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Joe the plumber? He's in Turlock

TURLOCK -- If the presidential candidates had chosen this Joe the plumber as a poster child for average Joes, they might have come away with a wise adviser.

Unlike the Ohio man who became an instant national celebrity thanks to Wednesday's debate, Joe Torres really does have a valid plumbing contractor's license.

Unlike Samuel J. "Joe" Wurzelbacher, 34, whose dream of someday owning a company became a pawn for presidential tax dialogue, Torres, 70, owns his own business and has done so since the Ohio man was 4.

Turlock's Joe the plumber has been married to the same woman for 49 years. And he owes no back taxes.

Torres needs no prompting to share an Everyman's thoughts on taxes, plus lots more. He's as comfortable discussing Proposition 2 (poultry cages), Measure S (road tax) and immigration policy as he is brass fittings or tankless water heaters.

"Small business is just inundated with surtax on surtax," Torres said. "Government has a solution for everything: more money. Government only sees numbers. But we're not expendable. We're human beings."

The Ohio Joe, an unwitting central figure in Thursday's "Saturday Night Live" skit, scored the big time, bright lights TV interviews. Turlock's Joe, the son of Mexican immigrants, is content to chew the fat with the local boys in tones polished by decades of ups and downs.

After more than two hours talking politics, life and baseball Saturday morning, Torres leaned back in his chair, smiled and said with a twinkle in his eye, "I'm the real Joe the plumber. I'm genuine. What you see is what you get."

His customers see a tallish, trim man with a firm grip who gave up running road races, such as Bay to Breakers, only in recent years. He still skis slalom in nearby reservoirs behind the lime green boat he bought in 1970.

The walls of his office reveal his other loves -- sports memorabilia and family -- as well as his patriotism and his plumber's license. A favorite photo shows a grandson, nearing his first birthday at the time, peering into a toilet with a caption reading, "I think we're going to need to call Grandpa."

Torres acknowledged owing his 15 minutes of fame to the other Joe's televised chat with Sen. Barack Obama, later seized upon by Sen. John McCain in the debate. Both Joes are conservative Republicans from humble backgrounds, but Torres long ago created the life that the other Joe only dreams of.

Torres was born in the now-defunct sawmill town of Merced Falls, moved at a young age to Livingston and graduated from Livingston High in 1957. He first began twisting pipes at Woody's Poultry Supply, landed a real plumbing job in Modesto four years later and took a leap of faith with a small-business loan to create Joe Torres Plumbing in 1978.

"We went $10,000 into hock to buy a vehicle and parts and started banging away," Torres said. "The next April 15, I had to pay more in taxes than my income for the entire year before. If that wasn't a shock. I thought I did OK, then here comes the tax man. But I'm OK with it. That's our system. We need to be an asset to society."

Does government realize what it takes to run a small business? Torres has his doubts.

"Our leaders see Joe the plumber, Mike the mechanic and Tom the tileman and they want to borrow more taxes from you. Our government people just don't understand what it's like down here. They live in Washington, D.C., condos and forget what it's like to have a callous. What makes America great are the people who like what they do and work hard."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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