World and Nation

Debate Puts ‘Joe the Plumber’ in the Spotlight

One week ago, Joe Wurzelbacher was just another working man living in a modest house outside Toledo, Ohio, and thinking about how to expand the plumbing business where he works. But when he stopped Sen. Barack Obama during a visit to his block last weekend to complain about taxes, he set himself on a path to becoming America’s newest media celebrity and as such suddenly found himself facing celebrity-level scrutiny.

As it turns out, “Joe the Plumber,” as he became nationally known when Sen. John McCain made him a theme at Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate, may work in the plumbing business, but he is not a licensed plumber.

Thomas Joseph, the business manager of Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, based in Toledo, said Thursday that Wurzelbacher had never held a plumber’s license, which is required in Toledo and several surrounding municipalities. He also never completed an apprenticeship and does not belong to the plumber’s union, which has endorsed Obama.

His full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. And he owes a bit in back taxes, too, according to public records. The premise of his complaint to Obama about taxes may also be flawed, according to tax analysts. Contrary to what Wurzelbacher asserted and McCain echoed, neither his personal taxes nor those of the business where he works are likely to rise if Obama’s tax plan were to go into effect, they said.

None of that is likely to matter to those who see Wurzelbacher as a symbol of the entrepreneurial spirit they hope to foster with tax cuts — McCain, campaigning in Pennsylvania on Thursday, again put him at the center of his pitch — but even Wurzelbacher said he was shocked by all the attention.

“I’m kind of like Britney Spears having a headache,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Everybody wants to know about it.”

Just five days ago, Wurzelbacher, 34, lived in anonymity on Shrewsbury Street in Holland, Ohio, a single father who, as he said on national television, worked all day at the plumbing business and came home to fix dinner and help his 13-year-old son with his homework. His goal, in his own words, was simply “to have a house, a dog, a couple rifles, a bass boat.”

But he became the hero of conservatives and Republicans when he stopped Obama, who was campaigning on his street on Sunday, and asked whether he believed in the American dream. Wurzelbacher said he was concerned about having to pay higher taxes when he made the transition from employee to the owner of a small business.

“I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year,” he told Obama in an exchange that was videotaped and later showed up on YouTube. “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”

That encounter quickly led to appearances on the Fox News Channel, interviews with conservative bloggers and an editorial in The New York Post, all of whom seized on a small part of Obama’s long reply. “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama had said.