The career change from Joe the Plumber to Joe the Congressman isn’t proving easy, but one of the most colorful figures of the 2008 election is giving it a go in the 2012 election cycle.
On the basis of a famous campaign-stop encounter with candidate Barack Obama four years ago, Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher became an unexpected voice for blue-collar conservatives in 2008. He became a rallying point for Republicans that year, and Mr. Obama and GOP rival Sen. John McCain spent the better part of one presidential debate contending over who had Joe the Plumber’s best interests at heart.
Now engaged in a longshot bid for Congress against 15-term Ohio Democratic incumbent Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Mr. Wurzelbacher said in an interview that he keeps those blue-collar voters as his focus by campaigning the old-fashioned way: Meeting voters door-to-door in the northern Ohio district.
“That’s been my whole strategy,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t like politics but I do like history, and I know the form of government we have is special. That’s why I’m involved.”
Mr. Wurzelbacher, who received training as a plumber while in the U.S. Air Force, won instant fame when a video of his encounter with Mr. Obama became an Internet sensation. The incident sparked a backlash against the candidate, who replied to Mr. Wurzelbacher’s question about taxation on small businesses, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Four years later, Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan continues to cite “Joe the Plumber” in campaign stops as an example of hardworking Americans burdened by government over-regulation.
“They’re really mentioning the idea, not me specifically,” said Mr. Wurzelbacher. “They’re talking about the average man or woman and what’s important to them. If I thought they were talking about me, I’d have to have one hell of an ego. They could have said ‘Jane the Plumber’ or ‘John the Doorman.’”
But his unconventional resume and unconventional approach to campaigning have not been universally popular, even with fellow GOP officials in the district. His bare-bone campaign website lists no upcoming campaign events and last posted a press release in late June. He declined to participate in two scheduled debates with Ms. Kaptur, usually a much-wanted chance for exposure for the trailing candidate, though Mr. Wurzelbacher said he may take part in a televised debate set for the end of the month.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern told The Blade newspaper in Toledo that the low-visibility campaign suggests that Mr. Wurzelbacher got into the race solely for the $5,000 monthly salary he receives from the campaign finance account.
“Joe Wurzelbacher is not running for office. He has a job as a candidate. It’s fairly lucrative work if you can get it, and that’s why he filed to run against Marcy,” Mr. Redfern told the newspaper.
Mr. Wurzelbacher dismisses the criticism, citing his disdain for traditional politics and the way his time in the military helped shaped his approach to public service. “One thing you can’t get away from in the military is that everybody’s responsible for something,” he said. “That’s where I think we’ve really messed up in Washington. There are no consequences for one’s actions anymore.”
Ms. Kaptur has served as Ohio’s 9th District representative since 1983. After working as a city regional planner for almost 20 years, Ms. Kaptur said she entered politics because of her desire to “build our country forward.”
“I come from blue-collar regions, I live in them to this day,” she said. “My own feeling is that national political organizations do not respect blue-collar America and they seek to exploit it rather than really understand it.”
Ms. Kaptur said her opponent’s views are too extreme for average Ohioans, and calls his notoriety symptomatic of a party that doesn’t understand the working class. “Many times, [the Republican Party] latches onto someone as a false prophet, in some ways poking fun at the people who are holding this country together. It shows disrespect of the people for the Republican Party to pick someone who presents an inaccurate depiction of blue-collar America.”
But Joel Lieske, a professor of political science at Cleveland State University, said Mr. Wurzelbacher, despite his significant funding and logistical disadvantages in the race, strikes a chord with many voters. “He’s a plain-talking guy — decent and sincere and very Ohioan,” Mr. Lieske said. “He’s not a career politician. … He goes back to the classic ideal of the ‘citizen-statesman’ who wants to serve the people and improve their situation.”
Because of congressional redistricting, Ms. Kaptur had to survive a bitter battle with fellow Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary earlier this year. Although Mr. Kucinich, a former mayor of Cleveland, was better known on the national stage, the race between two of the House’s most liberal members ended in victory for Ms. Kaptur, who received well over 50 percent of the vote.
Ms. Kaptur cites the district’s falling unemployment rate and mending economy as evidence of her effectiveness in serving the diverse region. “I always tell people, ‘If you want to visit the world, come to northern Ohio,’” she said. “We have every ethnic, racial and religious group, both urban and rural cultures, major ports, heavy rail, big steel, food processing — it’s very, very diverse.”
One in eight jobs in the district is tied to the automobile industry, she said, and President Obama and other Democrats have not been shy in pointing up the administration’s efforts to save the Detroit-based car companies.
Mr. Lieske said that Ohio is a “quintessential middle-class state” marked by “steady minds and habits.” One of those habits, he said, was voter loyalty, making Mr. Wurzelbacher’s challenge in unseating the longtime incumbent that much harder.
In addition to Mr. Wurzelbacher’s lack of family wealth and outside funding, Mr. Lieske said his election will be difficult in a district of where Democrats have a sizable edge in registration.
Joking that he might be a “closet idealist,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said that his goal, win or lose, is to represent the voices of regular people with integrity, with party labels a secondary concern.
“These days, the Republican and Democrat parties seem to own the candidates from day one. No one owns me. I want results. … I want to bring a little common sense back to D.C.”