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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

New GOP Leader Has Luck on His Side

November 03, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento — Sacramento

Get used to the name Kevin McCarthy. He's the Legislature's newest leader and one thing already can be said about him without argument: The man's lucky.

Freshman Assemblyman McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), 38, soon will become the Assembly minority leader, replacing termed-out Assemblyman Dave Cox, 65, of Sacramento County.

But McCarthy won't call himself minority leader. He'll be the Republican leader. He thinks the tweak of semantics will make the GOP sound and act more relevant.

Regardless, the GOP automatically will become a lot more relevant in both houses, despite being greatly outnumbered by Democrats, simply because a Republican has captured the governor's office.

Not just any Republican, but a celebrity superstar who has the public's rapt attention. It's McCarthy's good luck that he's becoming the Assembly GOP leader as Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives.

With Schwarzenegger in the Capitol's "corner office" -- and on television anytime he wants -- McCarthy is bound to get a lot more public exposure than if Gray Davis had lingered.

GOP leaders also now must be taken seriously by the governor and Democrats.

"Timing," McCarthy says often. "Everything in politics is timing."

And luck. It's what led McCarthy into politics in the first place.

Oct. 4, 1985. McCarthy stopped at a Bakersfield market to cash a check. California had just begun selling lottery tickets the day before. He bought one, a "scratcher." He scratched off the three spots and they read $5,000.

" 'I don't know how to play,' " he recalls telling the clerk, " 'but does this mean I won?' Everybody went crazy."

Then 20 and a community college student, McCarthy invested his $5,000 in stocks and quickly made more money. At the time, the young entrepreneur also was buying vehicles at an L.A. car auction and selling them in Bakersfield for a higher price. He took all his cash and parlayed it into the opening of a deli.

He worked the deli successfully for a year, then sold out and used the proceeds to put himself through Cal State Bakersfield.

Here's the political angle: Because he didn't need a paying job -- thanks to his lucky lottery ticket -- McCarthy volunteered at the local office of Republican congressman Bill Thomas.

"I'd gotten interested in politics at the deli," he says. "If I

just tried to put a sign outside my shop, a little guy would pull up from the city and give me a note saying I had to go get a permit."

McCarthy started out working free for Thomas, but soon was put on the payroll. He stayed 15 years, becoming the congressman's chief of staff in the district, where the McCarthy family goes back four generations.

His great-grandfather was a cattle rancher, grandfather a railroader and father a fire chief. McCarthy is the first Republican.

He became national Young Republicans chairman, won a seat on the Kern Community College board and last year was elected to the Assembly.

McCarthy leans to the middle. He supports most abortion rights, but opposes spending tax dollars on abortions.

His biggest policy obsession concerns politics: the redistricting of legislative seats every 10 years. He adamantly argues that the political system will never really change until redistricting is stripped from the Legislature and entrusted to an independent commission. The present system protects incumbents and produces extremists, he says.

He's good-looking, personable and energetic -- and mainly a deal-maker rather than an ideologue. A pragmatist, not a policy purist. A political junkie who loves playing with registration and vote numbers.

As a rookie lawmaker, he'd conduct mock parliamentary drills in the Assembly chamber so fellow Republicans would learn the rules and be ready to fight Democrats on the floor.

At night, he'd buy pizza and invite colleagues over to his apartment to watch old videos -- videos of floor fights. They'd study the tape like a football team analyzing game film.

McCarthy's hero is Teddy Roosevelt because of "his boldness -- his ability to think outside the box." A photo of Roosevelt in Rough Rider garb hangs in his office beside a TR quote about "daring greatly" and not being a "cold timid soul."

McCarthy dared to run for GOP leader his freshman year and won, the first ever to do so. Moreover, he won unanimously. His only opponent, conservative Assemblyman Ray Haynes of Murrieta, dropped out early and joined McCarthy's inner circle as policy coordinator.

"Bright, young, articulate, politically savvy," says Cox, the lame-duck leader who officially steps down at year's end.

"He'll be a good leader," predicts Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. "He understands the interaction between policy and politics."

Colleagues also see in McCarthy a potent campaign fund-raiser who can tap into the money sources of his former boss, Rep. Thomas, powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

So far, McCarthy estimates he has raised more than $1 million for Republicans.

McCarthy could be unlucky for Democrats.

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