Other Democratic Candidates Unlikely To Get Out Of The Way For Cordray

Nov 19, 2017

It was becoming something like a Samuel Beckett play: Waiting for Cordray.

Nearly a year of waiting for Richard Cordray, the former state treasurer and Ohio attorney general, to make up his mind to leave as the first and only director the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), ended Wednesday when Cordray sent a letter to his staff saying he would leave office by the end of the month.

The immediate assumption of Ohio Democrats was that he was leaving the CFPB to jump into the contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018; and that will almost certainly be the case.

"I can't think of any other reason for him to announce that he is leaving his job at the end of the month unless he is going to come back to Ohio and run for governor,'' said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

Expect a formal announcement in early December.

The other assumption of many Democrats was that if Cordray entered, he would immediately become the front-runner; and that the other four announced Democratic gubernatorial candidates would scurry off and either try to become Cordray's lieutenant governor running mate, run instead for a down-ticket office, or simply go away.

The assumption was that when Cordray spoke, the sea would part and he would lead the Ohio Democratic Party to the Promised Land.

Well, it doesn't seem to be working out that way.

Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native who is a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, worked for Cordray for a time in the attorney general's office. He is not sure that Cordray's candidacy is a slam dunk.

The other candidates have been running for most of the year, Kondik said, traveling the state, raising money and introducing themselves to Democratic primary voters.

"He's getting in a little too late to win this by acclamation,'' said Kondik, who is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a weekly political newsletter published by Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Richard Cordray
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

Those who believe Cordray is going to be the automatic front-runner believe he will look at one of the other four Democratic gubernatorial candidates as a potential running mate for lieutenant governor. Gubernatorial candidates must name a running mate when they formally file with the Ohio Secretary of State in February.

But, on Wednesday, most of the present gubernatorial candidates on the Democratic side didn't sound like they were campaigning to be Cordray's running mate.

Within a couple of hours of Cordray's announcement to the CFPB staff, three of the four Democratic candidates for governor – former state representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, and former Ohio Senate minority leader Joe Schiavoni – jumped all over Cordray for walking away from his post as a consumer watchdog in Washington.

Only former congresswoman Betty Sutton held her tongue.

Pillich put out a release saying it is "disheartening and disappointing that my friend, Richard Cordray, would abandon his role of protecting our nation's consumers by turning over this critical agency to Donald Trump."

Faith Oltman, a spokeswoman for Whaley, said the CFPB has "done good work, but by resigning, Cordray is finally doing what Trump couldn’t – undoing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau…Cordray is turning his back on the progress we've made and surely emboldening Trump and Republicans in Congress to dismantle this consumer watchdog organization."

Schiavoni chimed in by telling Cleveland.com that he has "respect for the work (Cordray) has done, but he represents the same recycled candidates we've seen the last two or three times."

"I was struck by the vehement nature of the reaction of some of the other candidates,'' Kondik said. "Whaley, in particular, was spitting fire. Cordray has to find some kind of answer to this idea that he is abandoning his post."

One answer could be that he has accomplished all that he wanted to accomplish and that his term would end next June anyway, at which time Trump would no doubt fire him.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O'Neill had been saying that he would run for governor if  Cordray does not.  But he effectively ended any chance of his being  a candidate - a serious one at least - after he  put up a Facebook post Friday detailing his sexual history. It enraged Democrats and Republicans alike and started a chorus from both sides calling for his resignation from the court. He's done as a candidate for anything.  

The Ohio Republican Party weighed in on the Cordray resignation, of course. Blaine Kelley, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, who held a similar job in Donald Trump's Ohio campaign last year, used some Trumpian rhetoric when he put out a statement calling the CFPB director "Crooked Cordray," saying that "Ohio voters know a swamp creature when they see one."

Yes, you read that right. Swamp creature.

The fact is, as much as the Trump administration and many Republicans in Congress hate the CFPB and would like to see it go away, Cordray's work there has given him a very good populist theme to run on as a candidate for governor.

It goes like this:

Hi, remember me? I'm Rich Cordray. I used to be Ohio's attorney general. But for the past six years, I've been busy in Washington. I've recovered $12 billion for regular folks like you who were ripped off by pay-day lenders and unscrupulous financial institutions.

"He has a good story to tell about his time in Washington,'' Kondik said. "He needs to have a successful roll-out for his campaign."

One key to a successful roll-out, Kondik said, would be "big-time" endorsements from people like President Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been a consistent ally of Cordray and the CFPB.

Cordray also has to "make an immediate splash when it comes to fundraising,'' Kondik said.

Having a large field of candidates might actually help Cordray in the May primary, Kondik said.

"He may not be a household name, but he is better known statewide than any of the others,'' Kondik said.

Pepper said he is not at all concerned about the size of the field.

"It's going to be a healthy discussion of ideas among some very smart people,'' Pepper said. "And it is really not that big. There are 11 Democrats running for governor in Wisconsin."

Cordray's opponents are going to remind him that he lost his last statewide campaign – a campaign for a full-term as Ohio attorney general. And he lost that race to Mike DeWine, the best known of the 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidates. But it was very close. Cordray lost to DeWine by only one percent of the vote.

Will there be a Cordray-DeWine rematch in 2018?

Way too soon to tell. Both of them have to get through very tough primaries first.