Updated at 8:15 pm EDT
Kevin McCarthy comes from California.
Not that California.
The rising Republican in the House of Representatives hails from Bakersfield, the farming center at the southern side of the Central Valley where the “Okies” who fled the Dust Bowl found refuge in the 1930s. It was the adopted home of the late Buck Owens and birthplace of Merle Haggard.
McCarthy was born there in 1965, four years before Owens made his television debut with ”Hee Haw.” The Texas-born Owens moved to Bakersfield in 1951 and played with the Orange Blossom Playboys before starting his own band, The Schoolhouse Playboys. Haggard, born there in 1937, did some time at San Quentin before becoming a country legend.
It was Haggard who delivered the modern-day anthem of the Okies, the country-western counter-punch to the counter-culture of the 1960s, centered in that other California:
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.
“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.”
Country music was electrified in Bakersfield, where a back-beat heavy on electrical instruments became known as The Bakersfield Sound. Owens sang about “The Streets of Bakersfield:”
“I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not tryin’ to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself…
“Spent some time in San Francisco
I spent a night there in the can
They threw this drunk man in my jail cell
I took fifteen dollars from that man..
“Hey, you don’t know me but you don’t like me
Say you careless how I feel
‘Cause how many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield”
McCarthy, who has become majority leader of the Republican-run House in Washington, grew up in a blue-collar family in Bakersfield. At 19, the Almanac of American Politics tells us, he won $5,000 in the state lottery and invested it in a sandwich shop. The deli helped pay his way through business school at California State, Bakersfield.
He sold that deli and got a job in the local office of Rep. Bill Thomas, who became House Ways and Means chairman. In 2002, McCarthy was elected to the state Assembly and when Thomas announced his retirement in 2006 McCarthy ran for and won the seat.
He’d been the Republican leader in California’s legislature, and was in line today to become majority leader of the U.S. House.
Perhaps mindful of the election upset back home that cost outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia his seat — and opened a higher leadership office for McCarthy — the Californian is airing an ad that says it’s great to be a leader in Washington yet even greater to be from Bakersfield.
Those Central Valley roots belie the powerful connections McCarthy has made in Silicon Valley, which has contributed more to his campaigns since 2011 than to any other House Republican but Speaker John Boehner. And on Wall Street: His top donor is Goldman Sachs.
Tea Party lawmakers have complained that all of the House’s Republican leadership comes from states that President Barack Obama has carried in two elections: Boehner from Ohio, outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Virginia and McCarthy from California. Yet McCarthy comes from a part of California that sounds more like red-state Oklahoma.
Dwight Yoakam, who counted Owens and Haggard among his heroes and left Nashville for Los Angeles — in that other Hollywood-dominated part of California — also sang this song with Owens, the adopted son of Bakersfield:
“How many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield.”