent during his four terms in Congress, could be the next Speaker is surprising to many. After all, he’s not known as a conservative firebrand or much of a policy wonk, but has instead built his career on molding strong relationships with his fellow caucus members.

“The more I talk to people, the sense is McCarthy could actually get [support] from [the right wing],” says one senior House GOP aide. “They believe he’s more inclusive than Boehner. They think Boehner ignores them or marginalizes them. That’s fair to a certain degree. McCarthy’s natural role is to bring people in and have them make decisions—rather than dictating.”

It’s a skill that McCarthy has developed throughout his remarkable life. A teenage McCarthy first made his mark by opening up a sandwich shop called Kevin O’s Deli, which he was able to open after he won $5,000 playing the state lotto. He made his mark with fresh, toasted subs long before Quiznos and Subway turned the idea into a sandwich empire. Although the restaurant didn’t make McCarthy rich, it did earn him enough money to pay for college, and shaped his free market views on government taxes and regulation.

While in college McCarthy applied for an internship with then-Rep. Bill Thomas, but was rejected. But McCarthy wouldn’t take no for an answer and volunteered to clip news stories in one of Thomas’ district offices. McCarthy rose up the ranks to become district director just as Thomas was ascending the party structure, winning chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The relationship gave him the opportunity to meet national players like Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz, connections which would become important as he considered his own political career.

Throughout McCarthy’s ascent from Kern County Community College District Board, to California General Assembly, to U.S. Congress, McCarthy was known for knowing everyone.

“I’ve never seen anyone before or since who can build personal relationships with members of all stripes and all parties as well and as thoroughly as he does,” California congressman and former state assembly colleague John Campbell told The New Republic.

In Washington, where McCarthy sleeps on his office sofa so as not to get to comfortable in Congress, his schedule is built around cultivating relationships. He wakes up at 6 a.m. to go biking with a half-dozen other members. He eats breakfast with a different cast of Republican members. Throughout the day he meets and listens to disgruntled colleagues. And then he finished his day by corralling yet another group of Republicans, which the New York Times’ reports can “go on for several hours because McCarthy takes it upon himself to draw the others out from their professional shells. . .” The Times continues:

Sometimes late at night, the freshmen will drop by McCarthy’s other office, the one reserved for the majority whip behind a door marked H-107 on the first floor of the Capitol. The whip’s office is the unofficial retreat for the House Republicans — but particularly for the freshmen, 19 of whom bunk in their own offices across the street. . . At times the corporate-­flophouse panorama resembles an airport frequent-flier lounge, complete with beer and wine. “This is what I want,” McCarthy told me. “I want them living in this office.” More to the point, he wants them to feel a connection to what his office and the Republican leadership are up to. The walls of H-107 subliminally reinforce this sense of belonging, covered as they are with framed images of freshmen alongside senior members, all in black and white like statesmen from some nobler era.

“Kevin has done a great job of reaching out to conservatives,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-SC, who is among those who were frustrated with Boehner’s leadership, told the Associated Press. “It’s fair to say that if Kevin were to run he would be able to draw votes from across the conference.”

In that way, McCarthy has become a unique brand in an era of polarization. He’s a relative moderate, though his voting record was very conservative before joining leadership and becoming a loyal lieutenant to Speaker Boehner, but someone who appeals to the conservative elements of the party as well. His relationships, borne out of a genuine desire to know what makes his colleagues tick, have been strengthened by his candidate recruitment skills (his Young Guns program worked wonders), his prodigious fundraising hauls (his money helped a lot of Freedom Caucus members get their seats), and his unifying projects (think, Pledge to America).

Those relationships now make him the presumptive frontrunner for the Speaker position vacated by John Boehner. And although his selection is far from a foregone conclusion, McCarthy’s ability to listen to and understand the passions and motivations of his colleagues could be exactly what the House caucus needs. Because with Democrats on the ropes and a crucial presidential contest in 2016, presenting a unified front could mean all the difference.


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