Joe the Plumber: Entrepreneur of the Year?

By Dennis Romero

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The American entrepreneur took center stage at the presidential debate last night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., when "Joe the Plumber," a.k.a. Joseph Wurzelbacher, was mentioned 26 times by candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.

McCain sought to use the 15-year-veteran of the porcelain-and-pipes business as an example of the kind of middle-class American Obama's tax plan would affect. Over the weekend, Wurzelbacher confronted Obama on the campaign trail, complaining that the Illinois senator's proposal to increase taxes on the top three percent or so of American income earners would hurt the worker once he buys the business he works for, as he hopes. "You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket, which was going to increase his taxes," McCain told Obama last night, "which was going to cause him not to be able to employ people, which Joe was trying to realize the American dream."

Obama retorted that his plan would cut taxes for 95 percent of income earners in the United States. (The Tax Policy Center puts the number at closer to 82 percent). "... 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," he said.

Still, Joe the Plumber has become an overnight sensation, with a Wikipedia page to call his own and features about him in major newspapers such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

In his original tete-a-tete with Obama at an event outside Toledo, Ohio, Wurzelbacher told the senator that his tax plan could prevent him from being successful in his attempt to buy and run the plumbing business he works for because its profits could exceed $250,000 annually.

"I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year," he reportedly told the Democratic candidate. "Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?"

Wurzelbacher's story is being touted by McCain partisans as an example of the kind of everyman and every-woman entrepreneur who would be crushed by Obama's plan to, as they argue, "redistribute wealth" in America.

"I work hard for my money, and the fact that [Obama] thinks I make a little too much that he just wants to redistribute it to other people," Wurzelbacher told one interviewer. "Some of them might need it, but at the same time, it's not their discretion to do it - it's mine."

At the same time left-leaning blogs such as DailyKos are arguing that the plumber is clearly a McCain partisan, and they're wondering aloud if he is related to Charles Keating, chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and the spark behind the "Keating Five" scandal in which a quintet of U.S. senators, including McCain, were accused of meddling on behalf of the financial institution before its $3 billion collapse in 1989.

A Kos post wonders aloud if the Cincinnati plumber is connected to fellow Cincinnatian Robert Wurzelbacher, a Republican donor, Charles Keating's son-in-law and a convict who was sentenced to prison as part of the Keating Five scandal.

Meanwhile, a New York Times look at McCain's claim that Joe the Plumber represents millions of small business owners who would be burdened under Obama's plan concludes that it's probably not the case: "Mr. Obama may well have been correct when he stated that '98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000.'"

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