Commentary: Cordray Will Have To Earn Frontrunner Status Among Democrats

Dec 11, 2017

Until recently, former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray had been stuck in political limbo for what seemed like an eternity, unable, by federal law, to even hint at his ambition to be Ohio's next governor.

The Grove City Democrat was serving as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), with a six-year term that was to have expired in June 2018.

The “Hatch Act,” which prohibits most federal employees from engaging in partisan politics, kept Cordray quiet about his ambitions, even though everyone in Ohio knew he had them burning inside him.

Now, though, he is a free man, having quit the job and waiting a week or so to formally announce his candidacy for Ohio governor, launching a statewide campaign "kitchen table" tour which included a stop last Wednesday at a union hall in Over-the-Rhine.

It is, Cordray told WVXU, going to be the theme of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.

"I bring to this race a very focused message,'' Cordray said. "We are going to talk throughout this campaign about kitchen table issues that impact the lives of Ohio families – the cost of health care, being able to afford to send their kids to college. The kind of issues people talk about in their homes and at their kitchen tables."

And, yes, he is going to remind Ohio voters that, as head of the CFPB, he recovered about $12 billion for thousands of Americans who he found had been cheated out of their money by unscrupulous pay-day lenders and questionable banking practices.

"I'm going to campaign hard on that record at the bureau,'' Cordray told WVXU. "I'm proud of that record. It's a great record to run on."

And it is a record that infuriated not only the Trump administration but many Congressional Republicans, who heaped abuse on Cordray throughout his tenure and, in fact, would have like to have seen the agency dry up and blow away, never to be seen again.

But it didn't. At least not yet.

While Cordray was in Washington fighting with the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, there were four Democrats back home in Ohio running hard for the Democratic nomination: Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former State Rep. Connie Pillich of Montgomery, former Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton.

There is, apparently, a fifth Democrat willing to challenge Cordray: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O'Neill, who says he will resign from the court to run.

Frankly, we are not sure what to think of O'Neill. He has said for months that he would not run if Cordray got in the race. Then he said he would run if Cordray would not come out in favor of legalizing marijuana.

When we brought up the subject of O'Neill, Cordray said, "I don’t have anything to say on that subject."

Last month, O'Neill infuriated Democrats, Republicans and independents alike with a Facebook post attempting to defend Minnesota Sen. Al Franken against allegations of sexual harassment. O'Neill wrote – in more detail than anyone wanted to know – of his own consensual sexual exploits with "approximately 50 very attractive females."

O'Neill has since apologized and the Facebook post was taken down.

So now, we suppose, there are six contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, with the filing deadline for candidates coming up on Feb. 7.

The question now is whether Cordray is the automatic front-runner for the nomination.

He is the only one who has run for and won races for any of the state's constitutional offices, which includes governor, lieutenant governor, auditor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.

Corday was elected state treasurer in 2006. In 2008, after Democrat Marc Dann resigned after a sexual harassment scandal in his office, Cordray was elected to serve out Dann's term as Ohio attorney general.

But he lost the attorney general race in 2010 to Republican Mike DeWine – but by only one percentage point, in a year when Ohio Democrats were generally being clobbered.

Ironically, if Cordray wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, he could have a rematch with DeWine, considered by many the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

The only other Democrat who has run for a statewide constitutional office is Pillich, who ran for state treasurer in 2014 and lost to Republican Josh Mandel.

Cordray already has an endorsement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of the progressive wing of the party; and we would not at all be surprised to see other big names come out of him – Barack Obama? Bernie Sanders?

No one in Ohio politics doubts that Cordray can raise big amounts of money, and very quickly.

So, does all of this make him the hands-down favorite to win the Democratic nomination?

Maybe so. Maybe no.

"There is no doubt (Cordray) is a formidable candidate,'' said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "He has the best name recognition on the Democratic side. The work he did at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will work well with Democratic primary voters."

But that does not make him an unstoppable force, Green said.

"There is a strong sense among the grassroots Democrats I've talked to that they like Cordray, but that he is going to have to earn the nomination,'' Green said. "Nobody is going to hand it to him."

There is absolutely no indication at this point that any of the other Democratic candidates are going to drop out or switch to races for other statewide offices just because of the presence of Cordray.

Green said he thinks a large field of candidates on the Democratic side might help Cordray.

"Most of the others seem to have regional appeal,'' Green said. "Cordray is better known statewide. If there is a large field, he could win with 30 to 35 percent of the vote."

Republican party leaders in Washington and Columbus have been acting like Cordray is the front-runner for many months now, even while he was head of the CFPB.

The GOP virtually ignored the other candidates, but they launched attacks on Cordray calling him a "power hungry D.C. bureaucrat" and even a "swamp creature." Swamp creature? You mean like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”? Great horror flick. Great political rhetoric? Well, we'll see.

The Ohio Republican Party has a website called CrookedCordray.com (as in "Crooked Hillary").

Haven't heard a peep out of any of the D.C. or Columbus GOP leadership about Whaley, Pillich, Sutton or Schiavoni. It's all about Cordray.

Cordray told WVXU he's not surprised to be the target of attacks.

"It tells me that the Republicans are worried,'' Cordray said. "They know I ran against their leading candidate for governor (DeWine) in 2010 and it was nearly a dead heat. And 2018 is going to be a much better year for Democrats."

Cordray hasn't been on the ballot in Ohio in seven years, but he made a lot of friends in Democratic circles around the state. Many of them are elected officials who will end up endorsing him.

One is Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld, who introduced Cordray to the crowd at the gubernatorial candidate's event in Over-the-Rhine Wednesday and gave him a very enthusiastic endorsement.

Sittenfeld told WVXU he appreciated how Cordray treated him in 2010, when Sittenfeld was 26 and organizing a 2011 campaign for Cincinnati City Council.

"The attorney general of the state of Ohio didn't have to come here and help some 26-year-old kid get elected,'' Sittenfeld said. "But he did. And I appreciate it. Now I'm here to help him."

Sittenfeld might, in fact, be someone Cordray might look to as a lieutenant governor running mate – each gubernatorial candidate must choose one before the Feb. 7 filing deadline.

Cordray might be more likely to go with a woman as a running mate. But he says he's not focused on that yet.

"I'll go slow for now on those things,'' Cordray. "We're just getting started. We're just getting this campaign organized.''

So, are you the front-runner, we asked?

"I'll leave it to you to handicap the race,'' Cordray said. "All I can say is I'm the only one to have run twice statewide. I've actually done things, in Columbus and in Washington."

That, he said, "counts for something."