TAMPA — Joe's phone started ringing early.
Are you Joe the Plumber? Har har har! Hey, saw you on TV!
One of his friends even doctored a photo and e-mailed it — Joe chatting up Barack Obama on the campaign trail.
This particular Joe is Joseph Gonzalez. He's 37, and he has held a wrench since he could walk. Now he's president of Henry Gonzalez Plumbing Co. in Tampa, a business his grandfather founded in 1929.
Thanks to some guy from Ohio, his profession has been thrust into the spotlight as the butt — excuse the pun — of jokes.
Joe the Plumber. Forever sentenced to Cliche Kingdom next to Average Joe and Joe Sixpack and Joe Schmoe and Cuppa Joe.
The plumbers, though, say they stand apart.
"We're the cornerstone of a modern society," said Gonzalez. "If it weren't for plumbers, we'd all still be digging holes."
• • •
It started on the campaign trail in Holland, Ohio, where Obama encountered Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber wary of new taxes.
The candidates leeched. During Wednesday's debate, they mentioned Joe the Plumber a combined 21 times, leaving folks playing drinking games in desperate need of coffee.
Later, information surfaced — Wurzelbacher's real first name is Samuel (middle name, Joseph), he's not licensed to practice plumbing and he sort of owes some taxes.
Still, the pipes were laid.
Thousands joined a Joe the Plumber social group on Facebook, where Wurzelbacher's picture topped the body of noted video game plumber Mario. T-shirts popped up on online — Joe the Plumber says FLUSH OBAMA! Joe the Plumber Is My Homeboy. What Would Joe the Plumber Do?
It reached the Tampa Bay area, too. That morning, Mike Williams, president of Bay Area Plumbing, pitched his wares to members of a business referral group. He pre-empted the jokes.
"I'm not Joe the Plumber," he told them. "I'm Mike the Plumber, and I do quality work."
• • •
Actual plumbers want you to know a few things.
Typically, their pants stay up. They are not dotted in fecal matter. They are not sweaty, gross and grimy. They don't make it a habit to seduce your wife while cozied beneath a leaky sink.
"Plumbers are stereotyped worse than any other industry," said Robert Maslo, president of the Pinellas Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors. "We have the worst reputation, and it's more derogatory to say that we're Joe the Plumber when times are bad. Why not use us as an example when times are good?"
Down to voting, everyone differs.
Mike the Plumber Williams is an Obama guy. At about $70,000 a year, he qualifies for Obama's tax cut. The past six months have been the hardest ever in his 14 years of business.
"Right now, business owners including myself, we don't know if we're going to be able to make it," said Williams, 52. "The phones aren't ringing. People are not remodeling that bathroom. They're putting off some of their projects."
Joe the Plumber Gonzalez, a father of one with a baby on the way, believes in the trickle down theory. He said Obama's tax plan would hurt his business. He's a McCain guy.
Joe the Plumber Bobb, who lives in Tarpon Springs, laughed his way through the debate and took calls from friends all morning. He's lukewarm. He hasn't had work here in a while, and he's selling his Tarpon Springs house to move back to New York.
"They don't have a clue what's going on," said Bobb, 48. "I'm not too impressed with both candidates, but I gotta make a choice. … When I get behind the curtain, it's between me and my organized labor union."
• • •
Joe the Plumber Moravec is 81.
He has been a plumber for decades. Now, he lives in Clearwater and does jobs off and on, bringing in about $5,000 a year as a supplement.
He's a veteran for McCain. He didn't see the debate because he just had some surgery and he has to rest up. But the Joe thing doesn't bother him much. It's nothing new, he said.
"People just tend to call someone 'Hey Joe' if they don't know who you are."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.