Samuel ‘Joe’ Wurzelbacher, ‘Joe the Plumber’ of 2008 campaign, dies at 49

Samuel J. “Joe” Wurzelbacher, a self-described working man who entered the annals of politics during the 2008 presidential campaign when he challenged Democratic nominee Barack Obama on his tax plan and emerged from the exchange an avatar of the middle class, cheered and sometimes jeered as “Joe the Plumber,” died Aug. 27 at his home in Campbellsport, Wis. He was 49.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his brother, Robert Wurzelbacher.

Mr. Wurzelbacher, an Ohio native and veteran of the plumbing trade, lived outside Toledo in the community of Holland when he was catapulted to fame in the final weeks of the White House race that pitted Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, against U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee.

Mr. Wurzelbacher was tossing a football in his front yard with his son when Obama, in the midst of a campaign swing through Ohio, stopped to talk. With news cameras rolling Mr. Wurzelbacher told Obama that he was preparing to buy the company he worked for, which made between $250,000 and $280,000 per year.

“Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?” said Mr. Wurzelbacher, politely but firmly.

Obama launched into a detailed response, explaining the terms of his tax proposal as they would apply to the business Mr. Wurzelbacher described and the philosophy that undergirded them.

“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s going to be good for everybody,” Obama said. “If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re going to be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody.”

“I think when you spread the wealth around,” Obama added, “it’s good for everybody.”

McCain and other Republicans seized on Obama’s reference to “[spreading] the wealth around” and denounced his policies as socialist, with “Joe the plumber” as the embodiment of the middle-class taxpayers who would suffer under the plan.

Days later, in their final presidential debate, the two candidates traded swipes about how “Joe the plumber” would fare under each other’s administrations.

“What you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American Dream of owning their own business,” McCain said to Obama.

Obama replied: “What I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn’t yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices.”

Almost overnight, “Joe the plumber” was a political celebrity. He appeared on the hustings with McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was featured in one of their campaign ads and became a fixture of television news.

“I’m completely flabbergasted with this whole thing and just hope I’m not making too much of a fool of myself and hope I can get my message out there,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said at the time. Obama ultimately prevailed.

The attention brought with it unflattering revelations, including that Mr. Wurzelbacher did not have a plumber’s license and that he owed $1,182 in back taxes in Ohio. (A state government spokeswoman told The Washington Post at the time that it was possible Mr. Wurzelbacher was unaware of the lien.)

Two years after the election, Mr. Wurzelbacher, still a sought-after figure in some conservative circles, reflected on Fox News about the effects of fame on his life.

“There’s no way I could have gone back to my life once I asked that question [of Obama], the media wouldn’t have allowed it,” he said. “It actually closed down my business for two months after that because media was following me around everywhere. And the last thing a housewife wants is for me to show up with NBC on my butt when she’s sitting in her house robe.”

However, he added, “it gave me the opportunity to get out there and ask Americans to get educated on the facts of what’s going on, get informed about the decisions they’re making and the people that they’re voting in to elect them.”

Mr. Wurzelbacher qualified his former support for McCain, describing the Republican nominee as the “lesser of two evils” in the 2008 matchup. Of Obama, he told an interviewer, “I think his ideology is un-American, but he’s one of the more honest politicians. At least he told us what he wanted to do.”

Mr. Wurzelbacher later worked in a variety of jobs, in his description “building houses, taking trees down, plumbing,” in addition to appearing at speaking events and otherwise maintaining a political profile.

In a 2009 interview with the publication Christianity Today, he remarked that he “had some friends that are actually homosexual” and that “they know that I wouldn’t have them anywhere near my children.”

At a tea party event in 2010, referring to illegal immigration, he suggested that the United States “put a fence up and start shooting.”

Mr. Wurzelbacher worked with a veterans’ organization in Alaska and wrote a book, “Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream” (2009) with co-author Thomas N. Tabback.

In 2012, he made a bid for the heavily Democratic Toledo-based 9th Congressional District in Ohio. His qualifications, he said, included the calluses on his hands.

“I’ve worked for the last 25 years to having to make results every day to feed my family, pay my bills,” he said on CNN. “Politicians, you know, they live off the backs of broke taxpayers.”

Mr. Wurzelbacher narrowly defeated auctioneer Steven Kraus in the Republican primary. In the general election, he lost to incumbent U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, 73 percent to 23 percent.

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher was born in Toledo on Dec. 3, 1973. His father served in the Air Force, and his mother was a waitress. Mr. Wurzelbacher was always known as Joe, his brother said.

Mr. Wurzelbacher followed his father into the Air Force, doing plumbing work in the service before continuing in the profession as a civilian. He had lived in Ohio until recently moving to Wisconsin.

His marriage to Jennifer Gates ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 11 years, the former Katie Schanen of Campbellsport; a son from his first marriage, Joey Wurzelbacher of Brookville, Ind.; three children from his current marriage, Samantha Wurzelbacher, Henry Wurzelbacher and Sara Wurzelbacher, all of Campbellsport; his father, Frank Wurzelbacher of Campbellsport; a brother; and two grandchildren.

In 2010, a CNN interviewer asked Mr. Wurzelbacher what his strange political trajectory had been like.

“I just happened to be tossing the football with my son,” he said. “I wanted to buy a business, and it came down to the principle of the matter. I don’t think the federal government gets to decide who’s rich and who’s not.”