Tony Strickland, a former GOP member of the state Assembly and Senate, recalls going in 2003 to Denny’s after playing pickup basketball and asking the then-freshman if he was interested in leading the state GOP in the Assembly. In the middle of the night, McCarthy agreed. They mapped out their strategy on a napkin, and McCarthy became the first freshman to win the post.
“He brings people together,” says Strickland. “He sits and talks to people about what their goals are. … In Sacramento, he would get groups of people together to go to movies, play basketball [and] softball, whatever, just to build camaraderie among folks.
"Likability goes a long way,” he added. "It really felt like you were there as a team instead of just there as an individual.”
As a member of the state’s “Big 5”—the informal group including the governor and legislative leaders—McCarthy was involved in a series of budget negotiations, as well as a major workers' compensation overhaul, which Strickland credits as McCarthy’s greatest achievement, while acknowledging that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s threats to work around the Legislature and push a ballot initiative played a major role in getting Democratic members to the table.
"The fact that we got it through was a huge victory because it was dead on arrival for many years,” says Strickland. "I would say that McCarthy and Schwarzenegger deserve a lot of credit for that.”
But others say McCarthy’s greatest strength was in politics instead of legislating. Those in the governor’s office at the time paint a picture that many Republican House members would welcome: a bottom-up approach to governing.
"This is why I think Kevin is going to make a great speaker: It’s not so much what Kevin’s policy accomplishments were, it was the fact that he empowered his caucus,” says Richard Costigan, who served as the liaison between Schwarzenegger and the Legislature. "Kevin didn’t have to be the one out front. Kevin was the one ... who pushed his caucus and let his members have the success.”
"It was a difficult position for him to be a driver on policy, just because he’s in the minority party and [working] for a Republican governor," adds Rob Stutzman, a former top communications aide to Schwarzenegger.
Of course, some may prefer that style. And Ronald Peters, a professor at the University of Oklahoma specializing in the speakership, notes that while speakers such as Tom Foley, Sam Rayburn, and Boehner all chaired committees, “more often than not” the 20th-century speakers didn’t, rising through the party leadership instead.
Dave Camp, the recently-retired Ways and Means Committee chairman who dropped a major tax-reform bill on his way out, says that the speaker should be hands-off. “The role of the speaker shouldn’t be to write legislation,” Camp says. "You really want a speaker that empowers the committee chairs and the committee members to go to work and to craft legislation. That’s how you build consensus. That’s how you develop a workable agenda that can actually be implemented."