TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher, who was thrust into the political spotlight as “Joe the Plumber” after questioning Barack Obama about his economic proposals during the 2008 presidential campaign, and who later forayed into politics himself, has died, his son said Monday. He was 49.
His oldest son, Joey Wurzelbacher, said his father died Sunday in Wisconsin after a long illness. His family announced this year on an online fundraising site that he had pancreatic cancer.
“The only thing I have to say is that he was a true patriot,” Joey Wurzelbacher — whose father had the middle name Joseph and went by Joe — said in a telephone interview. “His big thing is that everyone comes to God. That’s what he taught me, and that’s a message I hope is heard by a lot of people.”
He went from toiling as a plumber in suburban Toledo, Ohio, to life as a media sensation when he asked Obama about his tax plan during a campaign stop.
Their exchange and Obama’s response that he wanted to “spread the wealth around” aired often on cable news. Days later, Obama's Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain, repeatedly cited “Joe the Plumber” in a presidential debate.
Wurzelbacher soon faced intense media scrutiny and acknowledged that he didn’t have a plumber's license, saying at the time he didn't need one because he worked for small plumbing company owned by someone else.
Wurzelbacher went on to campaign with McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But he later criticized McCain in his book and said he did not want him as the GOP presidential nominee.
His sudden fame turned him into a sought-after voice for many anti-establishment conservatives, and he traveled the country speaking at tea party rallies and conservative gatherings.
He also wrote a book and worked with a veterans organization that provided outdoor programs for wounded soldiers.
In 2012, he made a bid for a U.S. House seat in Ohio. But he lost in a landslide to Democrat Marcy Kaptur in a district heavily tilted toward Democrats.
Republicans had recruited him to run and thought his fame would help bring in enough money to mount a serious challenge. But he drew criticism during the campaign for suggesting that the United States should build a fence at the Mexico border and “start shooting” at immigrants suspected of entering the country illegally.
Wurzelbacher returned to working as a plumber after he gave up on politics, his family said.
Funeral arrangements were pending. Survivors include his wife, Katie, and four children.
Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.