Bob Sullivan / msnbc.com
Rich Cordray, in his Columbus, Ohio office last year.
Answer: The man President Barack Obama hopes can magically overcome the partisan divide in Washington D.C.
Question: Who is Rich Cordray?
It's a question millions of Americans are about to ask themselves, if they haven't already. Their three-year romance with consumer zealot and media star Elizabeth Warren just ended badly, as Warren was not picked to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Cordray is her surprise replacement. Apart from being a former “Jeopardy” champion -- a piece of trivia many already seem to know -- who is Rich Cordray?
Warren -- a Harvard professor, best-selling author, and darling of TV programs like The Daily Show -- was the chief architect and driving force behind creation of the new consumer agency, which is the most visible part of the administration's financial reform efforts. But Warren's high-profile disdain for banks and Wall Street made her too divisive for Obama's taste, and she was ultimately passed over to run the agency.
Cordray, a relative unknown on the national stage, was named last week instead, but his selection can hardly be cast as a "compromise candidate." Cordray, Ohio attorney general from 2009 through early 2011, was the face of government action against mortgage companies during the height of the financial collapse; his office sued AIG, Bank of America, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and several other lenders for investment fraud related to the mortgage crisis. He earned more than $2 billion in settlements from those firms.
The soft-spoken Midwesterner stands in contrast to Warren, the Harvard bankruptcy expert. He often shuns shoes and walks around his office in socks, and he never strides into a room with the air of a powerful man. His boyish looks could easily trick an unfamiliar visitor into thinking he's a law clerk; he's been favorably compared to the “30 Rock” TV show intern "Kenneth." But friends and former staff members say his powerful intellect, inherent reasonableness and dogged work ethic quickly replace those first impressions with the image of a man who relentlessly fights for consumers – and usually wins.
"He is as authentic as you can get. He's the same person when the cameras are on or when he's with his family," said Kimberly Kowalski, a former press aide for Cordray. "Sometimes it works to his detriment. He would just say what was in his heart, even if I'd prepared remarks for him ... but Rich is all for that man on the street. If he meets someone and they tell him a problem, he remembers it, and he acts on it, and three months later, he'll check to make sure it got fixed. Things never fall off his radar."
That’s true even if that means Cordray must write follow-up e-mails at 4 a.m., which Kowalski said was common.
“I’m sure many people have said this: Rich is a machine,” she said. “It’s amazing to sit back and watch him work.”
It’s hard to imagine Cordray will make it through the confirmation process unscathed, if at all: in a political environment poisoned by debt ceiling negotiations, a renewed fight over the new consumer agency is sure to be bitter. But friends say the mild-mannered, persuasive Cordray, who has argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, may yet have something to say about that.
As is administration policy for pending appointees, Cordray rejected interview requests for this story. But friends and former co-workers paint a clear picture of Cordray as a gentle, reasonable, smart lawyer who cares for consumers but applies the law even-handedly. A devoted Democrat, Republicans can be found among his biggest supporters, and he is a hero in his conservative hometown suburb of Grove City. Still, many consider his appointment a non-starter, as 44 Senate Republicans have signed a pledge to block confirmation of anyone to head the new consumer agency unless it is dramatically reconfigured.
“Mr. Cordray's nomination is dead on arrival in the Senate and will remain so until … reasonable changes are made,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., wrote in a recent editorial.
Cordray and wife Peggy still live in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb where Cordray was grew up. Their 12-year-old twins go to middle school there; his brother Frank is an orthodontist in town, and the two brothers regularly sponsor a local summer league basketball team called "Cordrays’ Cagers."
Friend Paul Cappuccio, now executive vice president and general counsel for Time Warner Inc., met Cordray when the two were just out of law school, clerking together at the Supreme Court.
"At 26 years old, it was clear to me that was one of most extraordinary people I'd ever meet," said Cappuccio, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. "You'd look at Rich and you just knew the guy was going back to Franklin County, Ohio, and you knew he'd be happy as Franklin County treasurer
But the small-town Midwesterner had big legal aspirations -- after graduating from Michigan State, he earned a master's degree in economics from Oxford and a law degree from the University of Chicago; then, he served as a law clerk for Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. Cordray's legal mind set him apart, Cappuccio recalls.
"Kennedy liked having robust debates in his office, to make sure he got things right. And he used to half-jokingly refer to Rich as 'my lawyer' during the debates," Cappuccio said. "Rich was the level-headed, balanced one."
Cordray's quick mind also helped him avoid a mountain of student loan debt while he was in law school; in 1987, he had a five-day winning streak on the TV game show Jeopardy, netting him $45,000, which he used to pay off the debt.
He returned to Ohio in 1988 and wasted little time beginning his political career, winning a seat in the state Legislature in 1990. Since then, he's held various state posts, and while he’s been called a “rising star” more than once, his political record is mixed – he has lost races for the U.S. House and Senate, and a re-election bid for state attorney general.
