Can John McCain catch a break?
In a bid to sway voters who have doubted his ability to shepherd the economy, McCain plucked Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher out of obscurity during the final presidential debate Wednesday and assured him of an asterisk in the history of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“Joe the Plumber,” said McCain, was just the kind of guy Barack Obama’s tax plans would hurt and just the kind of guy his plan would help.
Turns out that is not the case. Joe the Plumber would be one of the American workers Obama says would get a tax cut under his plan. Also, Wurzelbacher is not licensed as a plumber, and the plumbers union is mad at him.
Fame comes with a price. In Wurzelbacher’s case, it’s about $1,182, the amount of the lien the state of Ohio has placed on his property for personal income taxes he owes.
Also, now that he’s famous, he’s busy. When the McCain campaign invited Wurzelbacher to attend a rally Sunday in Toledo with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, he told them that he probably couldn’t make it. He’d made plans to be in New York. He’ll be doing TV interviews.
McCain remains hopeful, though.
“I’m probably going to call him this morning,” McCain told Fox News on Thursday. “I thought he would probably be up late. I heard that his phone lines were pretty well flooded. But I think we’re going to be spending some time together.”
Wurzelbacher, a 34-year-old single father of a 13-year-old boy, has been besieged by reporters since Wednesday night. They called every Joe Wurzelbacher in Ohio (listings are surprisingly numerous), camped out overnight at his house and pestered his neighbors.
Thursday, after a morning workout and a chat with reporters in his driveway, he split his time among Diane Sawyer and other national media figures. He’d already been interviewed by Katie Couric on debate night.
“I’m kind of like Britney Spears having a headache,” Wurzelbacher told the journalists at his house. “Everybody wants to know about it.”
He said he was surprised to hear his name mentioned so many times during the debate. “That bothered me,” he said. “I wished that they had talked more about issues that are important to Americans.”
Leaning against the Dodge Durango SUV parked in his driveway, Wurzelbacher said he was a conservative who would be honored to meet McCain. He acknowledged that under Obama’s plan, his taxes would be cut. “But I don’t look at it that way. He’d still be hurting others,” he said.
Wurzelbacher also divulged that the McCain campaign had contacted him several days before the debate and asked him to appear at the Toledo rally. A campaign aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Wurzelbacher had been invited.
The aide said the campaign did not vet Wurzelbacher and didn’t see the need. “We did not look into his background, because millions of Americans will see a tax increase under Barack Obama, and we do not have time or interest in vetting all of them,” the aide said.
The saga of Joe the Plumber began Sunday, when Obama campaigned on Shrewsbury Street in Holland, Ohio. One of the voters he encountered was Wurzelbacher, who said he was about to buy a plumbing business worth $250,000 to $280,000 a year.
“Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?” asked Wurzelbacher.
Obama replied that his plan would raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” said Obama.
During Wednesday’s debate, McCain first mentioned the plumber, whose name then came up 25 more times in 90 minutes. At one point, McCain looked directly into the camera and made this promise: “Joe, I want to tell you, I’ll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for. . . . I’ll keep your taxes low and I’ll provide available and affordable healthcare for you and your employees.”
At a rally in Londonderry, N.H., on Thursday, Obama said McCain was disingenuous to suggest his tax policies would help people like Wurzelbacher. McCain, he said, “is trying to suggest a plumber is the guy he’s fighting for. How many plumbers you know making a quarter-million dollars a year?”
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said it was “an outrage” that the media were “attacking” Wurzelbacher, and accused the Obama campaign of being involved. “Instead of answering tough questions, his campaign attacks average Americans for daring to look at the reality behind his words,” Bounds said.
Wurzelbacher told reporters that he was hoping to buy the business he works for, Newell Plumbing & Heating in nearby Toledo. He said he had worked for the two-man shop six years and had discussed taking it over from his boss, Al Newell.
