COLUMBIA — “You got the root beer floats?” Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, better known as "Joe the Plumber," asked jokingly.
“They’ve got chardonnay — I want a root beer float,” he said, motioning to a cohort of fellow speakers, some drinking wine from plastic cups, at Saturday's FairTax rally at the Boone County Fairgrounds.
Wurzelbacher, who refused to sit down several times throughout the day and didn’t seem comfortable in the VIP tent, stood just outside it smoking a cigarette, talking casually with anyone that found their way to him.
He found common ground with nearly everyone, whether it was mixed martial arts, stories of traveling through Canada or a passage by Plato to illustrate a political point.
Wurzelbacher came to Boone County more than eight months removed from the peak of his fame when he made national news and became John McCain’s symbol for the common man, challenging Barack Obama’s tax policy.
Still, his celebrity status got him an invitation to speak on behalf of "fair tax," a concept of replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax, or consumption tax. John Putnam, co-director of the state's FairTax advocacy group and an organizer of the rally, said that Wurzelbacher was contacted to speak at the rally and to drum up support with his celebrity status.
“The more celebrity types — the bigger your crowd,” Putnam said. “The more people you can educate.”
A lot has changed since the election season. Wurzelbacher has co-written a book with Tom Tabback called, “Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream,” and reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Pajamas Media.
Wurzelbacher has also denounced McCain, with whom he campaigned for what he estimates was a week and a half. He disliked that McCain used his image so freely. According to The New York Times, McCain cited some form of "Joe the Plumber" 24 times during a debate.
“It pissed me off,” he said. “There were more important things to talk about at the debate than Joe the Plumber — he tried to save his campaign with me and he did me no favors.”
There’s even “Joe the Plumber '08” thong underwear selling online for $11.99 at cafepress.com, though Wurzelbacher said he’s not the one selling it or receiving its proceeds.
Wurzelbacher no longer does plumbing, but does speaking engagements as Joe the Plumber. At a convention hall at the fairgrounds, Wurzelbacher roused a large crowd to its feet, with a speech supporting the consumption tax, the torture of terrorists and a less apologetic stance for Americans overseas.
After speaking for about 20 minutes, people lined up to greet him, ask for autographs or have him sign plungers. But Wurzelbacher and his supporters maintain he’s an average Joe.
“I resonate with hardworking Americans because I’m as blue collar as you can get,” Wurzelbacher said.
“He’s just an average guy who lives his life, stands for family, country and God,” said Ryan Girdusky, who drove from Queens, New York to attend the rally.
Wurzelbacher has used his fame to speak on behalf of causes he supports.
“I’m not opposed to capitalizing on (fame),” he said. “But it needs to have a moral compass. It gave me a platform to speak for regular American people. I talk about common sense.”
The idea, Wurzelbacher said, is to use his fame to publicize grass-roots movements he supports such as FairTax and inspire people to act for change. His role, he said, is “calling American people out.”
“I see this country going to the wayside," he said. "I’ve got to do my part to fix that.”
He said the consumption tax is an important piece of representation for the "average man." He has used his celebrity status to draw crowds to similar events and conservative "tea parties," hoping grass-roots movements can sway people to action.
“Once you understand FairTax, it’s the only thing that makes sense," he said. “Anything to do with grass roots — that’s the only way anything’s getting done.”
Wurzelbacher has his share of critics.
“He is a creation of the right-wing media and that’s their way of trying to get attention to (FairTax),” state Rep.Mary Still, D-Columbia, said. “I oppose this form of tax increase and think it would be a burden on middle-class America.”
After Wurzelbacher challenged Obama about his tax plan and its effects, The New York Times and other organizations reported that he owed more than $1,000 in back taxes and was not a licensed plumber in Ohio, where he still resides.
Wurzelbacher said the media haven't presented him accurately and haven’t followed up stories to their end. “The media have had their thing with me—they can’t do much more,” he said in a phone conversation with state Sen. John Loudon, R-Ballwin.
Wurzelbacher said there was no issue with taxes, but that it was an administrative error. He also said he was a plumber during his five years in the U.S. Air Force and had a military plumbing license while stationed in Alaska. He claims the only reason he didn’t have a license in Ohio was because he moved often in an effort to remain close with his son, Joey, of whom his ex-wife had custody.
Wurzelbacher has since been granted custody of Joey, who is now 13. At his home in Holland, Ohio, he says he’s a normal father, not a controversial orator or political figure.
“I’m just Dad. I’ve coached baseball in the community for six or seven years. I prefer my hometown because I’m treated like who I am,” he said.
His perceived mistreatment by the media hasn’t changed his personality. Wurzelbacher got his fame from his bluntness with Obama.
“There aren’t many occasions when someone with his profile gets a one-on-one with a presidential candidate,” said John Petrocik, an MU political science professor and elections expert. “If a presidential candidate came up to you and shook your hand, you’d shake it back and grin ear to ear. If someone engages him on the issues and argues with him, it makes news.”
Wurzelbacher remains outspoken on social issues. "Christianity Today" published an article in which Wurzelbacher commented on same-sex marriage at the state level. In the interview, Wurzelbacher said, “At a state level, it’s up to them. I personally still think it’s wrong.” Wurzelbacher later used the word "queer" and said he “wouldn’t have them anywhere near my children.”
“The whole point everyone missed — I have my own opinion — is that it shouldn’t be policy — it’s a state issue," Wurzelbacher said in regard to those comments. "They took what they want to hear.”
His blunt attitude gives him appeal. Stephen Schwarz, who described himself as a borderline Democrat, strongly disagreed with Wurzelbacher’s ideas on torture but said he admired Joe’s candidness.
“He uses (fame) instead of sitting around," Schwarz said. "Maybe not for causes I support, but he uses it. I respect the guy. He’s got a voice. He speaks his mind, a lot of people don’t do that.”
The road ahead
Wurzelbacher’s lifestyle has changed. He’s no longer your average plumber, fixing pipes in a town outside Toledo. He crisscrosses the continent now with an assistant, speaking on behalf of FairTax and other grass-roots causes. In the next 20 days, he said he will speak at nine events, in states including Michigan and Texas.
Although he wakes up and reads history books and the news every day to stay on top of policy and field the “off-the-wall” questions from reporters, he maintains he’s an average Joe.
He never got a root beer float, but sipped on Pepsi instead, eating a bag of Lay’s barbecue chips before speaking to a crowd of nearly 4,700.
And it’s not reporters with the hardest questions. It’s fans like Gidursky who ask the most difficult ones:
“So what’s your real name? Mark or Mike or something?”