He has yet to hold a press conference in his front yard, hold forth on foreign policy regarding Israel, or hire a publicity management agent, as Ohio’s Joe Wurzelbacher has. But Joe Guerin, an Edgartown plumber with nearly 30 years experience, has seen his local fame skyrocket in the two weeks following the final presidential debate thanks to Mr. Wurzelbacher and the three little words he inspired: Joe the Plumber.
“I thought it was funny when I first heard about it,” Mr. Guerin said this week from his Edgartown home, which doubles as the office for his plumbing and heating company. So did other people. His sisters, construction workers on job sites, even clients got in on the gag. Do you know Joe Six Pack, they’d ask, Is this the Joe the Plumber? (In fact, another Island plumbing business has long worked under the official name Joe the Plumber.) But now, Mr. Guerin said, the joke is getting tired. “Joe the Plumber, Joe Six Pack, now they’ve got Tito the Builder? I thought he was part of the Jackson Five,” he said. “[The campaigns] basically have turned it into a circus at this point.”
In a conversation with the Gazette this week, one of the Island’s own Joe the Plumbers talked about what he wants the candidates to discuss instead of Joe, Joe and Tito: the bailout, the shrinking middle class, the environment. He weighed in on how the Vineyard has changed since he first visited as a honeymooner in 1979. And he reflected on what he would have said if he, and not that other Joe the Plumber, had the opportunity to meet Sen. Barack Obama.
Mr. Guerin took his first plumbing job while still in high school. He earned his apprentice’s license at the age of 21 and went on to get his journeyman’s license and then his master’s license in plumbing. When he and his wife, Katy, married in their early twenties, they travelled from Pennsylvania to Cape Cod for their honeymoon and took the ferry over to the Vineyard for an afternoon. That day, Mr. Guerin saw a pickup truck on the side of the road, and a plumber unloading his tools from the back seat. “I asked if there was a need here for plumbers,” Mr. Guerin recalled. The guy — he believes it was Nelson Amaral — looked up. “Yeah,” the man told Mr. Guerin. “There’s a lot of need.”
In 1980, Mr. Guerin and his wife moved to the Vineyard. “We liked the quality of life here,” he explained. He took a job at Edgartown Hardware. This was back when the store had a plumbing division. Only a few other plumbing companies existed at the time — Daniel and Rogers, Walter Smith — and the calls were different from the ones the plumber gets today. “Back in the day there were more calls from hippies living in shacks in West Tisbury,” Mr. Guerin laughed. “I got this call from a woman who had gone for years without water,” he said. He went up and installed cold water in the house. A few days later, she called back to see if he would put in hot water too. “I was like, ‘You’ve lived here for years without any water! What’s the rush for hot water now?’ ”
1983, Mr. and Mrs. Guerin built a house in Edgartown with help from the Home Loan Assistance Program, a federal program that dates back to the foreclosure and bank crises of the Great Depression, designed to help lower-income Americans borrow for a home. Mr. Guerin put in the plumbing for the house himself while working 60-hour weeks with two young kids at home. The year he turned 30, Mr. Guerin went into business for himself. Guerin Plumbing and Heating is a small company. Mr. Guerin has two employees in addition to himself. “I try to keep it small so I can keep my eye on the quality,” he said. After their third daughter was born, the couple built a new home where they now live.
Mr. Guerin said it was a struggle to start his own business, buy his own home and put his daughters through school. He does not make the $250,000 a year that would put him in the bracket for the tax increases Sen. Obama has proposed, the ones about which the original Joe the Plumber asked. But, Mr. Guerin said, living on the Vineyard has afforded him the opportunity to make a comfortable life. “We bought our own house, put our three children through college without debt and were able to put away money for retirement,” he said.
Unlike the other plumber, this one does not rank taxes as his top concern. “Am I concerned about my taxes? Yes I’m concerned about my taxes,” Mr. Guerin said. But, he continued, rattling off recent infrastructure failures in Boston, New York and the South: “We need something because our country’s infrastructure is starting to fall apart.”
Rather than Joe-this and Tito-that, Mr. Guerin wishes the presidential candidates would discuss the shrinking American middle class. “I don’t see us as having a great middle class anymore and that’s what our country was known for,” he said.
He wants to hear more talk about the bailout and the environment. “There is a problem,” he said, mentioning greenhouse gasses. “If I can figure that out, I think someone in Washington can figure it out.”
And like so many others, Mr. Guerin is worried about the recession. Already he has noticed a difference in the requests coming in from clients — more people calling to have their pipes drained and their water turned off. Summer residents who used to leave their heat on all winter are turning it off to save money. “Everybody’s tightening their belts,” he said. “Everybody’s cautious.”
Although he would not say on the record which candidate will get his vote Tuesday, he did take a minute to reflect on what he would have said had it been him speaking with Sen. Obama and not the now-infamous Joe the Plumber. “Do the right thing,” was his message for the candidate.