Joe in the Spotlight
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By Larry Rohter AND Liz Robbins
One week ago, Joe Wurzelbacher was just another working man living in a modest ranch house near Toledo thinking about how to expand his plumbing business. But when he stopped Senator Barack Obama during a visit to his block this weekend to ask about his taxes, he set himself on a path to being the newest media celebrity — and, like other celebrities, found himself under scrutiny.
Turns out that “Joe the Plumber,” as he became nationally known when Senator John McCain made him a theme at Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate, may run a plumbing business but he is not a licensed plumber. His full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. And he owes a bit in back taxes.
The premise of his question to Mr. Obama about taxes may also be flawed, according to tax analysts.
An official at Local 50 of the plumber’s union, based in Toledo, said Mr. Wurzelbacher does not hold a license. He also has never served an apprenticeship and does not belong to the union. (The national plumber’s union, the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Service Mechanics, endorsed Mr. Obama, it should be noted.)
“He’s basically playing games with the world,” Thomas Joseph, the local’s business manager, said in a telephone interview Thursday morning.
Just five days ago, Mr. Wurzelbacher, 34, lived in anonymity, a single father who worked all day at his plumbing business and came home to fix dinner and help his son with his homework, as he said on national television.
But he became the hero of conservatives and Republicans when he stopped Mr. Obama, who was campaigning on Shrewsbury Street on Sunday, and asked whether he believed in the American dream. Mr. Wurzelbacher said he was concerned about having to pay taxes as he reached a point where he could afford to buy his own plumbing business, one he said would draw income of $250,000 a year.
“I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year,” he told Mr. Obama during an exchange that was filmed and later showed up on YouTube. “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
That encounter led to New York Post headlines, appearances on the Fox News Channel and interviews with conservative groups, who seized on part of Mr. Obama’s reply.
“I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Mr. Obama had said.
When Mr. McCain invoked Mr. Wurzelbacher in Wednesday’s debate — some version of “Joe the Plumber” was mentioned two dozen times during the 90 minutes — as a way to criticize Mr. Obama’s tax plan and wealth-sharing argument, Mr. Wurzelbacher suddenly found camera crews outside his home, Katie Couric on the phone, and himself in the full glare of the media spotlight.
Mr. Wurzelbacher did not respond to a message left on his home phone and there was no answer at his plumbing business.
On Thursday, he told the Associated Press that he felt like Britney Spears.
“I’m kind of like Britney Spears having a headache,” he said. “Everybody wants to know about it.”
Unlike some other states, Ohio does not have a formal statewide licensing system for plumbers. But the city of Toledo and other municipalities do, Mr. Joseph said, and Mr. Wurzelbacher has not met those requirements.
“All contractors are licensed, and he does not have a license, either as a contractor or a plumber,” the union official said, citing a search of government records. “I can’t find that he’s ever even applied for any kind of apprenticeship, and he has never belonged to local 189 in Columbus, which is what he claims on his Facebook page.”
According to public records, Mr. Wurzelbacher has been subject to two liens, each over $1,000, one of which — a personal tax lien — is still outstanding.
And his question to Mr. Obama about paying taxes? According to some tax analysts, if Mr. Wurzelbacher’s gross receipts from his business is $250,000 — and not his taxable income — then he would not have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan, and probably would be eligible for a tax cut.
Mr. Wurzelbacher is registered to vote in Lucas County under the name Samuel Joseph Worzelbacher.
“We have his named spelled W-O, instead of W-U,” Linda Howe, executive director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, said in a telephone interview. “Handwriting is sometimes hard to read. He has never corrected it in his registration card.”
The records, she said, showed he voted Republican in the March primary.
Mr. Wurzelbacher told Ms. Couric that his encounter with Mr. Obama was a matter of impulse.
“Neighbors were outside asking him questions, and I didn’t think they were asking him tough enough questions,” he said.
He went on, “You know, I’ve always wanted to ask one of these guys a question and really corner them and get them to answer a question,” he said, “for once instead of tap dancing around it, and unfortunately I asked the question, but I still got a tap dance.”
He added, “Almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr.”
Five days later his decision to confront Mr. Obama has spawned a line of novelty T-shirts sold on the Internet.
“Vote Joe the Plumber ’08,” one shirt reads, with the tag: “No More Drips in the White House.”