You can never find a plumber when you need one, it sometimes seems, but that hasn’t been a problem for the puppy mill crowd in Missouri. Joe the Plumber, who found his name repeated again and again by Barack Obama and John McCain during one of the 2008 presidential debates, has somehow bubbled up, like some kind of backflow, into the debate over Proposition B, the ballot measure to bring commonsense standards to large-scale dog breeding operations in the largest of the puppy mill states. He’s casting himself as a Tea Party man, and the talk is that the Missouri Tea Party wants to beat Prop B.

Matted dog at a Missouri puppy millIn siding with the puppy millers and doing so with false and white-hot rhetoric, Joe the Plumber has made it clear he’s not actually interested in the welfare of dogs. He needs to roll up his sleeves and look carefully at the report we issued this week on Missouri puppy mills-short-haired dogs shivering in the cold, dead dogs among the living, feces-caked enclosures, animals matted beyond belief, and all of it documented by government inspectors at state and federally licensed large-scale dog breeding facilities. Kind of hard to argue that all is well with the industry, with these inspection records staring you in the face.

Joe’s an opportunistic crank, and that’s being charitable. But what’s really odd is that the puppy millers and their allies are rallying under the banner of the Tea Party, which has, as a general matter, expressed more than its fair share of skepticism about public officeholders. Apparently, the Tea Partiers have a short memory about their new-found friends in the puppy mill industry.

It was the puppy mills and their pals in agribusiness that lobbied state lawmakers to refer a measure to the ballot to take away voting rights in the state and make sure only politicians, not citizens, could make decisions on animal issues. They unsuccessfully tried to block the puppy mill initiative from appearing on the ballot and to prevent any future initiative that would restrict the raising of domesticated animals. If there’s any group that should believe in unfettered access to the initiative process, and to vest power in the people rather than the legislators in the pay and in the pocket of special interests, it should be the Tea Party. Putting all their faith in politicians and denying the voice of the people seems precisely the opposite of what they stand for.

The names of the people and the parties have changed, but the situation reminds me of the debate over cockfighting 12 years ago. Then, as now, state lawmakers failed to do the right thing, and it required the action of the people to push ahead with a ballot initiative to correct an awful abuse. In their campaign against the cockfighting measure, the cockfighters, the puppy millers, and agribusiness said a ban on cockfighting would be the first step to outlaw all animal uses, invoking rhetoric that Joe the Plumber uttered last week. In the 12 years since Missouri voters approved the ban on cockfighting, all of the critics’ predictions proved false and overblown. That will be true 12 years from now again if voters approve Prop B, as they should.

Joe the Plumber’s clumsy entrance into the Missouri debate isn’t likely to amount to anything more than a clown act, but it has made for good sport for bloggers and other commentators, including my colleague John Balzar, who had a few choice words for Joe.

Missouri voters-whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Tea Party enthusiasts, or others-love their pets. And they wouldn’t treat their own dogs like the mills treat theirs. They want to see a correction, and that’s what Prop B is all about. It’s not a party issue for them. It’s an issue of decency, and what’s at stake with Prop B is a baseline principle on which all people of conscience agree.

Wayne Pacelle is president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. This post originally appeared on Pacelle’s blog, A Humane Nation.