WASHINGTON — If Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray opts to run for governor of Ohio, as is widely expected, his time at the agency may end up complicating rather than helping his campaign.
Republicans are already accusing Cordray of misusing his job as a fundraising platform and claiming that he is rushing rules out the door before he leaves. Many CFPB allies, meanwhile, want Cordray to forgo a political run and remain in office until his term expires in July 2018.
“I do not know what Cordray’s exit strategy is, but if [President] Trump does not fire him, and there’s been little indication that he is planning to, then Cordray will have to explain to his allies why leaving the CFPB early and running for governor is the right move for him,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ newsletter. Kondik is also author of The Bellwether, a book that focuses on Ohio’s role in the presidential election.
Many consumer advocates are adamant that Cordray shouldn’t leave unless he’s forced out. They fear the Trump administration will quickly appoint its own director who would dial back what Cordray has completed.
“We would advocate that he stay put until his term is finished. We do not want to see the great work that he has accomplished over the last few years to unravel any more quickly than is humanly possible,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a progressive consumer watchdog group.
A campaign by Cordray could also give bankers and Republicans an opportunity to challenge any recent CFPB rules.
In an interview, Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, a member of the House Financial Services Committee and chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he is worried about the pending rule to rein in payday lending, which is expected to be finalized soon.
“I think they are rushing to get it done before Rich Cordray resigns, and I am very concerned about it,” said Stivers.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, meanwhile, has made a different allegation, with his staff suggesting Cordray may have violated the Hatch Act, which bans regulators from engaging in political activities, because he is allegedly planning a run for governor.
Although some observers view that argument as a distraction, it could prove to be an albatross on the campaign trail should Cordray decide to run. It gives Republicans a talking point against Cordray before the race has really even begun.
Cordray’s work at the CFPB “seems to be a double-edged sword politically,” said Bill Burges, founder and chairman of Burges and Burges Strategists located in Cleveland.
There is also the question of whether Cordray can win. Some on the left feel like Democrats already have good candidates, ones who might not carry the same baggage as Cordray. Those include Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former State Rep. Connie Pillich and former Rep. Betty Sutton.
If Cordray were to win the Democratic nomination, he would potentially be running against a former lawmaker, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who beat Cordray in an attorney general race while Cordray was the incumbent.
“I feel like it is no guarantee that Rich Cordray will be the Democratic candidate, but if he is, I feel pretty confident we will be able to hold the governor’s [office] in Ohio,” said Stivers, who hasn’t endorsed a Republican candidate in the race and said he probably wouldn’t.
Kondik, meanwhile, said Cordray’s likely message — of taking on Wall Street — might not be as resonant as efforts to take action against drug companies and fight the opioid crisis.
“It’s also fair to wonder if the potential message of a Cordray campaign — that he is a fighter for the little guy against big financial institutions — may not be as timely in this campaign as it might have been in a previous campaign when the 2008 financial crisis was fresher in the public’s memory,” said Kondik.
Matt Borges, a former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, also said “Ohioans more align with DeWine and understand what he has done for consumer protections and the actions he has taken against drug companies to fight the opioid crisis.”
Still, Cordray could benefit from endorsements by Democratic heavy hitters like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and President Obama, with whom Cordray remains close.
But some Democrats say a potential fight with Trump could be Cordray’s biggest tailwind.
“If you are him, does it help you in a Democratic primary to walk away from a fight with Donald Trump?” said one Democrat familiar with Ohio politics. “He would get more out of that and actually elevate what he has been doing the last few years in the public consciousness.”
Cordray would likely have to decide sooner rather than later if he wants to run for governor in order to raise money and campaign. The first Democratic gubernatorial debate is on Sept. 12.
Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, said it is time for Cordray to make an announcement because speculation about whether he will run is impairing the agency.
“It has now become a distraction, and it cast a shadow over the impartiality of the CFPB. We need to have continuity and consistency at the CFPB and his political plans are doing anything but that,” said Hunt.
“There are some in this town who believe the CFPB has always been a political entity, but this gives even more credence to this argument.”