The Progressive Populist Who Wants to Help Democrats Win Back the Rust Belt
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In early May, Richard Cordray was wrapping up a two-day campaign sprint during which he spoke to crowds of plumbers, pipefitters, ironworkers, teachers, firefighters, furniture workers, and now, as dusk settled over a low-slung Cleveland union hall, a hundred or so food and commercial workers. Cordray, who stepped down as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last December, was making a last-minute pitch to Ohio Democrats to choose him as their nominee for governor. Ostensibly, he was campaigning to defeat liberal gadfly Dennis Kucinich in the next day’s party primary (which he did, handily). But in a larger sense, Cordray was—is—trying to redeem a Democratic Party blindsided by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and searching for a path forward.
Trump’s unexpected strength in Midwest swing states such as Ohio, where he trounced Hillary Clinton by eight points, exposed a deep erosion of Democratic support in swaths of the country you have to carry if you want to win the White House. Ohio has voted for the winner in 14 straight presidential elections. That Clinton’s brand of Wall Street-friendly, establishment Democratic politics wasn’t even competitive in this presidential bellwether underscored the scope of the party’s problem.
“Ohio’s not a right-wing state,” Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor, insists. “Trump came along and captured the zeitgeist of the moment, but I don’t think that’s a permanent thing.”
What’s indisputable is that Ohio revealed a host of shortcomings Democrats must address. While Obama twice won the state with strong minority support, black voter turnout fell sharply in 2016. So did Democratic support in struggling manufacturing hubs such as the Mahoning Valley in Northeast Ohio, where many union members defected to Trump. Meanwhile, suburban voters didn’t turn out in nearly the numbers Democrats needed.
Clinton’s loss raised a host of thorny questions the party has been debating ever since: Was the problem Clinton, or is it broader than that? Should Democrats make more explicit appeals around race and gender to activate disaffected voters? Or should they embrace the full-throated economic populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
Cordray’s race will offer some interesting clues—he’s as pure an exponent of Warren-style populism as anyone on this year’s ballot. Because he lacks a Trump-like persona or a desire to litigate the president’s misdeeds, Cordray is embarking on what amounts to a laboratory experiment in the power of progressive economic populism to win back lost voters. Trump showed that hard-right populism can resonate in Ohio; what’s as yet unclear is whether that message can resonate from the left, when shorn of its anti-immigrant, anti-Clinton attacks and dialed back from Trumpian bombast to Cordray’s scout-leader calm.
Recruited by Warren herself to the CFPB after a stint as Ohio’s attorney general, Cordray has turned the agency’s mission of protecting consumers from Wall Street predations into a campaign message. “My job at the CFPB, as President Obama told me when he interviewed me, was to stand on the side of people in the financial marketplace and see that they were treated fairly,” Cordray told a group of Cincinnati firefighters. “We did that—and got back $12 billion for 30 million Americans who had been cheated or mistreated by large financial institutions.” Cordray also touted his role as Ohio’s financial avenger after the 2008 crisis. “We recognized that our pension system had been abused—a pension system that supports our police, firefighters, and public servants,” he continued. “We got back $2 billion from Wall Street that never should have been taken from them and put it back into Ohio taxpayers’ pockets.”
His Robin Hood record notwithstanding, Cordray, 59, is about the furthest thing from the tub-thumping populists of yore. Tall and sandy-haired, he has a hangdog visage and the soft-spoken demeanor of the late PBS kids’ show host Mr. Rogers. “It makes me mad to see people in government serving themselves at our expense,” Cordray, sounding not the least bit mad, told a union crowd in Lima earlier that day.
While he rarely puts a charge in his audience, Cordray drove Republicans in Washington to fits, quickly emerging as Public Enemy No. 2 (behind Warren) for his aggressiveness in clawing back those billions of dollars for consumers. Conservatives viewed him as the embodiment of rapacious government overreach and made him the target of furious criticism throughout his CFPB tenure. “For conducting unlawful activities, abusing his authority, denying market participants due process, Richard Cordray should be dismissed by our president,” Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, declared last year, as part of an unsuccessful campaign to pressure Trump to fire him.
