By Steve Miller
Samuel Wurzelbacher was in the house but not at his post.
“We’re looking for Samuel Wurzelbacher,” said the man running the candidate’s forum in Lorain, Ohio, late last month. He scanned the small crowd in the theater with a quick glance. “I saw him here a second ago.”
Wurzelbacher, also known as Joe the Plumber, was in the foyer, talking. He loves to talk and meet and greet. And he isn't likely to pay attention to details like stage time.
Once summoned, Wurzelbacher managed to extricate himself from one more conversation, bound onto the stage in his flannel shirt, jeans and work boots and announce, “I came to work.”
The Republican nominee for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District is going to have to work — hard — if he wants to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who ousted U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the March 6 Democratic primary. The 9th is hers, has been since she first seized the office in 1983.
And now, Joe the Plumber, who eked through his own primary with a 51-49 percent margin, is trying to pull a massive upset. He has little money, but he has plenty of name recognition, the average working guy who stood down Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race.
A few days after his political victory, Wurzelbacher, 38, is putting together a bear hunt in Alaska, one of a number of states in which he has lived and worked. He’s done this work before. It’s for Alaska's Healing Hearts, a charity that helps war veterans. It’s only a break of a week or two, he said, as he knows that running a campaign for U.S. Congress is serious work.
Wurzelbacher also knows that he needs money and lots of it. While he has name recognition from the aforementioned Obama run-in and a string of controversy that followed, his message will be buried amid the accomplishments of Kaptur if he can’t get some ads and traverse the 120-mile span of northern Ohio coastline that is District 9.
Through Feb. 15, he had raised and spent around $66,000. Kaptur had spent almost eight times that at more than $514,000. Donations from political action committees make up about 11 percent of Wurzelbacher 's funding, compared to 72 percent for Kaptur, according to Open Secrets.
So just what makes Wurzelbacher run? Here are some excerpts from a wide-ranging interview with him last week.
Question: You show up to your events in work clothes. So this plumber thing, is it real or one more media convenience?
Answer: My Uncle Doug was a master plumber in Florida, and I used to go to work with him, and my other relatives, many of them, were contractors of all sorts, so I grew up in the industry. When I went in the Air Force, I went to tech school for plumbing, and then I worked in Alaska, North Dakota, Arizona. I’ve worked in the field for years. But yes, someone in the media coined (the nickname), and Barack Obama and John McCain ran with it. But Obama dropped it when it didn’t go his way. He figured he just couldn’t use me.
Q: Working in the blue-collar field, are you a union supporter?
A: I think private unions are fine if that’s what employers and workers come up with. I tried at one point to get in a union when I got out of the Air Force. It wouldn’t accept my training or experience, and it wanted me to start at the bottom level, though, which I couldn’t do at the time.
Public unions, though, the people elect (political) leaders, who then go to the bargaining table (with unions), who get them elected, and it gets to that same level as corporate greed. And they take advantage of the other taxpayers. This is not to take anything away from firemen and police and their importance. But that kind of leadership is hurting our state.
I plan to go to union halls myself and speak to the members. I’m sure I’ll be rebuffed in some, but I plan to get in there and share my thoughts and hear theirs. I have lots of friends who are union members, I go to their houses, our kids hang out, we have neighborhood activities together.
Q: Dennis Kucinich said the number one issue in your district is unemployment. Is that correct?
A: I would agree with him. Not only unemployment but the lack of good jobs. My 16-year-old played hell trying to find a part-time job. And we need jobs that a family can survive on, or even thrive. It’s hard for a family to survive on $30,000 to $40,000 a year. A family of four to afford to live and have a vacation for a week, you’re looking at making $50,000.
Q: Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinch went at it about super PACs and earmarks, and most notably, the Texas-based Campaign for Primary Accountability, which ran some anti-Kaptur stuff. Would you accept cash from the Campaign for Primary Accountability?
A: Probably not. I haven’t given it a great deal of thought. I am fund raising and running a competitive race and looking for funding most everywhere. I don’t like these PACs that run negative ads. The way I look at leadership is you lead, you don’t tear down people to make yourself look better.
Q: What is your attitude toward earmarks? You assessed the attitude in Washington at one point as, "You scratch my earmark, and I'll scratch yours."
A: I don’t believe in earmarks. Some people say that’s what you are supposed to do, to bring money back to your district. But being into a limited government and states' rights, and look at what states have to do to get federal money, I don’t think it’s a proper system. I think it’s just growing big government. I say no earmarks, let’s instead build up states' rights.
Q: You had a run-in with a reporter from CNN the other day. What do you do with a hostile press?
A: I’ve been on all kinds of shows, I’ve done Ed Schultz, Bill Maher, so I have encountered a hostile press. But in this case, it wasn’t the question she asked, but I was brought on the show to talk about issues, and that one wasn’t really important. When I walk up to houses, they ask about jobs and the economy, not social issues. They want stability and security. It’s the fault of both the Rs and the Ds, but this administration can’t run on its record, and Marcy Kaptur can’t run on her record. Look at her district, it’s in disrepair. People on the left want to take my message down.
Q: So you are a plumber and a guy who can work on things. What are your favorite tools?
A: Depends on what I am working on. I love Milwaukee power tools. I like some of the Ridgid tools that have come out, and Klein has some good tools when I have to work in electric, which a plumber has to do sometimes. Craftsman has always been a great brand. If anything breaks you can just take it back to Sears, and they don’t ask questions. I always make sure I buy the best tools.
Q: Any tool company ever offer you an endorsement deal?
A: There was some talk about a year ago, someone called me, I had a conference call about it, people calling me, telling me what they could do for me. But I never heard anything.
Q: You did a book, Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream. It was pretty much love it or hate it. On Amazon, it had 29 five-star reviews, 48 one-star reviews and very little in between. What was the advance like on that?
A: I got no advance. I was offered some large money initially, and some very famous people came to me offering to ghostwrite the book. Being a Christian, I didn’t see this as ‘God wants me to make a million.’ He wants me to spread a message. I went with a small Christian publisher. The book didn’t do well. Publishing is very competitive. I think they printed 5,000 to 10,000 copies, sold 5,000, and we gave some to different groups.
Q: Who were some of the famous names that wanted to ghost?
A: I don’t want to talk about that.
Q: OK, you have the book, you have the campaign, the name. The tools. What are you going to do if you get elected, have a condo in Georgetown, a driver? You’ll have to spend time there in D.C. and get into all of that.
A: I’ve seen it there in Washington, and I always feel dirtier when I leave. Last year I spent time in a shed in Alaska for my veterans, so the lifestyle in D.C. is not for me. I like to keep it simple, and sometimes it’s rhetoric, but ultimately, being in Congress is not the be-all and end-all for me. The important thing for me is to be a good husband and a good dad, and I will not sacrifice my family to become a congressman. I have to help my son with his homework and go to the park with my wife. I can’t change that, I’m going to be me and not apologize for it.