Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber," first caught our attention in October 2008 when he met and questioned then-Sen.Barack Obama, who was campaigning in his Toledo neighborhood, about his plan to "spread the wealth."
Now, Joe the Plumber has become a defining issue once again, this time in the 2010 race for attorney general in Wurzelbacher's home state of Ohio.
Last year, Wurzelbacher became a symbolic "everyman" -- at least for conservatives -- after Sen. John McCain mentioned him several times during a nationally televised presidential debate. McCain referenced him so many times, in fact, that Saturday Night Live spoofed him for using "Joe the Plumber" in virtually every sentence
, culminating in the hilarious deadpan laugh line from the actor playing McCain (to the actor playing Obama): "Frankly, I trust Joe the Plumber a lot more than I trust your plan, because Joe the Plumber is a straight shooter, and one of the finest people I've ever known."
But not all of the pushback was done in good fun. Various news outlets began reporting not just on Wurzelbacher's politics, but his plumbing credentials -- and tax history. And not all of this information came from innocent sources, either: Evidently believing that the Wurzelbacher narrative was becoming a threat to Obama, three Democratic political appointees working for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services allegedly used state time and resources to dig up confidential information on him in state databases.
After investigating, Ohio's independent inspector general concluded there was "no reasonable basis" for the searches. Wurzelbacher subsequently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the three employees. Now, as Bill Hershey reported in the Dayton Daily News
, Democratic Attorney General Richard Cordray
had agreed to represent them in court.
The problem with Cordray's decision is that an Ohio statute states, "The attorney general may not represent an employee who acts recklessly, maliciously or in bad faith outside the scope of his employment." The inspector general's conclusion that there was "no reasonable basis" for the searches suggests that they were done outside the scope of the workers' employment and should absolve the attorney general from the responsibility of defending these individuals.
Naturally, Ohio conservatives are seizing on the issue. Popular Ohio blogger Matt Naugle wrote on his Right Ohio blog
, "This is a deeply offensive waste of taxpayer dollars. If you are outraged, please call AG Rich Cordray at (800) 282-0515.
And please be polite... after all, real conservatives have manners."
Both Cordray's potential Republican opponents are also speaking out on this matter.
Reached by phone on Thursday evening, former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, who is running for attorney general, told me the statute specifically asks, "Are you within the scope of your employment?" He went on to note the decision is "not a discretionary question."
DeWine authored an op-ed in the Dayton Daily News. "Cordray's decision to provide legal representation in the face of Ohio law may provide political cover to the (Democratic Ohio Gov. Ted) Strickland administration, which appointed the wrong-doers, but it is no way to run the attorney general's office," he wrote. "Ohioans deserve an attorney general who will make decisions based on the law, not politics."
Delaware County Prosecutor David Yost, a conservative Republican also running for attorney general, told the Dayton Daily News, "It's an outrageous use of taxpayer money to defend the invasion of a citizen's privacy."
For his part, Cordray insists that his representation is not based on politics, but fiscal prudence. He maintains that if he failed to represent the three employees, they could, in turn, file suit. And if they were to convince the courts that the attorney general's office should have represented them, taxpayers could wind up eating whopping legal expenses.
It remains to be seen whether or not the latest Wurzelbacher story will be merely a blip on the political radar, or if it will become part of a larger narrative for the campaign.
Regardless, a few things about this story interest me:
First, it seems that the phenomenon of illegally digging up dirt on political opponents has become almost epidemic. We've always had "opposition research" on public personalities like political candidates or Supreme Court nominees, but going after a private citizen is, perhaps, a new low.
Technology, no doubt, has a lot to do with it. As DeWine explained to me, "I think what's dangerous now is with e-mail and the ability to keep a lot of records on people, maybe there is more opportunity today for this type of dirty trick."
It's also worth noting that Sarah Palin's e-mail was hacked around the same time that Joe the Plumber's background was searched in Nixon-like fashion (ironically, it was Nixon who used "plumbers" to dig up dirt on his political enemies). To be sure, liberals are not the only people engaging in such activity, but I think it speaks to the loss of civility in politics, as well as the amount of hatred that was specifically directed toward Wurzelbacher and Palin.
Ohio is one of the hardest hit states economically, and it is also one of the best bellwether states in terms of ascertaining the country's political mood. Potential Republican gains in the state in 2010 may very well be read as a harbinger of things to come nationally. Ohio is fielding several experienced Republican candidates this cycle. Should DeWine win his primary, he would join a strong GOP 2010 ticket, which also includes former congressman and U.S. trade representative Rob Portman, who is running for the Senate, and former congressman and Fox News contributor John Kasich, who is running for governor.
But as impressive as those credentials may be, Republicans' fortunes in 2010 in this key state may ultimately depend on the fortunes of millions of Ohio's working class voters, including a certain plumber who by chance became a potent symbol for the 2008 presidential race -- and may be poised to do it again.