Populist rage pulses across the nation. Class warfare is in the air. So, as the GOP presidential primary heads to blue-collar, Bible Belt South Carolina, it seemed like a good time to check in with everybody’s favorite 2008 everyman icon, Joe the Plumber, now running for Congress as a Republican in Ohio, the mother of all swing states.
Joe, né Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, 38, has not endorsed anyone in the presidential contest. But he misses the man he considers a political mentor. No, not John McCain, whose embrace of Joe the Plummer in the 2008 race made him a household name, before scrutiny of his plumbing credentials scuffed up his man-of-the-people street cred. The man Wurzelbacher wishes were still running: Herman Cain.
“The media throws up somebody and says this could be it. They give him a week, he raises money and then they tear him down,” Wurzelbacher laments, recalling Cain’s come-from-nowhere, go-back-to-nowhere trajectory.
Wurzelbacher shares with Cain an appetite for devolving power from the federal government to the states—and a zeal for tax reform. He, too, would like to blow up the federal income tax—a goal he traces back to Plato. “All day long, I can get down with that,” he says. In its place, Wurzelbacher favors a fair tax and a flat tax, and proclaims that Cain’s infamous “9-9-9” plan is better than “what we have now.”
And like Cain, he’s inherently suspicious of politicians too long in the game. “Political experience means experience in screwing you,” he said. Candor, in his book, trumps tenure. “I’m not an ambiguous person. I speak my mind. A lot of people don’t do that anymore.”
You can’t blame him; that’s how he got noticed in the first place. His vocal criticism of then–presidential candidate Barack Obama’s tax plan from the peanut gallery made him an overnight celebrity, his name in every paper and his face on countless screens. But America’s brief affair with the man from Holland, Ohio, burned out fast, as people questioned everything from his professional bona fides to whether a man named Sam could properly go by Joe. He says he is a regular guy and a plumber, and that he became angry watching his character picked apart on a national stage. The experience left him with an odd sort of residual celebrity, his name creating the sort of tainted familiarity you might associate with the star of a reality show about rehab.
He said some 300 people have asked him for endorsements since he became famous. But one name he can’t count on: McCain, once so eager to throw his arm around Wurzelbacher. The Arizona senator and 2008 GOP nominee hasn’t called to offer his support.
“I haven’t spoken to him since 2008,” Wurzelbacher says. “I have no idea what he’s doing other than what I read in the newspaper.” He put it more bluntly in a 2010 speech in which he said, “McCain was trying to use me,” and “I don’t owe him shit.” He thinks himself more straight-talking than McCain ever was. Thus commenced a new hunt for heroes: Cain, and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who, in Wurzelbacher’s view, “goes against the Republicans” and is Tea Party–tastic in the ways that count.
For now, Wurzelbacher is working on his ground game. In six weeks, he says he has knocked on about 3,500 doors. He has more than 3,000 Twitter followers and more than 5,000 Facebook fans. Democrat Marcy Kaptur holds the seat he wants, but due to the state’s redistricting gymnastics, Dennis Kucinich will challenge her in a March primary before the general election. All this sets up a potentially fascinating battle of unlikely cult heroes.
Both Wurzelbacher and Kucinich identify as strong conservationists, and the former first met Kaptur carrying a flag for her as a 17-year-old color guard in the ROTC. Wurzelbacher blames both Kucinich and Kaptur for Ohio’s trouble hanging onto residents and attracting new employers. He says he’ll do better than either Democrat, who have been in government for some 60 years combined. Despite the jab, Wurzelbacher swears he won’t run negative ads. He says he’s just as happy if supporters give to his veterans charity—Alaska’s Healing Hearts—as he is if they give to his campaign.
But his battle is uphill: Ohio Democratic consultant and activist Denise Dietemeyer says despite the gerrymandering that threw two popular incumbents together, they're both such local legends that even the most formidable Republican would have a hard time prevailing. And Dietemeyer doesn't see Wurzelbacher as the strongest challenger the GOP could put up. Wurzelbacher will face auctioneer Steve Krauss in an upcoming Republican primary.
He’s staffing up and has launched a photo- and video-rich website. He touts his Air Force duty as evidence that he’s got what it takes—and leads war veterans of both genders on Alaskan hunting expeditions for caribou, moose, and bear. He’s still plumbing, and building houses for hire. But he’s also a paid speaker, author, and blogger for one of conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart’s websites. Last fall, he married a 26-year-old political-science grad, and won a nine-year custody battle with a previous wife for his son, Joey.
He knows that he both needs and must transcend the middle-class plumber alias if he’s going to win office. For now, he is joining the American majority and directing his anger at an impotent Congress.
“At the end of my work day, you have a house. You can turn on your faucet for a drink of water,” he said. “At the end of their work day, nothing’s been done.”