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Column: I traveled to Kevin McCarthy’s congressional district. Here’s what voters say about impeaching Biden

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has the support of constituents who strongly back the impeachment of President Biden, even though many harbor little animus toward the Democrat and doubt he will be removed from office.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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Julian Perea doesn’t hate Joe Biden. If anything, he feels bad for him, given his age and what Perea regards as the president’s severe mental and physical impairment.

“The guy is out of it,” Perea said.

Even so, the retired Fresno police officer is glad the House of Representatives — led by his congressman, Speaker Kevin McCarthy — has taken the first step toward impeaching the president.

“We as conservatives need to fight back,” said Perea, who served more than three decades in the Army and sprinkled his views with several references to war and warfare. “You have to keep the enemy off balance at all times.”

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When McCarthy announced last week the start of a formal inquiry into Biden’s impeachment, the Bakersfield Republican was seeking to bolster his wobbly speakership and avoid a government shutdown by mollifying the restive torch-and-pitchfork wing of the House GOP.

It hasn’t worked, as McCarthy continues to teeter and Republicans lurch toward a lights-out deadline at the end of September.

But the move plainly suits many of the voters McCarthy represents in California’s oil-and-agricultural heartland — a broad swath of the state’s midsection and the ruddiest of red turf — which backed President Trump’s reelection by a landslide. McCarthy was sent to Washington with 67% support.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Claudia Warkentin of Biden’s impeachment.

The 43-year-old political independent lives in Clovis, a Fresno suburb, and works in the waste-management industry. She voted for Trump in 2020 and may back him again in 2024.

A smiling woman on a street holds a cup
Claudia Warkentin, a political independent from Clovis, said she believes Biden’s impeachment is long overdue.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

Biden has “made a mockery of our country,” Warkentin said, pointing to the frailties she sees in the 80-year-old president. Impeachment “should have happened a long time ago.”

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That rough consensus isn’t terribly surprising. After all, McCarthy represents a region speckled with road signs condemning “woke politics,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (“Stop wasting our dam water!”) and McCarthy’s predecessor as speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

What’s striking is how little Biden’s alleged, unproven corruption has to do with pro-impeachment sentiments.

A Democratic-aligned group has launched a digital ad campaign targeting Republican representatives whose districts voted for President Biden in 2020.

Sept. 12, 2023

His son Hunter, the subject of a special counsel investigation, may have shamelessly grubbed for money by trading on the family name. Many consider him ripe for criminal prosecution.

But the case that critics make against the president goes well beyond that — and has little to do with the inquiry underway in Congress.

It’s driven in good part by anger and fear: about inflation, soaring gas prices, green energy, crime, homelessness, policy toward Israel, all of it undergirding a sense the country is headed irretrievably in the wrong direction.

“The battle is larger than just Biden,” said Perea, the retired police officer. Impeaching the president is “fighting for our way of life.”

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Perea, 72, was at a grocery store in Visalia, in the northern end of McCarthy’s district, which sprawls south to the edge of the greater Los Angeles area. He was buying lemonade for his granddaughters and their elementary school classmates.

“What used to be abnormal is normal. What used to be normal is abnormal,” Perea said. “It’s abnormal to be a Christian. It’s normal to be a transgender woman who wants to be the first one to have an abortion.”

Visalia resident Julian Perea
Julian Perea says impeaching Biden is about conservatives “fighting for our way of life.”
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

For many, Biden himself seems almost beside the point.

The president was widely viewed as not just inept but inert: a figurehead, a puppet being manipulated by others: Former President Obama. Or Vice President Kamala Harris. Or subversive bureaucrats inside the Washington Beltway.

“He’s just a mouthpiece,” Republican Lori Helmuth, 61, said as she left the day spa where she works in Hanford. “And not a very good one.”

Of course, not everyone sees merit in the House investigation, or McCarthy’s surrender to far-right extremists.

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As Helmuth walked to her car, Jeremy Rhoten came from the other direction, passing in front of the Kings County courthouse, a neoclassical landmark that now houses a variety of small businesses. He was going for a haircut.

