- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2012

He is a burly, outspoken, working man’s icon, plucked from obscurity during the 2008 presidential election cycle when he was lauded by Republicans for taking on candidate Barack Obama.

Now four years after Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher became “Joe the Plumber,” the symbol of frustrated middle-class Americans worried about the Obama tax plan, the Ohio native is mounting his own Republican bid to unseat a 15-term incumbent Democratic congresswoman.

Using the name recognition generated by his 15 minutes of fame, Mr. Wurzelbacher is gearing up to take on Rep. Marcy Kaptur in a redrawn northern Ohio district that looks like it was designed as a stronghold for the Toledo Democrat.

This month, the veteran congresswoman easily dispatched Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, the progressive icon who ended up in Ms. Kaptur’s newly reconfigured 9th District after his own was eliminated as a result of the 2010 census.

Prognosticators say that if a Hollywood favorite like Mr. Kucinich can’t unseat the powerful, union-backed incumbent, what chance does a newcomer have?

Just watch, says “Joe the Plumber.”

“You have to have confidence in yourself,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said. “You have to be grounded as an individual. I know where I stand. I know my style. I keep things in perspective.”

Calling his own plays

Mr. Wurzelbacher, 38, said he won’t be taking his cues from the Washington establishment or the tea party.

Instead, he is relying on friends and family to serve as a sounding board and posse — an advisory team of hardworking, beer-drinking, Wal-Mart-shopping “average Joes” whose No. 1 issue, Mr. Wurzelbacher said, is jobs.

Jobs, jobs and jobs, he repeats, lamenting that his neighbors and friends for 30 years have been forced by the economy to leave their homes and move for work.

He feels their pain. Shares it. Like them, he’s not rich. He struggles, a fact that makes his shoe-leather campaign all the more relevant, he said.

“This economy is displacing family members and friends. My son … can’t stay here because he’ll just end up with a job for $7 an hour. Personally, I don’t know how I will afford my house payments. Just simple things that people take for granted are no longer there.”

Going after the incumbent

Too many politicians, Mr. Wurzelbacher said, see statistics instead of people.

“That’s very much the difference between me and my opponent. If I was her, I’d be embarrassed to run on [her] record. You drive around her district and see homes for sale, ones that have been foreclosed on, businesses are shut down, new strip malls are built but many are empty and vacant. Sure, she brings back pork for certain individuals and groups, but there are 600,000 people in this district, and she is helping the few, not the many,” he said.

But that district is still solidly Democratic, say political observers, and overcoming Ms. Kaptur’s advantages in organization, support and campaign money would be a huge upset.

“I would say she will edge toward 70 percent,” said Baldwin-Wallace College political scientist Tom Sutton, predicting a blowout win for the incumbent this fall. “I think she’s taking this seriously, and I think she’s going to run a hard campaign, but by the same token, I think the odds are such that ‘Joe’ doesn’t have much of a chance because of the demographic, the financial disparities and his lack of experience.”

In his primary, Mr. Wurzelbacher eked out a win with about 1,500 votes separating him and his opponent. The Republican establishment has essentially written off the race, Mr. Sutton said, meaning that the underdog Mr. Wurzelbacher will find it difficult to attract the financial support he would need to be competitive.

“Certainly he has wide name recognition as ‘Joe the Plumber,’ but I think there is a difference between recognizing his name and voting for him,” Mr. Sutton said. “I think it’s nice that he says he’s going to knock on every door in the 9th District, but that’s physically impossible. The fact of a campaign is you are going to attract money from people who make a difference if they think you have a chance of winning. The folks that would give that kind of money, who would help him have a campaign that he can really build, are not there.”

Ready for long haul

But Mr. Wurzelbacher, who worked as a plumbing contractor until launching his campaign last fall, said he understands the odds against him — and he is ready for the mental and physical demands of the race.

“Blue collar” doesn’t mean stupid, Mr. Wurzelbacher said. He grew up in a household where his father expected him to read the newspaper for at least an hour a day.

“Obviously, I hated it, but I learned so much,” he said. “Being in a patriotic, military family … he said, ‘Son, you’ve got to know what is going on, locally, within your state, the federal government and the world.’ “

Since his March 6 primary win, he has been besieged for interviews.

“I don’t watch news on TV. I hate it,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said. “The national media … they potshot you. They want to bring something up of a social nature or a cultural nature, and that has nothing to do with what is going on.”

Mr. Wurzelbacher’s frustration with the press was on display this month when CNN asked about his use of the word “queer” in a 2009 interview to refer to gays. The question, he said, was nothing more than a transparent “gotcha” attempt.

On the campaign trail, the Air Force veteran prefers to speak directly, one-on-one, with supporters.

He sees running for Congress as a challenge — he answers email to his campaign personally — and said he seeks in his nascent political bid “not to disrespect myself or my family.”

“I’m supposed to be this dumb, redneck plumber who don’t know nothing,” he said in a moment of mock self-awareness.

“Well, some of the smartest men I know didn’t graduate from sixth grade. I still laugh sometimes that I would be in a position to do something like this. It still floors me that people would want to take their picture with me or have me sign something. And then, I get a card from a senior citizen who believes in my message so much that they take the paltry money they have to live on and send it to me. And you know they are hurting. … It brings tears to my eyes.”

• Andrea Billups can be reached at andreabillups@hotmail.com.

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