Cordray’s challenge now is to get Ohio voters half as fired up as Republicans like Hensarling. His backers suggest, somewhat hopefully, that his low-wattage personal style will contrast favorably with Trump’s exhausting, nonstop fusillade. “His personality is not like Elizabeth’s or Bernie’s, but his economic policy chops sure are,” says Sandy Theis, former executive director of the liberal nonprofit ProgressOhio. “If you’re looking for a candidate who’ll give you clickbait and headlines, that’s not Rich,” echoes Matt Alter, president of the Cincinnati Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 48. “But he’ll run the state and get things done.” Cordray is fortunate that his Republican opponent, former U.S. Senator and current Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, is no more endowed with charisma than he is. As one labor official quipped, the race could turn out to be “the Battle of the Blands.”
Cordray resists red-meat attacks. Absent from his pitch, even to friendly Democratic audiences, was any mention of Trump or the menagerie of supporting characters, from Robert Mueller to Stormy Daniels, who populate the daily American political drama on cable TV. “I don’t want the voters to get distracted,” Cordray told me at his Columbus headquarters. “There’s a certain prurient entertainment value in some of that stuff. But I think government is serious business and important.”
While their personal styles couldn’t be more different, candidates Trump and Cordray strike many of the same notes, both arguing that workers have been fleeced by Wall Street banks and taken advantage of by self-dealing politicians. “Trump tapped into something that working families all across this country were living every day,” Warren told me. “He got the anger and the fear [and] the fact that people felt under attack and abandoned by their own government.” But Cordray adds the flourish that those now exploiting government for personal gain are the Republicans in power—not just in Washington, but also in Columbus, where in April an FBI investigation prompted the Republican state house speaker to resign. Cordray is training his attention on Ohio’s workers, especially union households Trump won, in the belief that they’ll return to the fold if Democrats make the right appeal. The difference between Cordray and Trump, Warren says, is that “Cordray has a story of winning, and not just making promises.”
The story Cordray’s telling is noteworthy, because he doesn’t sound inhibited in the way Democrats in conservative areas often do. He isn’t masquerading as a moderate “Republican lite,” yet his personality isn’t going to eclipse everything else, as Trump’s did. He’ll rise or fall on the strength of the ideas he’s putting forward as unabashedly left of center. In his primary-night victory speech, he urged voters to “say ‘yes’ to progressive policies.” How Ohioans respond to those ideas will say a lot about whether Democrats have found a formula to take on Trump. Two polls from early June showed Cordray unexpectedly beating DeWine, a small and early sign that they might have. A Cordray victory would illuminate a road map to regain territory—perhaps enough to oust Trump from the White House. “If Democrats can prove that progressive populism works here, then that’s huge for 2020,” says Dan Pedrotty, a lawyer and policy adviser to the Cordray campaign. “So is Rich’s message back to Trump: ‘You caved to Wall Street and big business on your populist promises like draining the swamp.’ ”
Even before Clinton’s loss, it was evident that the lode of feeling among the Democratic rank and file voters had shifted to the left since Barack Obama’s last victory. In his new memoir, How Bernie Won, Jeff Weaver, who ran Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, argues that though the candidate ultimately succumbed to Clinton, he “won” their primary showdown, because Democrats embraced his brand of left-wing populism. While Clinton also moved leftward on issues ranging from immigration to social justice, she was a poor messenger for economic populism. When her campaign needed to appeal to voters in the Mahoning Valley and places like it, it usually sent more culturally appropriate surrogates, such as Joe Biden or Senator Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s only statewide Democratic officeholder.
