Samuel Wurzelbacher, Celebrated as ‘Joe the Plumber,’ Dies at 49

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who briefly became “Joe the Plumber,” the metaphorical American middle-class Everyman, by injecting himself into the 2008 presidential campaign in an impromptu nationally-televised face-off with Barack Obama over taxing small businesses, died on Sunday at his home in Campbellsport, Wis., about 60 miles north of Milwaukee. He was 49.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, his wife, Katie Wurzelbacher, said.

Mr. Obama, then a United States senator from Illinois, was campaigning on Shrewsbury Street in Toledo, Ohio, on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008, when Mr. Wurzelbacher interrupted a football catch with his son in his front yard to mosey over and confront the Democratic nominee about his proposed tax increase for small businesses.

During a cordial but largely inconclusive five-minute colloquy in front of news cameras, Mr. Wurzelbacher said he was concerned about being subject to a bigger tax bite just as he was approaching the point where he could finally afford to buy a plumbing business, which he said would generate an income of $250,000 a year.

Three days later, “Joe the Plumber,” as he was popularized by Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, was invoked some two dozen times during the final debate of the presidential campaign.

Mr. Wurzelbacher became a folk hero of sorts during the final weeks of the contest, particularly among McCain supporters and conservative commentators, who cottoned to his remarks that Mr. Obama’s share-the-wealth prescriptions for the economy were akin to socialism or even communism and contradicted the American dream. Mr. McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, also jumped in, appearing onstage with Mr. Wurzelbacher at rallies.

But by Election Day his tenure as a burly, bald, iron-jawed John Doe eroded as the public learned that he was not a licensed plumber (he could work in Toledo only for someone with a master’s license or in outlying areas) and owed $1,200 in back taxes.

He flirted with supporting Mr. McCain, but in the end never revealed for whom he had voted that November.

In 2012, he won the Republican nomination to challenge Representative Marcy Kaptur, the Democratic incumbent in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, but was crushed in the general election, winning only 23 percent of the vote to her 73 percent.

A full obituary will appear soon.

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. More about Sam Roberts

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