“You can say inflation is bad, the price of gas is too high, we’re not happy with things,” said Rhoten, 48, a web designer. “But nothing is happening where obvious lawbreaking is going on.”

(Republicans have spent years trying to establish a link between Biden and his son’s overseas business dealings, but have yet to turn up evidence of criminality.)

“I don’t love Biden,” said Rhoten, an unaffiliated voter who supported the Democrat in 2020 and will do so again in 2024 if the choice comes down to the president or Trump.

Still, Rhoten said, “I wish we’d stop wasting our time on government procedures that just are not going to get anything done. It’s a waste of time. It’s a red herring to distract from whatever crap is really going on.”

Hanford resident Jeremy Rhoten
Jeremy Rhoten says dissatisfaction with Biden’s policies is no reason to impeach the president.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

Lynne Gate agreed.

“It’s all political. It has nothing to do based on reality,” said the 69-year-old Visalia Democrat, a retired flight attendant.

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She sees the probe of Biden and the threat of impeachment as payback for the investigations Trump faced as president and the two times he was impeached.

“I think, honestly, it was an agreement made by McCarthy to the other Trumpster representatives in the House who said, ‘I’ll vote for you to be speaker of the House if you follow these certain things. If you don’t do it, we’ll vote you out.’”

Revenge was on the minds of many.

For Republicans, it’s exactly what Biden and his fellow Democrats have coming.

Edmund Pascua, 61, is a bus driver in Bakersfield, McCarthy’s hometown. He was on a break from jury duty, sheltering from the 96-degree heat beneath a palm tree outside the Kern County Superior Court.

Democrats went after Trump “from the get-go,” starting the moment he launched his presidential candidacy, Pascua said, and they haven’t let up since, tormenting him with lawsuits and multiple criminal indictments now that he’s out of office.

“It’s only fair [Biden] should be impeached,” Pascua said.

Not that he or anyone else sees impeachment as way to make housing more affordable, lower the cost of living or otherwise improve their lives.

20th Congressional district
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In Clovis, Scott Addison stepped outside a noisy bar in the western-themed Old Town neighborhood to share his decidedly mixed views of the president and his antagonists.

Addison, 47, figures with all the decades Biden has spent in politics there’s bound to be some dirt Republicans can dig up. So, yes, he said, they should proceed with their investigation.

But at the same time, “I don’t think the Republicans would be doing this if [Democrats] didn’t go after Trump.”

“It’s power-struggle” nonsense, said Addison, a Republican who works in construction. “All of it sounds too much like tit-for-tat.”

What will it accomplish? “Nothing!” he spat out.

So what’s the point?

“Good question,” said DeVory Darkins, who lives a few blocks away. He tried to answer it.

Whatever Hunter Biden’s legal fate, the MAGA Republican attempt to use his sins to tarnish his father — including an impeachment inquiry — is built on an absence of evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the president.

Sept. 17, 2023

Darkins, 35, served 13 years in the Army. He said the experience taught him there are different rules for politicians and those serving in the military or law enforcement.

“If we were ever caught doing the things [politicians] do, we’d be finished,” said Darkins, a Trump supporter and small-business owner. “They’d demote us, we’d get a dishonorable discharge. You’d lose your badge. But Democratic or Republican, you get away with a lot.”

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Clovis voter DeVory Darkins
DeVory Darkins said it’s important to hold politicians like Biden accountable, “even if it doesn’t lead anywhere.”
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times )

An American flag hung from his porch. Another stood sentry in a flower pot.

“I think people have to be held accountable,” Darkins said, “even if it doesn’t lead anywhere.”

He added one other thought, about his beleaguered congressman and the rearguard fight McCarthy is waging with members of his own party.

“Maybe he’s trying to save his job,” Darkins said. “If he doesn’t do anything, the Republicans are going to want him out of there.”

So Biden now faces the prospect of becoming only the fourth president in the nation’s history to be impeached. That would make him the second in a row.

The targeting of the nation’s 46th president is obviously tied to the sanctioning of the 45th. That fact is clear here in the Central Valley, where for many — including the local congressman — bridging the country’s vast partisan gulf is less important than settling old scores.

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