Clinton’s inability to hold on to working-class voters was catastrophic for Democrats’ fortunes beyond Ohio. Their defection to Trump in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest caused the unexpected collapse of the so-called Blue Wall—the 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) that had voted Democratic in every election since 1992. This wasn’t purely a referendum on Clinton. White working-class voters had gradually been moving to the GOP for decades; Trump’s campaign hastened the process. While demographic changes in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and other states may eventually compensate for Midwestern losses, the surer near-term path to the White House for Democrats is to win back Democratic voters who have drifted away in states such as Ohio. “To win, Democrats will need to reconnect with blue-collar voters in places like Northeast Ohio,” says Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic media consultant from the state who worked on Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “They can’t just rely on suburban women. The Mahoning Valley, Summit, Portage, Stark counties—that’s where the battleground will be. The good news is, Cordray has a great populist economic record coming out of the CFPB. The challenge will be to stay focused on kitchen-table issues and not get distracted by Trump or some personality debate.”
Although Cordray has no more dispositional kinship with the fiery Sanders than he does with Trump, his background and upbringing still serve as the basis for a kind of buttoned-down populist appeal. He was born in Grove City, Ohio, to parents who both worked with children with developmental disabilities. The closest he comes to standard-politician emoting in his stump speech is when he likens the “quiet dignity of their service” to that of teachers, police, and firefighters. Cordray’s father was also blind, but the family got little in the way of public recognition, which only amplified their nobility in their son’s mind and shaped his political views. “You need to be on the couch to think deeply about your inner psyche,” Cordray told me, with an awkward chuckle. “But over the years, I think more and more I’ve come to recognize that my parents, not in a didactic or explicit way, but in a very powerful way by their example, gave me a sense that government could be a force for good.”
Cordray was a scholarship student at Michigan State, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago Law School, then won a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship. Yet somewhat incongruously, his heart was in electoral politics. That love often went unrequited: In 1990 he won an Ohio state house seat; but he lost a race for Congress two years later, and then two more races, one for attorney general and another for U.S. Senate. “I really got my head pounded in over the years in politics,” he once admitted to the New York Times. He lowered his sights, won a state treasurer race, and in 2008 finally won a special election for attorney general.
Cordray took office in the teeth of the financial crisis. He quickly became part of a cadre of aggressively litigious Democratic state attorneys general that included Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Roy Cooper in North Carolina, and Lisa Madigan in Illinois. The group successfully targeted financial corporations, mortgage-loan servicers, and credit card companies for consumer fraud and other abuses tied to the crisis. The $2 billion that Cordray boasts about reclaiming for Ohioans came from several actions against marquee Wall Street firms, including American International Group ($725 million), Merrill Lynch ($475 million), and Marsh & McLennan ($400 million), and gave him a national profile. Additionally, in what seemed an incredible stroke of good fortune for someone with Cordray’s obvious ambition for higher office, millions of dollars from a settlement were distributed among 26 Ohio universities, schools, and cities all across the state.
And yet when Cordray ran for reelection in 2010 against Mike DeWine—his current opponent in the governor’s race—he lost, becoming one of the numerous Democrats swept out of office in the Tea Party wave. Three days later, his phone rang. It was Elizabeth Warren, calling to recruit him to become the chief of enforcement at the CFPB. “I didn’t quite understand what the purpose of the call was at the time,” Cordray says. “I did not know her from Adam and Eve, frankly.”
Cordray soon learned that Warren was a fellow traveler, empowered by Obama and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms to establish a consumer bureau that would operate in the same spirit as the crusading attorneys general. In fact, Warren had sought him out precisely because of his success bringing financial firms to heel (or at least to settlement). A diligent student of government power and how it operates, she understood that an enforcement chief whom state attorneys general viewed as a trustworthy ally would function as a kind of force multiplier, with instant credibility and the considerable muscle and organizing power of the federal government. As Cordray put it soon after he joined the CFPB, his bailiwick was “in many ways doing on a 50-state basis the things I cared most about as a state attorney general, with a more robust and a more comprehensive authority.”