But when he wins, he hits the ground running. As Ohio state treasurer, he created the nation's most comprehensive personal finance education program. Ohio students will soon be unable to graduate from high school without earning personal finance credits; he oversaw the training of hundreds of teachers in financial education.
"We were going through a period of time with incredible foreclosures rates, bankruptcy rates, and the credit card industry was out of control," said Tom Rutan, a former Grove City High School principal who now runs the state's financial education office. "It had a big impact on him. He has an economic degree so he has a strong passion for financial literacy. It's not the total solution, but it’s certainly one way to help people avoid these pitfalls."
Cordray won a special election for state attorney general in 2008 after the embarrassing resignation of Democrat Marc Dann, who was embroiled in an office sex scandal. The straight-shooting, mild-mannered Cordray was the perfect choice to stabilize and refocus the distracted office.
"He did a lot while he was there. He was in the middle of a real storm from all sides, and he had to sort things out," said Sheryl Harris, consumer affairs columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
He immediately focused on the mortgage industry, and within months had filed lawsuits against some of the nation’s largest lending institutions.
“I get the sense that as attorney general he saw his job was to protect the public, and he threw himself into that job,” Harris said. “He decided he was going to do this Wall Street push back, and he went after them.”
Cordray's appointment last year as head of enforcement for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was his first job at the federal level, and it's an open question if Cordray is ready to deal with the political wear-and-tear of Washington, D.C. But he's hardly a political novice; in fact he's made no secret of his future plans to run for the governor's office in Ohio. Search for blemishes on his record and you won't find many, but he has been accused of aspirational grandstanding. When he was serving as state treasurer, he pushed through a regulation that forced residents and businesses to make out checks personally to him when paying state fees, requiring the payee line to read; "Ohio Treasurer Richard Cordray," rather than simply, “Ohio State Treasury.” Local papers said the move politically motivated and absurdly self-promotional.
But those who know him say even the politics he plays are borne of real desire to serve. His sense of service comes from both parents. Cordray's mother, who died in 1980, was a social worker; his father, Frank, 93, worked with the developmentally disabled for 43 years, and has been legally blind since birth.
"I've met his father many times. Whenever we get together he helps answer the question, 'why does Rich look 20 years younger than the rest of us?' But his father just taught him, 'Do things the right way.' He is very clean cut, a guy's guy," Cappuccio said. "That's why Rich is not in it for himself. He is not ideological. He is a caring public servant."
It’s not easy to get personal stories out of friends, in part because Cordray is “all business,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who worked with Cordray on several joint state lawsuits.
Cordray is a good choice to head the consumer bureau, Madigan said, because his experience in the two treasurer’s offices and his economics degree give him an appreciation for both consumer issues and the challenges of running a business.
“He's got a gold plated resume, and his experience is perfect for being the director,” she said. “He has a great appreciation of the economy and fiscal matters. We're going to get someone who appreciates the need to rebuild the economy in a way that doesn't take advantage of consumers.”
But Cordray will be fair, she stressed. “One thing about Rich: you just can't call Rich Cordray a zealot. He’s measured. This is a person to be scared of if you are operating illegally and unfairly, but not a person to be scared of it you are running a fair business.
“Plus, how can you not be charmed by this brilliant guy who is a Jeopardy champion?”
During his failed re-election bid for the AG’s office last fall, Cordray allowed himself a moment to wax philosophical about politics in an interview with the Middletown Journal.
“I’ve always felt that politics is about choices and leadership and setting the direction of a community or state or country. That’s an important thing to be engaged in,” Cordray said. “The founding generation didn’t have a problem with that question. They didn’t ask one another, ‘Why do you want to be in politics?’ They knew it was important. And I think it has not changed over 200 years, even though people feel that politics has been pretty scuffed up over the years. And there (are) a lot of people who fall short of the minimal expectations that the public has for public officials.”
Cordray's stay at the consumer agency is likely to be short-lived. In fact, given the possibility that he won't be confirmed, and his desire to return to Ohio, there’s obvious speculation about why Obama would drag him through the appointment process in the first place, speculation that no one close to him would indulge in on the record.
One running theory: It keeps Warren out of the mess, clearing the way for her to run for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, and at the same time raises Cordray’s profile for a future run at the governor’s office.
But if he is confirmed – or Obama surprises observers and installs him as a recess appointment -- what should consumers expect from him?
“I think they could expect a professionally run office,” said Harris, the Cleveland reporter. “They could expect pragmatic decision-making. I think they could expect that if cases were filed (against companies), they’d be fairly good cases. He really pays attention to details.”
Confirmed or not, consumers should expect to know who Rich Cordray is, sooner or later, says Cappuccio.
“Rich is about as ideologically different from me as possible,” he said. “I miss Ronald Reagan every day of my life. I miss Margaret Thatcher every day of my life. … But if Rich becomes governor of Ohio, he immediately becomes the best presidential candidate the Democrats have … and I would vote for him. It would be the first time in my life I’d vote Democrat.”