CINCINNATI — The annual AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic is a staple for up-and-coming Democrats in Ohio. Surrounded by welders, electricians and their families eating hot dogs, Richard Cordray, the state's former attorney general, joined their ranks Monday.
As the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Cordray said, he had sent a "strong message to banks and other large financial companies that in a frank and fair way the consumer bureau would force them to clean up their acts."
The sleeves of Cordray's dark button-down shirt were rolled up as he spoke next to a raffle hopper and shouted over a band playing "Brown-Eyed Girl" and the sounds of squealing children. "For more than six years now, I have continued to fight for you, and for all American consumers," he said.
But in his fierce defense of the agency before a sparse but polite crowd, Cordray failed to address the question that has followed him for months: Will he run for Ohio governor?
"I don't have anything to say about that," Cordray said afterward, waving off any questions about his political future.
Cordray attempted to downplay the significance of his appearance at the event — Bill Clinton was the headliner last year — noting that he has commuted to Ohio every weekend for six years. "I don't think a lot of people realize that," he said, adding that the biggest change in his life occurred two weeks ago when he and his wife saw their twins off to college for the first time.
There had been speculation that Cordray might use his appearance at the annual event to launch a bid for Ohio's statehouse. At the other end of the state, former Cincinnati mayor and TV talk show host Jerry Springer, who has been openly mulling a run for governor and courting donors, appeared at a Labor Day parade in Cleveland. The state's popular governor, Republican John Kasich, cannot run again because of term limits, leaving both parties scrambling to field their strongest candidates.
"I don't want to get into that," Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said when asked whether Cordray would make a good gubernatorial candidate. Cranley has endorsed the Democratic mayor of Dayton, Nan Whaley. Which party controls Ohio's governor's office in 2018 could have significant political implications in this key presidential swing state.
Although Cordray has been noncommittal, there is already a website opposing his candidacy. The site, www.cordray2018.com, initially appears to be pro-Cordray and features a "Cordray for Ohio" slogan at the top and a large picture of the Democrat. But then the site attacks Cordray and calls the CFPB "one of America's most corrupt government agencies."
Cordray's potential bid has garnered particularly intense attention because the CFPB has been a target of Republicans since it was established after the financial crisis. And Cordray's leadership of the agency has been repeatedly lambasted on Capitol Hill, including by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who once called Cordray a "dictator" and said he should be fired.
Republicans stepped up their attacks on Cordray and the CFPB after President Trump's election. If Cordray were to resign to run for Ohio governor, it would give Trump an opportunity to fill an influential regulatory role. The CFPB regulates the way banks and other financial companies interact with consumers, including payday loans and mortgages.
Asked whether the CFPB's priorities had changed under Trump, Cordray said, "We've tried to keep our priorities the same. Our job, which Congress gave us, was to protect consumers.
"That work needs to be done in our communities for people regardless of what happens with elections, regardless of what happens with particular people and particular offices, and that is something that I have tried to stress at my agency," he said.
The agency is strong enough to continue its work after he leaves, said Cordray, whose term ends next year. Asked about his relationship with Trump, he said, "I have not had a chance to sit down and speak directly with the president."
The CFPB has been grappling with several controversial topics. It is finalizing rules that have roiled Wall Street by allowing consumers to band together to sue their banks. It is also preparing to introduce regulations that would rein in payday lenders.
It is also still probing the growing scandal surrounding Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the country. Last year, the CFPB levied a $100 million fine, the largest in its history, against the San Francisco bank for opening millions of sham accounts customers didn't want. Last week, the bank said the total number of accounts created was potentially 1 million more than it had initially estimated.
The bigger number is not surprising, Cordray said, noting that Wells Fargo's new estimate came after it reviewed accounts dating to 2009 instead of just to 2011, as it had initially. "We continue to work to get this problem fixed," he said.
Wells Fargo also recently acknowledged that it had charged more than 500,000 customers for car insurance they didn't need, even repossessing some cars after the borrowers fell behind on their premiums. Cordray said that he is concerned about that issue and that the CFPB is looking into it. Wells Fargo could face additional enforcement actions, he said.
Merle reported from New York.