JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — Former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray’s contentious tumble onto the national stage has been anything but typical for the intelligent, mild-mannered public servant who occasionally pads about his office in sock feet.
President Barack Obama named Cordray, 52, as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a recess appointment during a visit last week to suburban Cleveland.
Republicans critical of the new agency had managed to block the appointment since July, saying the agency has too much power with too little input from Congress. Despite Cordray’s background of bipartisan appeal, Senate Republicans blocked his confirmation in December.
The bureau was created as part of the 2010 overhaul of the nation’s financial regulations, to defend consumer rights with banks, mortgage companies, the credit-card industry, payday lenders and others.
Perhaps not since Cordray’s days as an undefeated five-time champion on Jeopardy! has he been at the center of such heated push back. The soft-spoken Cordray tends to keep his head down and his media controversies to a minimum.
“He’s a very serious person,” said David Leland, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, who’s known Cordray for more than two decades. “But this is a very serious job, and these are serious times.”
His smarts are usually the first thing people notice about Cordray, who earned a law degree from the University of Chicago (where he edited the law review) and a master’s in economics from the University of Oxford. He interned for then-U.S. Sen. John Glenn, the astronaut, native Ohioan and Democrat; as well as clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee. That built the beginnings of a resume that would make him acceptable to either party.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas, a Republican, said he’s never known Cordray to allow his actions to be dictated by partisan concerns.
“I haven’t agreed with what they’ve been putting him through,” Douglas said. “If we really profess that we want the brightest and the best in public service, then he is that. And to not jump at the chance to have people like that in public service is a political shortcoming that I see governing us that’s opposed to good sense.”
A quartet of highly respected Ohio business leaders, some routinely generous to Republican campaigns, also backed Democrat Cordray’s selection for the new post in a July letter to the Senate Banking Committee. Limited Brands’ Leslie Wexner, Procter & Gamble’s retired CEO John Pepper Jr., American Election Power’s Michael Morris and Forest City Enterprises’ co-chairman emeritus Albert Ratner called him “the epitome of the judicious and fair-minded public servant. He has impressed us with his intelligence, pragmatism, integrity, and service-oriented mindset.”
Cordray was Ohio’s first solicitor general, and first stepped into politics in earnest with a successful run for the Ohio House in 1990. He lost re-election in a redrawn district after one term in what would begin a string of ups and downs at the ballot box — including a failed bid for Congress in 1992. He ultimately secured stints as a county treasurer, state treasurer, and attorney general.
Cordray got the job in a special election called to finish the unfulfilled term of fellow Democrat Marc Dann, after a sexual harassment scandal ended in Dann’s resignation.
Cordray brandished the unblemished personal history, work ethic and intellect that Democrats wanted at the time to repair their reputation with voters — and, indeed, he headed into the 2010 election perhaps their strongest candidate. That made his defeat all the more humbling.
Ahead in polls and fundraising, he was widely favored to win re-election over former Republican U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, but lost by just over a percentage point as GOP candidates swept state office.
He graciously conceded and comforted his team of “Cordrarians,” then hinted to the press that he would consider a run for governor in 2014. When questioned about that by senators in September, Cordray said he had “no plans to run for any political office.”
Also during confirmation hearings, Cordray disputed suggestions the new agency would go unchecked. He said there are “a mosaic of interlocking pieces in the law that create accountability for the bureau.”
He said legislative oversight, internal audits, and the rules written to govern the bureau all play a part, adding “the most important thing in any federal independent agency is to follow the law, follow it carefully, follow it closely.”
Cordray’s consumer orientation began years earlier as treasurer of Franklin County, home to Columbus, but his first big national splash in the arena came in 2009 amid the national financial crisis. That September, as attorney general, he filed a class-action lawsuit against Bank of America Corp. and its executives, arguing improper concealment of billions of dollars in losses and billions in bonuses paid by Merrill Lynch before a shareholder vote on the companies’ proposed merger.
Soon after, he sued the nation’s three major credit rating agencies, arguing they gave mortgage-backed securities unjustifiably high ratings in return for lucrative fees. In 2010, he took on GMAC Mortgage and Ally Financial over potentially illegal foreclosure practices.
That history led consumer interests as diverse at the Ohio Bankers League and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio to back Obama’s appointment of Cordray to lead the consumer protection bureau.
“He is genuine, thoughtful and smart, and will lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with unwavering fairness on behalf of everyday hardworking Americans,” said coalition director Bill Faith in commending Obama’s recess appointment.
Cordray’s record has not been entirely without negatives.
In 2008, while serving as Ohio treasurer, Cordray returned a $10,000 campaign contribution he had received within two weeks of taking his first state office, donated by the stepdaughter of a salesman for St. Louis, Mo.-based Wachovia Securities. In the first year of Cordray’s administration, reports found Wachovia saw a 37 percent increase in its share of state bond-trading business.
The salesman, Montford Will, his wife and two stepchildren were fined $125,000 in 2009 in what was believed to be the biggest case in state history of disguising campaign contributions to circumvent contribution limits. Cordray was among a host of both Democrats and Republicans who had received money from the family in the scheme.