During his first year as the Republican leader in the California State Assembly, Kevin McCarthy sent flowers to the wife of a fellow GOP lawmaker in honor of the couple’s anniversary. The woman called her husband gushing over the bouquet — only to learn that he did not deserve the credit.
“I had to admit, ‘Honey, I didn’t send those,’ ” recalled former assemblyman Mike Villines, who was McCarthy’s whip in the Assembly.
The exchange, more than a decade ago, was an early indicator of the personal touches that have fueled McCarthy’s rapid political rise from back-bench freshman in Sacramento in 2002 to Congress in 2006 to, now, the second-highest job in the U.S. House — in only his fourth term.
His election Thursday to the majority leader’s job was built on friendships McCarthy has carefully built since arriving in Washington, through bike rides, gym workout sessions and frequent group dinners, as well as his data-driven knowledge of members’ districts and political needs. He has hosted tea party conservatives and centrists alike for House GOP movie screenings and free Chick-fil-A in his Capitol office, while he demonstrates camaraderie by displaying in his office pictures of colleagues hard at work.
Those who have worked closely with McCarthy over the years say he first learned and perfected those skills during his years in Sacramento — skills that, friends say, he will draw on even more as he tries to assert greater sway over a caucus riven with ideological divisions.
Even as McCarthy frequently pressed conservatives to vote for major spending measures that pushed California further into debt, he retained their loyalty and found ways to reward them.
“He’ll use the same tools and traits that he had to keep together a group of 32 of us back then while also being able to talk to Democrats that wanted to be productive,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), a roommate of McCarthy’s when they served together in the State Assembly.
Those tools, colleagues said, included extraordinary gestures in which McCarthy would reward members for the kinds of unpleasant votes that came regularly for conservatives as then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) tried to salvage the state’s economy by borrowing and increasing spending.
McCarthy’s caucus was outnumbered 48 to 32, but with a supermajority requirement back then for fiscal bills, Republicans were needed. And with the state deeply in debt, Schwarzenegger relied on McCarthy to help secure approval to take a measure to voters to borrow $15 billion to cover the state’s record operating shortfall — a debt the state is only now finishing paying off.
At one point, every Republican House member received a new iPod compliments of McCarthy (and his campaign account).
On the Assembly floor, Republicans could often be seen sporting shiny new gold-and-white watches with the insignia of the chamber to connote their good standing in McCarthy’s caucus. The $400 watches, and sometimes jackets with the seal of the state, were part of a series of positive reinforcements for meeting or exceeding McCarthy’s fundraising targets.
Flower deliveries for lawmakers’ spouses were a regular occurrences. Villines said McCarthy seemed to be constantly soaking up such personal details of everyone’s life. “You’d be having a conversation with him about a birthday or graduation, and he’d go back and put it in the database,” Villines said. “Next thing you knew, you’d get a card.”
How McCarthy first rose to power and became a dealmaker was even more sudden and surprising in Sacramento, where Republicans are perennially an endangered species.
When he was elected in 2002, the telegenic McCarthy immediately showed signs that he would not be content in the well-rehearsed role of grumbling Republican outsider in California’s capital.
During the lawmakers’ orientation week, McCarthy held court with Democrats at the lobby bar of a downtown Sacramento hotel.
After a couple of drinks at one of those early encounters, McCarthy leaned in close to a fellow freshman who would later become speaker, Fabian Núñez, and told him the two would “run this place someday.”
McCarthy shunned the downtown, apartment-style living of most state lawmakers and rented a house in the suburbs with three other freshman Republicans.
The door was always open, the grill was burning, and the poker and pool tables or gab sessions kept the house filled with young GOP lawmakers well past midnight many nights.
Friends say McCarthy was always plotting, even before his election as minority leader.
He put the State Assembly’s rules of order on flashcards and over beers quizzed his new colleagues. He had his staff go to the legislative library and pull tapes of old floor sessions to see how the minority pulled off hat tricks of procedure to trip up Democrats.
He kept People magazine on the table in his office and always encouraged caucus members to read it every week on their way home to stay in touch with the electorate.
Just a few months after taking office, it became clear to McCarthy that the sitting Assembly minority leader would likely win an open state Senate seat. McCarthy focused his energy on the vacuum it would leave behind.
Just two months after Schwarzenegger took office, McCarthy became the state’s first first-term lawmaker elected as minority leader. And with the new governor asking for GOP members to sign off on his big-spending plans, McCarthy’s job was not easy.
“We had some real contentious meetings. Some people felt we shouldn’t be doing this or doing that,” Villines said. McCarthy “had to make a real strong case, and lay it out to a lot of strong-willed members.”
On dozens of fiscal votes, McCarthy nudged Republicans to go where few would have naturally gone — and to take positions that many have since regretted. Many conservative Republicans have lamented that under McCarthy and other party leaders in the state, the repeated compromising led to a roughly tripling of California’s debt in less than seven years.
McCarthy’s caucus never supported tax increases and beat back hundreds of millions in proposed fee increases. But in Schwarzenegger’s early years running California, McCarthy took the spending measures in stride as the cost of advancing larger goals.
“He could have told us no many times, but he didn’t,” said Richard Costigan, Schwarzenegger’s former liaison to the legislature. “Kevin got votes for things that looked like you were expanding government and that were going in the direction you knew the majority of his caucus didn’t like.”