World, Politics

US 2012: The rise of Joe the Plumber and the decline of Dennis the Menace

By J Brooks Spector 8 March 2012

For many people, this year’s American election means only two things – who is going to face Barack Obama in November and who will be the American president, come January 20, 2013. But there are hundreds of other races this year as well – for governorships of more than two dozen states, a third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives, and thousands of local and state offices ranging from city council members, mayors, state legislators – and even a few dog catchers. Nothing paints this chaotic picture better than the tale of one Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, and the fading liberal icon Dennis Kucinich. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

While Ohio was ground zero for Super Tuesday, another quirky primary also took place in Ohio. An increasing number of congressional districts throughout the country have become safe seats due to the combined effects of growing partisanship in geographic terms, and sophisticated efforts to draw congressional district boundaries to maximize the re-election of incumbents. However, the battle lines form up whenever a state loses a congressional seat or two due to population shifts to other parts of the country.

For the 2012 general election, because of the long-term shifts of population southward and westward, Ohio has now had to surrender two congressional seats from its previous total of 18. The resulting 16 districts were reconfigured to produce relatively equal populations. But the politically savvy Republican cartographers of the Ohio state legislature saw this opportunity and pitted two incumbent Democrats against one another.

Thus Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich were in the Democratic primary in the newly delineated 8th district in the north-eastern Ohio. Both Kaptur and Kucinich had been in congress for years, Kaptur was as a moderate, while Kucinich parleyed his reputation as maverick, populist Cleveland mayor to become the anti-war firebrand of congress.

Few others had been willing to try so hard to stop a war, impeach a vice president, admit to having seen a UFO and twice run unsuccessfully for president. Taken together, these has made Dennis Kucinich the political patron saint of leftwing lost causes.

Photo: John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards, stand together before a debate in 2004. REUTERS.

Even help from campaign contributions from the likes of actor Warren Beatty and Twitter shout-outs by hip-hop legend Russell Simmons didn’t save Kucinich in the end. Another renegade, Vermont’s left-leaning independent senator Bernie Sanders, lauded Kucinich, saying, “Congress will be a weaker place without his voice. There is no question Dennis Kucinich has been a unique voice fighting for issues most other politicians would not go near.”

After hearing the results, Kucinich himself said, referencing Merlin’s legendary advice to King Arthur “I’m totally at peace and have a sense of equanimity about it. The trick is whether you can triumph over victory as well as defeat. I’ve tried to see both victory and defeat as impostors and not to be too moved by either of them.”

Early on, Kucinich had been a political wunderkind. He was elected to the Cleveland City Council when he was only 23 years old. By the age of 31, he was mayor of Cleveland. While mayor, he famously allowed the city to declare bankruptcy rather than sell its public-owned electric power utility to private interests. As a result, banks withdrew the city’s credit lines, but Kucinich’s unyielding stance increased his popularity with ordinary voters and helped him get elected to the US Congress in 1996. Once on Capitol Hill, Kucinich positioned himself well over on the left side of his party. Over the years, he spoke some 140 times against the Iraq war.

After he lost this primary, even his opponents seemed to be lamenting his soon-to-be-absence from Congress. Fellow Ohio congressman Steve LaTourette, a Republican, said of Kucinich’s defeat “It’s going to be very boring,” now that Kucinich will be gone. Of course LaTourette had once ridden a bicycle built for two with Kucinich on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show on television, so maybe he was biased. Meanwhile, leftwing Democratic Congressman, Barney Frank, who is, himself, retiring after decades in Congress, said about Kucinich “He was able to be very critical without being angry. Dennis was not a crank. He was a critic of the status quo, he was outside of it, but in a civil way.”

Kucinich’s chances to prevail against the popular Kaptur may have been harmed when he announced some months earlier that he was considering running for congress from a district clear across the country in Washington state. This led his eventual opponent to say Kucinch was like a big-time sports star moving from one team to another for the big bucks. But Kucinich retorted after this election, “The other side of the coin that all politics is local is that all politics are national. I approach my work in Washington from a decidedly different point of view.”

Meanwhile, a very curious Super PAC, the Texas-based Campaign for Primary Accountability, opposing long-term incumbency in congress, spent almost $190,000 supporting a Tea Party conservative in one Ohio congressional district and Dennis Kucinich in his new district in his race against Kaptur. This Super PAC lost with Kucinich, but won in supporting Tea Party fancier Brad Wenstrup against veteran Republican Jean Schmidt.

According to some observers, this defeat of Schmidt is a potential straw in the wind of a growing possibility Republicans could even lose control of the house if Obama’s fortunes continue to strengthen. TIME noted, “Schmidt herself was long viewed as a fiery conservative. Her fealty may have cost her.” Obama and the Democrats may find their most important quality is luck.

But if this Super PAC’s activities represented the politics of some rather strange bedfellows nationally, it actually became stranger still in this congressional race in Ohio. Kaptur’s opponent in November will be none other than “Joe the Plumber”, known on his birth certificate as Samuel Wurzelbacher. Wurzelbacher became universally known as “Joe the Plumber” in the 2008 presidential campaign after he was videotaped asking then-candidate Barack Obama a pugnacious question about potential taxes that would come into play if he opened his own plumbing business.

Obama’s response included the words that he wanted to “spread the wealth” and that phrase and its putative subtext of an agenda of secret socialism became a lightning rod for the right during the campaign. The Republicans’ presidential and vice presidential candidates, John McCain and Sarah Palin, began calling Wurzelbacher “Joe the Plumber”, elevating him to the iconic status of Everyman and symbol of Republican opposition to Obama’s economic policies.

Four years later after a non-plumbing career that included a book and some motivational speaking, Wurzelbacher beat another Republican, estate agent Steve Kramer, for the right to challenge Kaptur in this new district. At his victory celebration, Wurzelbacher told his supporters “Bottom line, I won’t run a character assassination type campaign. I am going to run on facts.” Let’s check in later to make sure about this, however.

This is all pretty weird, even for a country that has elected people like Arnold Schwarzenegger as California’s governor, Hollywood song-and-dance-man George Murphy a senator, singer-composer Sonny Bono to congress and – lest we forget – B-grade movie actor Ronald Reagan as president. Twice.

But would-be president Ron Paul last year said his libertarian politics meant he could see eye-to-eye with lefty-liberals on issues like war and peace. Paul added he’d consider establishing a “Department of Peace” and would seriously consider bringing Kucinich, by virtue of being a frequent critic of American military action abroad, on board his administration as well. All this and the election season is only just getting warmed up. DM

Read more:

  • House Primary Upset in Ohio: Signs of a Weak GOP Majority? In TIME.
  • “Joe the Plumber” to face Rep. Kaptur in Ohio race on CBS News.
  • One super PAC takes aim at incumbents of any party in the Washington Post.
  • Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich hailed by colleagues after primary loss in the Los Angeles Times.
  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich suffers primary defeat in Ohio in the Washington Post.
  • Ron Paul: I’d consider putting Dennis Kucinich in my cabinet on CBS News.

Photo: Joe Wurzelbacher, also known as “Joe the Plumber.” REUTERS/Brian Snyder.


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