This turned out to matter even more when Republicans blocked Warren’s nomination to head the CFPB, prompting Obama to put Cordray in charge. Although he first had to spend a year building and staffing the bureau, Cordray picked up where he’d left off in Ohio, going after mortgage, student loan, and financial companies as soon as its enforcement authority kicked in in July 2011. Although his success in these endeavors won him angry notoriety among Republicans, it deepened his belief in government’s ability to right wrongs.
Out on the trail, Cordray makes an explicit case for government as a positive force in people’s lives that few other Democratic politicians would state so baldly. A generation ago, when Bill Clinton declared “the era of big government is over,” a Democrat wouldn’t take that risk. But the world has changed. The financial crisis hit hard in Ohio, revealing how tenuous middle-class life can be. The opioid epidemic rages on unimpeded. The Trump-led assault on the Affordable Care Act, which brought Medicaid coverage to 700,000 in the state, sparked a furious backlash among those whose government health insurance would be taken away. Government isn’t automatically a malign force anymore, or so Cordray insists: It’s a way to shift the balance of power in favor of ordinary people.
“The meltdown of the economy was a radicalizing event for a lot of people,” he says. “They lost their homes, even though they’d done the right thing. Everybody’s retirement savings took a nose dive. Millions lost their jobs. None of them intended to or wanted to, but that was the effect of Wall Street’s irresponsible behavior.”
Cordray’s placid demeanor precludes him from saying what he means: People got screwed. Two years ago, operating under no such constraint, Trump made this case explicitly, and it resonated widely in working-class Ohio and places like it. “Trump smelled it in the air,” Warren says. “He went to those rallies. He felt the applause, the cheering, the stomping, when he talked about selling out to Wall Street. When he talked about people who worked hard, and someone else took away what rightly belonged to them. Then he pointed in an ugly direction. He blamed people who didn’t worship like you, weren’t the same color as you, didn’t speak like you. But he had the anger part right.” She adds, “It’s how Trump won, and what he tapped into. And it’s what Rich is talking about out on the campaign trail.”
Trump promised to shift the balance of power through his own force of will—“I alone can fix it”—but Ohio’s economy remains sluggish, and Trump’s approval rating has fallen. “A lot of our firefighters who were ardent Trump supporters aren’t as vocal as they were,” Doug Stern, the communications director for the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, told me after a Cordray event in Cincinnati.
The morning after Cordray’s primary victory, just as we were sitting down to talk, the Trump distraction suddenly arrived in the form of a tweet. The president called Cordray a “Socialist” and a “big failure in last job!” Cordray rarely mentions the president on the campaign trail, but he didn’t seem at all unhappy that Trump had injected himself into the race. “It’s kind of head-spinning,” he admitted. But it let him tout his populist bona fides. “Getting back $12 billion for 30 million Americans is the work I thought we were supposed to be doing,” he told me, and then tweeted the same.
Cordray’s dig, like his whole campaign, is an effort to sully Trump’s populist image and reclaim for Democrats the appealing narrative of politics as a drama of injustice and recompense—a process Trump’s scandal-plagued cabinet, and Ohio’s deposed house speaker, have both helped usher along. National Democrats will be watching intently to see whether Cordray’s progressive populism can connect the way Trump’s version did. So far, it hasn’t. On primary night, nearly 150,000 more Ohio Republicans voted than Democrats, the reverse of the juiced-up Democratic turnout seen elsewhere this year.
Still, there’s plenty of time (and hundreds of news cycles) between now and November. Cordray is betting that the populist energies that gave rise to Trump are still burning—and that even people who responded to his message will have seen enough by Election Day to conclude that Trump is part of the problem rather than someone who can deliver results. What will they do then?
“My wife pointed out that Rich has the perfect message,” says Strickland, the former Democratic governor. “He can say, ‘I went to D.C. and took on the big banks, the special interests, and got your money back when people tried to take advantage of you.’ Trump said he’d do that, but he didn’t do it. That’s a message that appeals across the board.”
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