The Auckland-born son of a pub owner, Leo T McCarthy became a progressive icon in Californian politics and later mentored Nancy Pelosi. By Ben Stanley, New Zealand Listener.
Time has a funny way of amplifying simple, straightforward moments. Crossroads can be created where they were never expected to exist, changing the trajectories of more than just the parties involved – and sometimes altering history itself.
Such a turning point occurred in the early 1930s when Auckland publican Daniel McCarthy had a falling-out with an associate over a business deal.
A series of dominoes started to tumble that would eventually see the Irish immigrant move his young family to San Francisco, where his Auckland-born son Leo Tarcissus McCarthy would thrive in Californian state politics – and later serve as a "purposeful mentor" of one of the most powerful women in US political history, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.
As Speaker, Pelosi is just two steps removed from the Oval Office: if the President and Vice President were to be incapacitated, for instance by Covid-19, under US law the Speaker would step-in as acting President. But she has never forgotten where she came from.
"Leo McCarthy was a statesman, a great champion for justice and a dear friend and purposeful mentor to me," Pelosi publicly stated after McCarthy's death, at 76, in 2007.
While serving as a constant – and often effective – foil for President Donald Trump, Pelosi was instrumental in passing the US$2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act earlier this year, which helped bolster the coronavirus-affected US economy.
As Trump battled his own Covid-19 infection, the 80-year-old congresswoman was engaged with the White House and Republican senators in bringing a second multitrillion-dollar stimulus bill to life.
Leo T McCarthy, as her old mentor was known, served as California's Lieutenant Governor between 1983 and 1995, ran for the US Senate twice – and is still remembered as a hard-fighting centre-left lion in a state that prides itself on progressive politics.
Loved being a Kiwi
Born in Auckland on August 15, 1930, McCarthy is the New Zealand-born politician who has gone the furthest in American politics, despite having received little recognition for his Kiwi roots and eventual influence back home.
"He loved being a New Zealander," Niall McCarthy, his youngest child, told the Listener from San Francisco earlier this year.
"He talked about it all the time. He was a huge fan of the All Blacks [and] was always encouraging us to go back to New Zealand, which I and two of my three siblings have done."
The McCarthy clan's journey to California actually began in Tralee, Ireland. Seeking a better life, Daniel and Nora (Roche) McCarthy emigrated from there to New Zealand in 1906, basing themselves in Auckland.
Daniel McCarthy ran a successful pub in Auckland – the name has since been lost from family lore – through the 1910s and 1920s before the bad business deal led to the move to California in February 1934. Leo, who would later visit the site of his father's since-demolished bar as an adult, was just three and a half when the McCarthys moved.
"One of my grandfather's business partners swindled him out of money, so they left Auckland with nothing after he'd done pretty well," Niall, 52, says.
Though they landed in San Francisco, where his brother lived, at the height of the Depression, Daniel McCarthy was determined to make things happen. By 1936, he had opened McCarthy's Big Glass, a Mission St blue-collar bar that, according to the California State Archives, offered a mug of beer, a large hot dog and a bowl of beans for 15c.
The elder McCarthy would later own several more San Francisco bars as well as restaurants in Oakland and Reno, before investing in property around the Bay Area.
After growing up in a cramped downtown flat, his son Leo attended the University of San Francisco before joining the US Air Force, which he served in during the Korean War. After a few stints as a Democratic campaign worker, McCarthy's first real foray into politics came in 1963 when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
In 1968, he parlayed his start into a spot in the California State Assembly (the state equivalent of the US House of Representatives), where he served as the powerful Speaker between 1974 and 1980.
How it started
But the New Zealand-born Californian first met Pelosi before all that. In the early 1970s, Pelosi – whose father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr, was a long-serving mayor of Baltimore – served as a volunteer on McCarthy's campaign staff while raising five children and fundraising for local body candidates from her San Francisco home. With a clear eye for political talent, McCarthy took Pelosi under his wing.
"He encouraged me to not only support candidates but to get into politics in my own right," she said in her 2007 statement.
"He is credited by Nancy Pelosi as making her the Speaker of the House of Representatives," says Niall, who has known Pelosi since he was a child. "She says no one was more responsible for her becoming Speaker than my dad."
After stretches as the Northern California and state party chair, Pelosi finally ran for Congress in 1987, with McCarthy as her fundraising chair.
He'd serve as a fundraising treasurer in future campaigns, playing a significant role in late 2006 when Pelosi was rallying support to become the first female Speaker. McCarthy would die less than a month after she was sworn in. "He was immensely proud of her, no question," Niall says.
Described by the LA Times as "a hard-driving, ramrod-straight, take-no-prisoners statehouse insider", McCarthy had standout legislative victories in protecting the environment and elderly care. As a San Francisco attorney, Niall often protects senior citizens who've lost money in financial scams, under a law his father wrote.
Though McCarthy shone helping lead California after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, his time as Lieutenant Governor – under two Republican governors – didn't do enough to propel him to the US Senate, with failed campaigns in 1988 and 1992 that saw him lean decidedly more moderate. His 1988 defeat to Pete Wilson marks the last time a Republican won a Californian Senate seat.
A more caustic trend
Though never utopian, US politics have become far more caustic since McCarthy was on the stump. Constant partisan feuding often prevents meaningful legislative movement on both state and national levels, while Trump's right-wing populism and antagonistic approach to politics have opened a deep fissure in US public life that may take decades to close.
"Everything now is so fractionalised that nothing gets done and I think that would be a tremendous source of frustration for him," Niall says.
"Often when he'd pass a bill, he'd get Republican co-authors. That doesn't happen too much any more."
Before he died, McCarthy opened the Leo T McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco, which helps educate the next generation of American public servants about the skills required to make positive change.
Though McCarthy's parents and siblings are long gone, his widow, Jacqueline, and children are still around – living connections to what good can happen when a bad business deal goes down in Auckland.
Jacqueline, 85, lives in San Francisco, as do children, Sharon, 63, Conna, 61, and Niall. Son Adam, 54, lives in North Carolina.
"I was lucky – I was in a position to make a contribution," McCarthy said of his life, in an oral history interview conducted by the California State Archives in 1996. "I felt very fortunate to have played a role, to have been in public office that time.
"Some days were miserable and unhappy and downers, but there were a lot of days that were great days – that there was that special satisfaction of being useful to people. And I felt terrific about a lot of the things that I was able to do."