Cordray’s First Task in Governor Bid: Explaining What CFPB Is

By Alex Ebert

Tom Swisher is a lifelong Democrat who lives in Grove City, Ohio, the hometown of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray. Swisher’s jazz band twice played at fund-raising events during Cordray’s runs for Franklin County treasurer.

Just don’t expect Swisher, like other diners at Grove City’s Jolly Pirate Donuts, to know what the CFPB is. “I have never heard of it,” Swisher told Bloomberg BNA. “What does it do?”

Democrats in Ohio have been talking up Cordray as a candidate for governor in 2018, and his name recognition in Ohio as a former state attorney general and failed U.S. Senate candidate make him the strongest Democratic contender, political observers say. Nevertheless, Cordray will have much explaining to do about how he’s spent the last seven years at the CFPB, an agency that’s become a target of Republican attacks in Washington but remains little known back in Ohio.

A gubernatorial run would end months of speculation about the fate of Cordray, whom congressional Republicans have urged President Donald Trump to fire before Cordray’s tenure ends next year. Leaving early could help Cordray jumpstart his campaign — while sticking around and getting fired by Trump might only boost his electoral prospects.

“If you’re going to run as the anti-Trump candidate, what better than to be fired by President Trump?” — Gerry Sachs, former CFPB senior counsel for policy and strategy, who is now at Paul Hastings LLP, told Bloomberg BNA.

Cordray might be better leaving on his own terms rather than getting fired, political observers say. Trump could define Cordray’s legacy in any firing announcement and some Ohio voters might be more apt to believe the president’s version of events.

“I think the conventional wisdom that if he gets fired he enters as a martyr is too simplistic,” Democratic political consultant Bill Burges, owner of Burges and Burges, told Bloomberg BNA.

Window Closing

Whether he resigns or is fired, Cordray’s window to enter the Ohio governor race is fast closing. Most academics and consultants agree that to have a chance, Cordray needs to enter the race by the end of summer, well ahead of the Ohio filing deadline, but nearly a year before his CFPB appointment ends.

“These are becoming two-year cycles,” David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told Blomberg BNA. “And when you’re running for governor, the earlier the better.”

Cordray would enter the race the odds-on favorite to get the nomination among a field that already includes four other candidates, Paul Beck, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University’s Department of Political Science, told Bloomberg BNA. “He’s the only one that could clear the deck for the Democrats.”

Cordray left Ohio in 2010 to work at the newly-created CFPB, initially as enforcement director and then as the agency’s first director.

“Normal people, 99.9 percent of the population out there doesn’t know what [the CFPB] is or what it does,” Bob Clegg, a Republican political consultant with Midwest Communications, told Bloomberg BNA. “They really will be educated about the agency by political ads on TV.”

Ohio’s largest banks, business associations and the Ohio Republican Party all declined to comment on Cordray’s tenure at CFPB.

Competing Frames

Republican consultants say Cordray’s opponents could take advantage of anti-regulation and anti-big-government sentiment to cast his work at the CFPB in negative terms.

“Simple. The Republican message could be, ‘everything from Washington is bad,’ ” Bob Kish, political consultant with Third Wave Communications, told Bloomberg BNA.

Cordray would likely counter that by presenting himself as the person President Barack Obama picked to protect “consumers, little old ladies and homeowners and people with credit-card debt. With that type of message, the iron worker up in Youngstown might show up for Richard Cordray,” Kish said.

Cordray’s work on behalf of consumers could play well even among white working-class voters who helped Trump win Ohio by 8 points in the 2016 election, Democratic consultants say.

“With a lack of income rising and so many Ohioans continuing to struggle, they need someone to protect them. He could message really well into that,” Brian Wright, president at WrightPath Solutions consulting firm, told Bloomberg BNA.

Cordray could also tie his time at the CFPB to his previous consumer-protection actions as Ohio’s attorney general.

“I don’t know how many people know what the CFPB does, but they know Richard Cordray fights for consumers. They have known that since 2008 and 2009 when he fought in the foreclosure crisis [as Ohio’s attorney general],” Pepper said. He added that he and the state party were neutral in the primary process.

‘Grass-Roots Politician’

Ed Reeves, a Grove City resident and retired mailman has voted for Republicans almost his whole life, but he said he’d vote for Cordray if he ran.

“I met Mr. Cordray when he was running for local office. He had worn-out shoes on, and I thought, ‘That’s a grass-roots politician,’” Reeves, who has followed Cordray’s career, said at Tammy’s Pizza on Broadway in Grove City, a suburb of 35,000 that’s 20 miles south of Columbus.

Even though Reeves couldn’t recall exactly what the CFPB had done lately, he said that Cordray’s time leading the agency will likely connect with Ohio voters.

“I think consumer protection is needed,” said Reeves in between pepperoni slices. “I don’t think [the CFPB] is over-regulation; it’s more of a watchdog. That should help him, not hurt him, in campaigning.”

—With assistance from Gregory Roberts

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at aebert@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Ferullo at MFerullo@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.