Election 2008

Madalyn Ruggiero/AP
Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher

Joe the Plumber Not All He’s Cracked Up to Be

October 16, 2008 04:35 PM
by Anne Szustek
Emerging details revealed some major flaws in the story of Joe the Plumber, a focal point during Wednesday night’s presidential debate.

Who Is Joe the Plumber?

Democratic Presidential candidate Ill. Sen. Barack Obama went on a campaign jaunt earlier this past week in a middle-class neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio. Unwittingly the senator would run across America’s everyman’s man: Joe the Plumber. Neither an emblematic construct of the plight of the middle class nor a character from 1980s sitcom “One Day at a Time,” Joe the Plumber was a real person with real concerns about Sen. Obama’s tax plan. So real, in fact, that he became a prominent subject in Wednesday night’s presidential debate and an instant celebrity—a working-class hero to McCain supporters and a bane to the Obama campaign. By Thursday he was already telling the Associated Press, “I’m kind of like Britney Spears having a headache. Everyone wants to know about it.”

Yet with fame comes scrutiny, and Joe is no exception. As facts continued to leak out Thursday, it became apparent that Joe the Plumber is neither Joe nor plumber, leading some McCain critics to call the situation “Plumbergate.”

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher voiced concern that Obama’s proposed tax policy would put the lid on his plans to buy a plumbing company. Although he does run a plumbing business, according to an official at the Local 50 of the Toledo plumbers’ union, Wurzelbacher has never been a licensed plumber, nor has he held an apprenticeship, and is not a member of the union. Although Ohio does not have a statewide licensure process for plumbers, Toledo does grant plumbing licenses. “I can’t find that he’s ever even applied for any kind of apprenticeship, and he has never belonged to local 189 in Columbus, which is what he claims on his Facebook page,” a union official told The New York Times.

The United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics has endorsed Sen. Obama.

Wurzelbacher also expects to make less than $250,000 this year, the threshold under which families and businesses would get tax cuts under Obama’s tax plan. Obama’s running mate, Del. Sen. Joe Biden, seized on that point when criticizing the plumber Thursday.

“The Joe the plumbers in my neighborhood, the Joe the cops in my neighborhood, the Joe the grocery store owners in my neighborhood—they make, like 98 percent of the small businesses, less than $250,000 a year,” said the Democratic VP nominee. “And they’re going to do very well under us, and they’re going to be in real tough shape under John McCain.”
Paying taxes is often part of the equation in getting tax breaks, though. And a filing with the Lucas County Board of Records shows that Wurzelbacher has an outstanding tax lien against him from the state of Ohio for $1,182.98 in unpaid personal income tax. A court representative was quoted by The Huffington Post as saying that Wurzelbacher may not even be aware that he is in arrears. “We get hundreds of state liens every day and we don't have to make a judgment on them. … If there was activity on this lien, if they attempted to collect it on this case—which they haven’t—it would show up. But I am 99.9 percent positive that he doesn’t even know about this.”

Wurzelbacher, who has praised McCain and likened Obama’s tap-dancing skills to Sammy Davis Jr., may have trouble voting in November. His name is misspelled on Lucas County Board of Elections voter records, registered as Samuel Joseph Wortzelbacher.

Background: The rise of Joe the Plumber

When Obama made a campaign stop near Wurzelbacher’s home this past weekend, the plumber grilled the senator on tax policy, saying he was looking to buy a small plumbing company that earns $250,000-$280,000 and was concerned that Obama’s tax plan would raise his taxes. The encounter got picked up by TV cameras, was posted on YouTube and caught the notice of GOP presidential candidate Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s campaign staff.

At the final presidential debate, held Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in New York, McCain mentioned “Joe the Plumber” as what the Baltimore Sun calls a “personification of the older, white, blue-collar voter in a Rust Belt swing state,” and used the plumber’s exchange with Obama to criticize Obama’s tax plan.

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