By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
"The real winner" of Wednesday night's debate, John McCain said yesterday at a campaign stop in Downingtown, Pa., "was Joe the Plumber."
That might depend on the definition of "winner."
Joe the Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio, is suddenly (sort of) a household name, featured in a McCain ad and sought after by networks news anchors and newspaper reporters. McCain would like to meet him in person this weekend, but Wurzelbacher's got a date on Mike Huckabee's Fox News show and might not have the time.
But the emergence of Joe has allowed the state of Ohio to locate the man it says owes nearly $1,200 in back taxes. His motives for confronting Sen. Barack Obama at a campaign stop in his neighborhood earlier this week are the subject of intense Internet speculation. The city of Toledo is preparing a letter to his employer seeking to determine whether he is violating city codes, and the plumbers union is on his tail.
"Joe the Plumber really isn't a plumber," said Thomas Joseph, business manager of Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, whose national membership has endorsed Obama.
Wurzelbacher, 34, had already taken tentative steps onto the national stage after talking to Obama on Sunday as the Democrat toured his suburban neighborhood outside Toledo. Wurzelbacher told Obama that he wants to buy the plumbing company he works for, and that his potential income of more than $250,000 would make him eligible for increased taxes under Obama's proposals.
"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" Wurzelbacher asked.
Obama's answer to that and a question about the flat tax -- that Obama thought it better to "spread the wealth around" -- captured the attention of conservative media and the McCain campaign.
"Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day," McCain told Obama at the start of Wednesday night's debate. "And he wanted to buy the business, but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes," deferring what McCain called "the American dream."
Joe the Plumber quickly became a metaphor for the middle class, and between them, McCain and Obama mentioned him more than two dozen times.
The result was an avalanche of attention: "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric on the phone, "Good Morning America" awaiting an interview, reporters in the driveway of his modest home.
"I'm completely flabbergasted with this whole thing," he told reporters. He did not return a phone call from The Washington Post.
The morning also showed that the spotlight can be unwelcome. Reporters wondering who Wurzelbacher is quickly found that he owes the state of Ohio $1,182 in back taxes, leading sharp-tongued liberal commentators to say he was not so much concerned about rising taxes as paying taxes at all. (A spokeswoman for the state said it is possible Wurzelbacher did not know about the lien.)
Wurzelbacher also acknowledged to reporters that he did not have a plumber's license but said he did not need one to do residential work with the two-man Newell Heating and Plumbing Co., which does have a license.
David Golis, a manager in Toledo's office of building inspections, said that is incorrect. "We were just discussing that we will send a letter to the owner of Newell reminding him" of the city's requirement that all who do plumbing work be licensed or in apprentice or journeyman programs, Golis said.
Union manager Joseph said that Wurzelbacher applied for an apprentice program in 2003 but never completed the work.
And Wurzelbacher told reporters that the goal of buying the business was more aspirational than firm. He said his income is "not even close" to the levels at which Obama's proposed tax increases would kick in.
Even if Wurzelbacher's hypothetical were true, tax experts said it is unclear whether he would pay higher taxes under Obama's plan.
Wurzelbacher told Couric that it is Obama's approach to tax increases that are worrisome. "When's he going to decide that $100,000 is too much, you know?" the divorced father of a 13-year-old son said. "I mean, you're on a slippery slope here. You vote on somebody who decides that $250,000 and you're rich? And $100,000 and you're rich? I mean, where does it end?"
McCain senior adviser Matt McDonald said Thursday that the Republican nominee had mentioned Wurzelbacher's encounter with Obama in a previous speech, but the campaign had not said he would be the centerpiece of McCain's debate performance.
That Wurzelbacher is not a licensed plumber or that his situation is not relevant to Obama's tax proposal did not give him pause, McDonald said. "He's a guy who asked a question that needed to be asked," McDonald said. "He's not a campaign staffer; he's not a surrogate. He's not someone who was vetted, and this wasn't something orchestrated by the campaign."
Appearing on CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" on Thursday night, McCain mentioned the attention Joe the Plumber was getting and said, "Joe, if you're watching, I'm sorry."
Earlier in the day in New Hampshire, Obama said McCain advocates tax plans that favor the rich.
"He's trying to suggest that a plumber is the guy he's fighting for," Obama said. "How many plumbers do you know that are making a quarter-million dollars a year?"
Wurzelbacher has made that he is conservative and no fan of Obama -- he told Couric that Obama's answer to his question was a "tap dance" that was "almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr." -- but declined to say who he will be voting for Nov. 4.
That is between him and the lever in the voting booth, he said.