Officials of his local plumbing union, which has endorsed Obama, say he falsely claims to be a union member. “His MySpace page uses the logo of our local from Columbus,” said Thomas Joseph, business manager of Local 50 of the United Assn. of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry in northwestern Ohio. “My phone’s been ringing nonstop today with union members, friends, family, everyone asking the same thing: ‘Who is this guy? Is he Joe the Fake Plumber?’ ”
Joseph was doubtful that Newell Plumbing & Heating generates $250,000 a year.
“There’s no way that Al’s business is worth that much,” he said. “We all know Al. He’s licensed. He’s a regular guy. But Al runs his business out of the garage that’s behind his house. It’s small.”
Joseph said Newell worked mostly in the residential market. “He does the service work. Even his ads in the yellow pages say that: I’ll replace your toilet; I’ll fix your leaky faucet. He doesn’t do anything big on that scale.”
(Does our heart go out to Al Newell for this intrusion? Yes, it does.)
Cheryl Schimming, a permit specialist for the Lucas County Building Regulations Department, which licenses plumbers, confirmed that Wurzelbacher does not have a license but that Newell does hold an Ohio license. But Wurzelbacher told reporters, and Schimming agreed, that because he works for a licensed plumber, he is not required to have one.
Joseph said that Wurzelbacher applied for a plumber’s apprentice training program in 2003 and took adult education classes. He said Wurzelbacher never finished the program and never received a license from the city of Toledo or Lucas County.
Wurzelbacher wasn’t the only Shrewsbury Street resident to feel the intense media attention. His next-door neighbor, Audrey Koenig, said TV stations began calling at 10 p.m. Wednesday -- mid-debate -- and never stopped. “The TV trucks were out there all night,” she said. “They turned those spotlights on at 5:30 this morning and woke me up. The whole neighborhood is going crazy. I feel like I’m trapped inside my house.”
She defended her neighbor.
“He’ll always drop whatever he’s doing to help you out. Joe is one terrific person,” said Koenig, who said he is known on the block as Mr. Fix-It. “He just did some plumbing work for me. I had a pipe burst and there was water gushing everywhere. My daughter was sitting here and said, ‘I’ll go get Joe.’ ”
Whether Joe the Plumber turns out to be a liability for his candidate remains to be seen. But McCain might have winced when Wurzelbacher addressed one topic that has been a political loser for many Republicans.
“Social Security is a joke,” Wurzelbacher told CNN. “I have parents; I don’t need another set of parents called the government. You know, let me take my money and invest it how I please. Social Security I’ve never believed in, don’t like it. I hate that it’s forced on me.”
Later, on “Late Show With David Letterman,” McCain seemed to acknowledge the media monster he’d uncaged. “Joe,” said McCain, “if you’re watching, I’m sorry.”
Times staff writer Seema Mehta and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Thoughts from Joe the Plumber
In his brief time in the national spotlight, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher -- known now as Joe the Plumber -- has been asked his thoughts on a wide range of public issues:
“I’m not sorry that we’re in Iraq. . . . We liberated another country. I mean, freedom. Things that every one of you guys take for granted, everything that Americans take for granted, I mean these guys haven’t had it. Now they’ve got it. I mean, that’s an incredible thing. That’s almost -- I don’t know if you guys are Christians or not, but that’s like somebody coming to Jesus and becoming saved. These guys have freedom.”
“Social Security is a joke. I have parents; I don’t need another set of parents called the government. You know, let me take my money and invest it how I please. Social Security I’ve never believed in, don’t like it. I hate that it’s forced on me.”
“The politicians are the nobles. We are the serfs. OK? . . . I mean, we are the peasants as far as they’re concerned. You know, they take, and they give us back a little bit.”
“I’m tired of people downing America, saying that we’re this bad country. . . . We are the greatest country in the world. Stop apologizing for us. I mean, really, I get real mad about that.”
His own fame
“I’m a flash in the pan. You know, I’m just a novelty. You know, Joe the Plumber. It’s going to be fun for a couple days, and then it’s going to go away.”
Source: Times research