Four years after bursting onto the political scene, Joe the Plumber is looking to become Samuel the Congressman.
Samuel Wurzelbacher is running for Congress, and is likely to be the Republican nominee for the newly formed ninth Congressional district in Ohio.
Wurzelbacher gained fame when discussing marginal tax rates and wealth redistribution with then-candidate Barack Obama in his neighbor's driveway in 2008. And he has parlayed that encounter into a high media profile — a blue-collar everyman with Tea Party cred.
But as Wurzelbacher told me when we met this afternoon at his campaign headquarters in a house in Toledo's Uptown district, he's not running as Joe the Plumber. "Nationally, it helps me raise money, but in the district, Wurzelbacher is on the ballot," he says. "I'm definitely trying to get beyond Joe the Plumber."
Pulling up in a Dodge Ram pickup, and wearing brown boots, blue jeans, green sweatshirt and tan jacket, Wurzelbacher doesn't present as an ordinary politician. And yet he's running as the model of a 2012 anti-Washington candidate, one who takes occasional shots at both parties. Wurzelbacher is smoother, more polished, matter-of-fact, occasionally centrist — not angry.
"We have to get people in there that transcend and get good results, as well as politics as usual. For people who have voted Democrat for so long, I want them to know they have a choice. It's not Republican or Democrat. It's that Joe really wants to work for me." He continues, "I'm not a poster boy for the Republican party by any stretch of the imagination. I want Democrats, Republicans, union and non-union people to have jobs. Most blue-collar middle-class Americans don't have a voice. I want to be that voice for them."
Toledo has traditionally been Democratic turf. The area has long been represented by Marcy Kaptur, a labor-friendly Democrat known for bringing projects home to the region. As a result of redistricting, her district -- the ninth -- has been meshed with the old Cleveland-area tenth, the home ground of another Democrat, Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Kaptur and Kucinich are facing off in today's Democratic primary. Regardless of who wins, Wurzelbacher will face an entrenched incumbent should he prevail in the Republican primary. His opponent is auctioneer Steve Kraus.
Wurzelbacher speaks more like a third way centrist than a Tea Party tribune. His agenda: tax reform, cutting regulation. "I believe we're completely out of balance. There's got to be a center here." He's opposed to green initiatives. He thinks the auto bailouts were an example of government overreach. "Most of my neighbors work at Jeep and GM, but most of them disagreed with the bailout," he says. Neither party has been significantly aggressive on simplifying the tax code. He'd like to audit the Federal Reserve and go through the budget line by line. "They want to scare people and talk about cutting Social Security and Medicare," he says. "Nobody talks about going through the budget line by line."
Of course, Wurzelbacher isn't leaving the Joe-the-Plumber persona behind entirely. In Congress, " I'll be able to use the Joe the Plumber podium. I can call Fox or CNN, and command a little more attention" than a typical freshman legislator.
He's been campaigning the old-fashioned way. Wurzelbacher yard signs arrived yesterday. "Most of this primary has been spent going door to door. I've knocked on 5,000 doors personally," he told me. Wurzelbacher has raised money primarily through small donors on the Web. Every day a few checks arrive in the mail. The campaign has two paid staffers and about 200 volunteers. He raised $60,000 in his first quarter of campaigning. The campaign headquarters was quiet and calm. When I walked in, he was showing a hunting knife to a documentary filmmaker. "We've done our work," he says.
Wurzelbacher's speaking style is certainly more polished than four years ago, but that's largely due to practice. "I made it very clear to everybody I won't change who I am to get elected. I won't become an insider. If I can't get elected with my ideas and thoughts, I'll happily go back to the private market. Being a good dad and a good husband, those are the most important things to me." As if on cue, the phone rings. It's his son, a high school sophomore, calling to discuss the prospect of taking college-level courses.
Given the party registration figures and the fundraising prowess of Kaptur and Kucinich, Wurzelbacher will certainly be an underdog should he win the nomination. But people are taking him seriously. The anti-establishment candidate has been endorsed by the Toledo Blade and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as by the Cuyahoga (Cleveland) County and Lucas (Toledo) County Republican parties. "Pretty much every endorsement we got in this area, we got it."
Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance.
Follow him on Twitter @grossdm; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Joe the Plumber