Is Richard Cordray the New Elizabeth Warren?


Cordray's professional career began on a similarly steep trajectory. He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He even became a five-time Jeopardy! champion, winning $40,303 in a week one week on the popular game show. (He used the money to pay off his law school loans.)

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After returning home to central Ohio, Cordray launched a campaign for Ohio House of Representatives seat, winning the race in 1990 by pummeling a six-time Republican incumbent. He served two years in the Ohio statehouse before Republicans used the 1990 Census results to draw new district lines that placed Cordray's Grove City house in a deeply Republican district. At the time it seemed a temporary setback. Cordray immediately ran for Congress.

"He was a bright young man in a hurry," says Montgomery, who was in the Ohio Senate when Cordray served in the House.

Cordray lost the election for Congress. In 1998 he ran for Ohio attorney general. Montgomery crushed him, 62 percent to 38 percent. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2000, coming in third in a four-way primary.

Pretty soon, Cordray had a reputation for biting off more than he could chew.

"Others might call him highly political and ambitious," says Montgomery, but those labels are common for "somebody who's got skills in the public sector."

Even though he lost three races in a row, the years from 1992 to 2002 hardly count as a lost decade for Cordray. He quickly won respect from Democratic Party insiders as a dedicated campaigner. In the race against Montgomery, Cordray raised more money than any other statewide Democratic candidate, Haas says, including ones with much bigger profiles.

That kind of aggressive campaigning is critical in Ohio, a notoriously difficult state for candidates with its eight separate media markets, and disparate populations that span from Appalachia in the south to the Rust Belt in the north and the Corn Belt in the middle.

"I've seen him at chicken dinners with party activists in the most rural county seats," says Mike Brown, a former spokesman for Mike Coleman, mayor of Columbus. Coleman also has run for statewide office in Ohio. "He's willing to go everywhere, an he's willing to work at it."

Meanwhile, Cordray was also enjoying rare success as a lawyer. In 1993 Lee Fisher, Ohio's attorney general at the time, appointed Cordray to be the state's first solicitor general, making Cordray the state's lead attorney in appeals cases before the Ohio and U.S. Supreme Courts.

"It takes a special set of skills to be ready to pivot on a second's notice and answer questions peppered at you by justices who don't care what you opening argument is," says Fisher, who served as Ohio's lieutenant governor from 2007 through this year. "I wanted somebody who was extremely bright and was a very good lawyer. Rich fit that bill."

After a decade of disappointment, Cordray finally began to gain traction as a politician by lowering his sights. Instead of running for Congress or the Senate, he returned home to Columbus and ran for county treasurer in 2002.

Even that was not a safe move, since Republicans had dominated the county's politics for decades.

"Those were tough years" for Democrats in Ohio, Haas says. "Rich ran in times when other, more prominent Democrats were hiding. He was willing to stick his neck out."

Cordray (just barely) won, becoming the first Democrat to hold the job since the 1970s. Considering his future career as a consumer's advocate, the timing turned out to be auspicious. Like many cities, Columbus was being ravaged by predatory mortgages, in which lenders often convinced people who had owned their homes for decades to take out large home equity loans that were loaded with hidden fees and interest charges.

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With his background in economics and law, Cordray was able to quickly make sense of the complicated loan contracts and see how they were designed to rip off consumers, says Holly Hollingsworth, who later became Cordray's press secretary.

Meanwhile, his instincts for staying close to the grassroots continued to serve him well. Cordray attended many neighborhood meetings with Mayor Coleman to hear directly from consumers themselves about the problems they faced with their mortgages.

If a homeowner was having trouble with a particularly bad predatory lender, Cordray would make phone calls, knowing that his position as county treasurer gave him access that ordinary citizens didn't have, says Brown.

"He'd show up to these meetings in his Jeep, without any staff, and just hang out, sometimes for three hours," Brown says. "He had absolutely no legal responsibility to be there. He just got it."

In 2006, Cordray ran for state treasurer, and won. Two years later, Cordray won a special election to become Ohio's attorney general, after the previous AG resigned in a sex scandal.

Taking office before the financial crisis hit gave Cordray a chance to establish his bona fides as an advocate for consumers. Corday filed lawsuits against small companies, including fake foreclosure rescue scam operations, as well as major financial powerhouses including Bank of America for allegedly misleading investors, and GMAC for filing forged documents in court that may have helped the company foreclose on homeowners illegally.

He also sued the three major credit rating agencies, Fitch, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, for overstating the value of mortgage-backed investments, earning more pay for themselves and Wall Street firms by deceiving investors.

"In short, the credit rating agencies sold out and sold us out," Cordray said at a press conference in 2009.

But unlike some people who held similar positions, including former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, Cordray was never viewed as a lawsuit-happy pit bull. He reached out to Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Moyer, a Republican, working together to create a mediation program to help reduce mortgage lawsuit caseloads in county courts, and help some homeowners keep their homes.

