In 2008, it was Joe the Plumber. This year, it’s Joe the Steelworker.
Joe Soptic, 62, has become a go-to figure for supporters of President Obama, appearing this week in his second campaign ad talking about being laid off from a Kansas City, Mo., steel plant that was taken over by Bain Capital in 1993.
In the ad, released Tuesday by the super PAC Priorities USA and titled “Understands,” Soptic makes his most heated claim to date, suggesting a link between his wife’s death five years ago and the Bain takeover.
“When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care, and my family lost their health care,” Soptic says in the minute-long spot. “And a short time after that, my wife became ill . . . she passed away in 22 days.”
On Wednesday, Obama advisers distanced themselves from the former steelworker and the most recent ad, saying they were unaware of the details of Soptic’s account about his wife. “We don’t have any knowledge of the story of the family,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Air Force One.
But in addition to running its own ad with Soptic, the Obama campaign featured him in a conference call with reporters in May, when he shared his story.
Republicans pounced on the discrepancy. “Still no knowledge, Jen?” a news release from the Republican National Committee taunted after reports of the conference call surfaced.
Bain’s initial investment in Soptic’s steel company was made under the leadership of Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The company took on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt while paying Bain investors millions in dividends. But Romney was no longer actively managing Bain when the steel company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001 and closed its Kansas City plant, causing more than 700 workers to lose their jobs and their health insurance, as well as part of their pensions.
When Ilyona “Ranae” Soptic died in 2006, Romney was governor of Massachusetts.
Campaigns have long sought regular people to carry their messages to voters, betting that personal stories and plain speaking are more effective than the poll-driven talking points of the candidates and their aides. Romney has used entrepreneurs flashing calloused hands and touting their successful businesses to suggest that Obama doesn’t understand free enterprise. Democrats have featured workers such as Soptic, who say they lost their livelihoods because of Romney, to suggest that the Republican’s approach to business gutted companies and communities rather than creating jobs.
Although the ads typically last a minute or so, the lives and stories that inspire them are more complicated. For example, five years passed between the time Soptic lost his job as a steelworker and his wife’s death, yet the ad seems to compress the timing and suggests a correlation.
Soptic, a lifelong Democrat and union member, said an Internet search led Democratic groups to his story, first reported in local newspapers several years ago.
“This all started back in December. They wanted to know how our lives have changed since the plant closed and how I felt,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Soptic, who appeared in Obama’s first television ad about Romney’s record at Bain in May, continued: “I think the reason they keep coming back to me is because of everything that has happened in our life since the plant closed.”
As a steelworker, Soptic was part of a crew that removed slag debris from underneath furnaces used in the steelmaking process. His last day on the job came in March 2001, after GS Industries filed for bankruptcy.
“It was quite a culture shock for all of us,” said Soptic, who was earning $46,000 a year. “It took me six months to find a job.”
He was hired as a school custodian, making about $15,000 a year.
Soptic cast himself as a spokesman for his fellow crew members, who still get together once a month for breakfast. “Everyone is quite proud because the story had to be told,” he said.
Soptic said Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting Obama, contacted him about a week ago to alert him to the latest ad, which was partially shot in his home and at the union hall. In it, he talks about the loss of his wife of 30 years.
The ad shows Soptic, the father of a grown daughter, frozen in time as a grieving widower and a bitter former steelworker struggling to make ends meet. Yet today, that is only part of his story. With his pension and custodial salary, he makes about $46,000, which is what he made in 2001 when he lost his job.
He also has a new wife — his high school sweetheart from 42 years ago.
“It all had a happy ending,” Soptic told The Washington Post.
He declined to comment on whether he thinks Romney is to blame for his first wife’s death, as the ad seems to suggest. Referring to his former employer, he said, “They made certain promises, and I feel like if they did fulfill those promises, she would have had health insurance.”
CNN reported that Ilyona Soptic had health insurance through her employer when her husband lost his job. But she was not employed and no longer had coverage by the time her end-stage cancer was diagnosed.