WASHINGTON, D.C.— Samuel Wurzelbacher, otherwise known as "Joe the Plumber," is still plumbing. He is running for Congress as a Republican in Ohio's Ninth District—Dennis Kucinich's turf—but he is also still plumbing. He just did a job for a friend two weeks ago. He says he will plumb for life.
"I re-piped the gas lines at my friend's house," he said yesterday, in a small conference room at the Woodley Park Marriott in Washington, D.C. He had just spoken on a panel sponsored by TeaParty.net.
"I loved it! My face was up against a swollen pipe, which is no fun, in a crawlspace with spiders and all kinds of fun stuff." He smiled. "I just love it. I'll plumb all the time."
"I'm one of those sick individuals," Wurzelbacher explained. The kind of guy who just loves working.
"Sometimes I'll chop wood just to clear my head and get a good sweat out of that, because it's honest work. You can't cheat at it."
Wurzelbacher was on the panel for day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual convention organized by the American Conservative Union. It's a three-day affair at the Marriott, featuring appearances from the GOP's All-Star cast: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rand Paul, and almost all of the party's presidential candidates. (Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich will all speak today; Ron Paul is campaigning in Maine.)
Yesterday was the event's self-congratulatory warm-up. In the main ballroom Thursday morning, Florida Senator Marco Rubio delivered a long speech entitled "Is America Still An Exceptional Nation?" (short answer: it could be more exceptional), and everyone else jostled for a chance to say the name Ronald Reagan into a microphone as many times as possible before the day was over and the cocktails started pouring. CPAC is considered Mardis Gras for the right for a reason.
Early yesterday afternoon, just before the Conservative Dating lecture, Wurzelbacher sat in a yellow-walled room with fluorescent lighting on the second floor of the convention center and quietly reminded the small crowd that he was running for congress in Ohio. I came into the panel ("Backing Grassroots Conservatives Against Entrenched Incumbents") just as the moderator announced a new, unexpected speaker. Someone was here to endorse Joe the Plumber.
"Our next speaker is from the NAACP," the host announced, and then paused before adding a dramatic final letter: "C."
A man in a suit and a sandy-blond head of hair bounded up from the back of the room. He was James C. Marshal, national director of the NAACPC, and he had a thing about hyphens.
"Odd ring to it, huh?" Marshal said, referring to his organization's name.
The NAACPC, he explained through an unwavering smile, believed that "there shouldn't be any more hyphenated Americans." He was referring to African Americans and Indian Americans and the like. He got to the point, and announced the group's endorsement of Wurzelbacher, the candidate who would "best uphold" what the NAACPC held dear. Joe the Plumber came to the podium, and the two shook hands as the small audience struggled to sustain the applause.
I caught Marshal after the panel had ended and asked him to reiterate his stance on hyphenation. He was very patient with me.
"We have to eliminate the hyphens," he said. "First and foremost, we are all Americans. We're not Indian Americans or African Americans or what have you."
But not everyone hyphenates terms like "African American" or "German American," I pointed out. It was kind of a matter of choice. Why focus on eliminating a tiny line?
The NAACPC's mission, Marshal explained, had more to do with what the hyphen represented than with the hyphen itself. "There shouldn't be a prefix to American. We're all on the same team, and yet the hyphen allows politicians to exploit us."
Marshal mentioned specifically the Plumbers Union and the Automakers Union, and other groups that "market strictly to us without concern or regard to other Americans, regardless of what costs it may have on my neighbors."
In that case, I wondered, could he see a bit of irony in a group that aims to eliminate identifying tags endorsing a man who was almost universally known as Joe the Plumber?
He smiled. He had very straight and very white teeth.
"Yes, I agree. It is kind of funny. But his name was just Joe," he reminded me. "The media added ‘The Plumber.'
"And I might call you Sara The Plumber," he continued, "but that has nothing to do with your ancestry, creed, beliefs, and class status."
I considered this, and wondered how it could possibly be true.
Back in the yellow room, Wurzelbacher was answering questions about Romney (a name that's almost guaranteed to elicit a grimace at CPAC) and about his family. His son, he was telling another reporter, is six feet tall and on the varsity football team.
"Wrestler, wood shop worker, and he has a GPA of 3.6," he said, beaming with pride. "We do homework together."
Wurzelbacher paused to take a photo with a college student. He was wearing a green plaid dress shirt and a tan overcoat, and he spoke in a cadence that sounded very knowledgeable. He has a reason to feel comfortable at CPAC. The Tea Partiers in attendance still adore him, and they're taking his campaign very seriously.
He was asked about the new endorsement, and explained that NAACPC's values were modeled in part after Theodore Roosevelt's progressive era. Roosevelt, he said, "was vehemently against any kind of hyphenated American.
"German American, Irish American—he thought it would destroy this country. Now fast forward," Joe the Plumber said. "It's on its way. It's helping destroy us. At least the NAACPC is talking about the hyphenated Americans."
Later in the afternoon, Herman Cain spoke before a packed, exuberant ballroom. He and Michele Bachmann, Tea Party favorites, drew the largest crowds of the day. Cain opened with a joke about teleprompters, and then mentioned the year 1773, when "the colonists were fed up with old King George." It was time for another revolution, he explained, as the crowd cheered and a man in a colonial soldier outfit waved his hat in the sixth row. The 9-9-9 tax plan, Cain said, was congress's opportunity to get the country on the right track—and Joe the Plumber would be the first congressman to take it to Washington.
"I'm happy that one of the people that's running for United States Congress, in the state of Ohio, in a very challenging district, has adopted 9-9-9, and I am endorsing his candidacy," Cain boomed. "My friend Joe The Plumber. Stand up!"
Wurzelbacher rose to his feet on the other side of the room and waved.
"Some of us choose to get off the sidelines, and I admire Joe for doing that," Cain added. "More of us have got to take that challenge."
The pizza guy was backing the plumber, and a roomful of unhyphenated Americans were on their feet, clapping wildly.