"Rich understands the soft power of an office," says Chris Glaros, who worked under Cordray as assistant attorney general and is now the chief lawyer for the Children's Defense Fund. "He's extremely good at understanding complex problem and finding solutions that are realistic and meaningful, and forging partnerships with people from all different parts of the political spectrum."

Cordray's successes at challenging unscrupulous lenders won him nationwide attention. That came in handy in 2010, when he narrowly lost his re-election campaign to Republican Mike DeWine. Within a month, he was tapped to lead the enforcement division at the Consumer Protection Bureau.

When President Obama announced his nominee to lead the new bureau, in July, he made it clear that Cordray' experience investigating financial firms was his prime qualification.

"Prior to this, as Ohio's attorney general, Rich helped recover billions of dollars in things like pension funds on behalf of retirees, and stepped up the state's efforts against unscrupulous lending practices," Obama said.

It's rare for any politician to receive such widespread respect, especially one who has been in the public eye for two decades. In reporting this story, grew so tired of hearing how brilliant and principled Cordray is that we started to almost beg: Isn't there something wrong with this guy?

The only complaint we heard: Rich Cordray prefers nerdy shirts.

"Honest to god, the worst thing I can think of is that he loves those professor-looking shirts with the button-down collars," says Hollingsworth. "I told him they look really bad. He didn't care."

As Cordray gears up for what may be a contentious Senate confirmation battle, his life remains rooted in the details of day-to-day life that to Beltway journalists qualify as "quaint", and to nearly everyone else as "normal." When he's home from Washington, Cordray drives a grey Pontiac minivan, and goes to events at the public school in Grove City that his twins attend. His wife Peggy teaches law at a local university; his brother Frank works as an orthodontist in Grove City.

"Rich is very well thought-of in Grove City, which is a very Republican town," says Tom Rutan, a former principal of Grove City high school who worked with Cordray to create a financial literacy curriculum when Cordray was Ohio treasurer. "I'm a Republican, and I'm a fiscal conservative. People ask me how I can support Rich. Because he's a man of integrity."

Unfortunately, the big banks that Cordray targeted as Ohio attorney general, together with Republicans in the Senate, argue that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's solitary director will have too much unchecked power.

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Like other financial regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the bureau receives most of its budget from fees levied against financial companies. Republicans want to change that, and bring the bureau's budget under direct Congressional control.

"Over a five-year term, the director will have unfettered authority over thousands of American businesses, not just banks," Sen. Shelby said in his Wall Street Journal editorial. "While the bureau receives hundreds of millions of dollars of public money annually, the elected representatives of the American people have no say in how it spends this money."

The fight could become personal and nasty. In a statement about Cordray's nomination, Senator David Vitter, R-La., said, "I'll continue to fight to do what it takes to stop the president from appointing far-left ideologues."

Democrats and consumer advocates counter that the bureau's power is already more checked than any other financial regulator, since the other agencies have veto power over its decisions.

"False claims about CFPB's power also ignore the structural oversight and accountability that limit the reach of the CFPB," Elizabeth Warren, who first proposed the bureau and who helped set it up, testified in Congress in May.

"In addition to being subject to judicial review, the Bureau is the only bank regulator whose rules can be overruled by a council made up of other federal agencies."

Even Cordray's supporters concede that despite his intelligence and his ability to make friends across the aisle, he may not be able to overcome Republican opposition to his nomination.

"He's less of a lightning rod than Elizabeth Warren, and he's a very nice person," Posner says. "On the other hand, he was an aggressive attorney general who sued some big companies, so he may just be persona non grata with Wall Street and Republicans. So maybe it's hopeless."

The stalemate leaves the consumer bureau with limited power. It will be able to enforce existing laws that, prior to passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act, were enforced by other regulatory agencies. But the bureau is barred from finalizing or enforcing any new regulations.

Which means that Corday may be just a pawn in a larger game of chess. The game might not finish until next year, and possibly even later, depending on which party controls the White House, Congress and the Senate after the 2012 election.

Prior to joining the CFPB as chief of the enforcement division, Cordray said he would return to Ohio to run for governor in 2014. He dropped that plan after joining the bureau, and now Jennifer Howard, the bureau's spokeswoman, says Cordray is committed to serving a full five-year term if he wins confirmation.

However, if he does return to Ohio, he'll have plenty of friends. Holly Hollingsworth, Cordray's former press secretary at the Ohio treasurer's and attorney general offices, was a registered Republican when she interviewed for the job, and her husband worked for Jim Petro, a longtime Republican officeholder in Ohio. (She's since become an independent.)

"I told Rich's people that I'm a registered Republican, and my husband works for Jim Petro, and I'll just be going now," Hollingsworth says. "They said, 'Do you understand that doesn't matter?'"

Christopher Maag's Reporter, Chris graduated with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and has reported for a number of publications including The New York Times, TIME magazine and Popular Mechanics.

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