August 22, 2014

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At Cleveland forum, Kaptur all alone

The big question in the race for the newly formed 9th Congressional District is where’s Joe the Plumber?

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, the Republican running against U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, skipped out on the City Club of Cleveland debate Thursday and has earned a reputation for being all but impossible to contact, even by his fellow Republicans.

“We have heard nothing from his campaign,” said Avon Lake City Councilwoman Jennifer Fenderbosch, who serves as the Republican area chairwoman for Avon and Avon Lake and volunteers at the party’s Lorain County Victory Center. “His presence is not there.”

The Victory Center, which provides phone banks and logistical support for candidates, hasn’t even received yard signs or campaign literature from Wurzelbacher, she said.

Carrie Miller, spokeswoman for the City Club, said her organization made numerous attempts to reach Wurzelbacher but never heard back. Kaptur ended up speaking alone at Thursday’s event.

Lorain County Republican Party Chairwoman Helen Hurst said none of her people have heard from Wurzelbacher in months.

“All I can tell you is anywhere I’ve gone or anyone I’ve talked to, they tell me the same thing, that he hasn’t been there,” Hurst said.

Wurzelbacher’s absence even bothers his opponents.

“I’d rather have him in the arena and compete rather than hiding somewhere,” Steve Fought, a veteran campaign staffer working for Kaptur, said.

In a typical race, Fought said, it’s the incumbent who wants to avoid debating, but Kaptur agreed to three debates early on in the race and has been making numerous appearances at campaign events across the district. But so far, he said, Wurzelbacher’s been a no-show.

“It’s the voters who lose in this because they deserve to hear what he has to say,” Fought said.

Wurzelbacher has not responded to phone calls, emails and letters sent to him by The Chronicle-Telegram in recent weeks, although he did send a bulk email Thursday announcing that he had received the endorsement of the Gun Owners of America and asking for campaign contributions.

The elusive candidate did tell The Toledo Blade last month that he’s out on the campaign trail going door to door and meeting with voters. He also has a Twitter account and has made several campaign videos, some of which have proven to be controversial.

Fought said he doesn’t really believe that Wurzelbacher is knocking on doors and questioned his motives for being in the race.

“Joe the Plumber thought he was going to use this to get a TV show and it’s not working out, so he’s lost interest,” Fought said.

Wurzelbacher told The Plain Dealer earlier this week that the City Club debate didn’t fit into his schedule, but he is planning to attend a debate with Kaptur at a Toledo television station later this month and intends to go to the candidate night being put on Wednesday by the Coalition for Hispanic/Latino Issues and Progress in Lorain next week.

But David Arredondo, vice chairman of the Lorain County Republican Party and one of the organizers of the CHIP event, said he learned of Wurzelbacher’s plans to attend the candidate night from a Plain Dealer reporter. Wurzelbacher attended the CHIP event before the March primary.

Wurzelbacher, who also shied away from formal events during the primary, narrowly beat Steve Kraus for the Republican nomination.

“I’m not afraid of debating,” Wurzelbacher told The Chronicle before the primary. “It’s a matter of using your time wisely and building a foundation.”

Kraus, who is now running for Erie County commissioner, said he lost by 840 votes to Wurzelbacher and is disappointed in the race his former opponent is running.

“I think his campaign’s nonexistent and at this point I hope he has a trick up his sleeve or a rabbit he’s going to pull out of his hat,” he said.

Kraus said based on his performance in the campaign so far, Wurzelbacher should return the campaign donations made by his supporters. He said he might not even be able to bring himself to cast a ballot for Wurzelbacher.

“I may just leave it blank, I don’t know,” he said.

Sean Stipe, the Libertarian candidate in the race, said his campaign strategy has largely been to do the opposite of whatever Kaptur is doing. For instance, Stipe, who wasn’t invited to participate at the City Club debate, said if Kaptur is in Toledo, he’ll campaign in Cleveland.

But their paths have crossed over the months. For instance, both Kaptur and Stipe sat together for a Plain Dealer editorial board meeting for an endorsement interview, which Wurzelbacher didn’t attend. Both Fought and Stipe said Wurzelbacher was hunting in Alaska at the time.

Stipe said that was indicative of the whole campaign.

“Marcy is doing her thing, I’m doing mine, and Joe’s hunting moose,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.