'Joe the Plumbers' are coming out of woodwork

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Joseph Bruni had a stack of black and gold T-shirts printed up yesterday. But instead of touting the Steelers, they say "Joe the Plumber, Pittsburgh, PA."

He's not the Joe the Plumber, the one who was invoked two dozen times in the final debate Wednesday evening between presidential hopefuls Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. That Joe the Plumber is actually Samuel J. Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio, who works for a plumbing company but is not a licensed plumber, The Blade of Toledo reported yesterday.

Mr. Wurzelbacher was catapulted to national prominence when Mr. McCain used him repeatedly as an example of someone who would be hurt by Mr. Obama's tax plan -- a charge that Mr. Obama disputed.

But Mr. Bruni certainly qualifies as a Joe the Plumber. He's been taking care of customers' leaky pipes and other needs from his West End shop for 52 years. So when a friend suggested that he capitalize on the coincidence of his name, it seemed like a good idea.

Now in his 70s, Mr. Bruni employs six other plumbers. None of them is named Joe, but this week, they'll all be wearing Joe the Plumber T-shirts in honor of their boss.

A registered Democrat, Mr. Bruni said he watched the debate and intends to vote for Mr. McCain. "Honesty and integrity, background and experience are my top issues," he said. "I feel when John McCain is speaking, he's telling you what he'll do, and he'll do it. I can relate to him more than any other politician through the years."

Mr. Bruni has crossed party lines before -- he voted for Ronald Reagan.

"It depends how I'm thinking at the time of the election," he said. "I'm concerned right now that employment goes up. To have a good economy, you need people working."

Mr. McCain's argument clearly hit home with another plumber named Joe -- Joe Scarfone, a partner in Stahl Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, which employs 50 plumbers in five locations.

"I don't like the fact that someone who works hard is going to get taxed more," he said of Mr. Obama's plan. "I'm on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I shouldn't be penalized for that."

Mr. Obama has said his plan would cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, and that only taxpayers making $250,000 a year or more would see increases.

Mr. Scarfone said he also is concerned about Mr. Obama's health care plan. "I already provide health care for my employees, from partial to full," he said. "But I don't like the fact that somebody's going to force me to do it."

Meanwhile, Mr. Wurzelbacher, 34, was getting more than his 15 minutes of fame. He first popped into view when he asked a question during one of Mr. Obama's campaign stops.

"I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year," he told the candidate in an exchange that later showed up on YouTube. "Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?"

Mr. Obama replied, in part, "I think that when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." Conservatives pounced on the exchange, and on Mr. Wurzelbacher as a beleaguered everyman.

Then questions arose about his story. The Blade reported yesterday that Mr. Wurzelbacher is neither licensed as a plumber nor registered to work as one in Ohio. As a result, his sudden fame is not sitting well with Tom Joseph, business manager for Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, who said Mr. Wurzelbacher didn't undergo any apprenticeship training.

"When you have guys going out there with no training whatsoever, it's a little disreputable to start with," Mr. Joseph told The Blade. "We're the real Joe the Plumber." The plumbers union has endorsed Mr. Obama.

Mr. Wurzelbacher said it's his understanding that he can work legally as long as a licensed contractor works on the same site. He also said he is working on taking the Ohio plumbing contractors' license test.

Also yesterday, Bloomberg.com reported that Mr. Wurzelbacher owes the state of Ohio almost $1,200 in back income taxes. According to records on file with the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, the state filed a tax lien against Mr. Wurzelbacher for $1,182.98 on Jan. 26, 2007, that is still active.

After Wednesday's debate, reporters camped out by Mr. Wurzelbacher's house, and yesterday he did live interviews with several TV networks. He told reporters that he was surprised that his name was mentioned so many times by the candidates.

"That bothered me," he said. "I wished that they had talked more about issues that are important to Americans."

He added that he was feeling overwhelmed.

"I'm kind of like Britney Spears having a headache. Everybody wants to know about it," he joked.

The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and The Associated Press contributed. Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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