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Richard Cordray started impressing people in politics when he was still a teenager. It was 1978, and Cordray was just another off-the-street volunteer for Dick Celeste’s first campaign for governor of Ohio. The campaign office was a perpetually busy hub packed with young, bright people working on behalf of the Democratic hopeful. Cordray was a tall, reedy young man whose open smile and floppy blond hair made him look even younger than his 19 years.

But unlike most young volunteers, who spend lots of time flirting and socializing, Cordray, now nominated to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, simply put his head down and worked, remembers Greg Haas, who was a staff member on the campaign.

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“You get hundreds of volunteers coming through a campaign office, and for any one of them to really stand out the way Rich did is pretty unusual,” Haas says. “He just immediately caught your eye as a nice guy who was very smart and had everything going for him.”

Years later, Haas served as Cordray’s media advisor when Cordray ran for county and statewide offices. The two were friendly, Haas says, but not close. Haas’s mother died in 2005. At the funeral home, Haas turned around to see Cordray sitting in the back row.

“We hadn’t worked together for years,” Haas says. “It was not a campaign stop, and there wasn’t any percentage in it. He just spent three hours in a car to be at my mom’s funeral because that’s the kind of person he is.”

Outside Ohio, few people have heard of Richard Cordray. His biggest step onto the national stage came in July, when President Obama nominated Cordray to become the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new watchdog agency created to protect consumers from fraud and abuse by financial services companies. Cordray currently serves as director of the bureau’s enforcement division.

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Cordray makes his first appearance before the Senate Banking Committee on Sept. 6. Many expect it will be a testy start to a long, nasty and potentially doomed confirmation process, since Republicans in the Senate have signaled they will oppose anyone President Obama nominates for the job.

Obama did his best to blunt some of that opposition at the press conference in the Rose Garden where he introduced Cordray as his nominee.

“I should also point out that he took this job—which meant being away from his wife and 12-year-old twins back in Ohio—because he believed so deeply in the mission of the bureau,” Obama said at a press conference in the Rose Garden, where he introduced Cordray as his nominee.

Cordray’s nomination is widely viewed as an attempt at compromise. At first, President Obama tapped Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard law professor, to create the bureau. Warren was the first person to suggest that a new watchdog agency might be needed to protect consumers and the economy from fraud committed by financial service companies, a stance that won her the approval—and admiration—of many consumer advocates and Democratic Party activists.

But Warren could also be strident, as when she said in a Wall Street Journal editorial in 2010 that “Wall Street CEOs have thrown away customer trust like so much worthless trash.”

Such forceful attacks on the banking industry won Warren the fierce enmity of those same Wall Street CEOs, as well as leading Republicans who took the extraordinary step of preventing Congress from going into recess for nearly an entire year to prevent Obama from tapping Warren to become the bureau’s first permanent director.

Republicans’ anger at Warren bubbled over in May, when Rep. Patrick McHenry (R – NC) accused Warren of lying to Congress.

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Obama avoided what could have been a political meltdown by passing Warren over and nominating Cordray instead. Even though both Warren and Cordray made their reputations by fighting for consumers and against banks, Cordray remains far less-known and less controversial than Warren.

And unlike Warren, Cordray enjoys support from Republicans (at least among those who know him).

“We have all worked with Mr. Cordray during his career in Ohio and have the highest regard for his ability to partner and collaborate on the most important issues facing our community,” four top Ohio business leaders, who usually support Republicans, wrote in a letter of support for Cordray in July.

Regardless of his skills and bipartisan connections, Cordray still might not prevail. Even if Cordray is a compromise candidate, many observers believe he won’t be able to surmount the will of 44 Republican senators, who wrote a letter to President Obama in May saying they wouldn’t support anyone to lead the new bureau until Obama agrees to make major changes to the bureau’s structure and budget.

“Mr. Cordray’s nomination is dead on arrival,” Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the banking committee, wrote in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

Inside Ohio, it’s hard to find anyone with a better political pedigree, or a more tortured career path, than Richard Cordray. Widely viewed as a wunderkind early in his career, Cordray struggled through a decade of losing campaigns before finally finding his footing as a champion for taxpayers and consumers. Eventually he won the support of both Democrats and Republicans, a rare feat in today’s highly partisan political climate.

“Rich and I didn’t agree on a number of policy issues,” says Betty Montgomery, a longtime Republican officeholder in Ohio whom Cordray challenged unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1998. “But all that aside, I think he is an honest broker for his position, and he works hard at any job he has. You can’t really think poorly of him.”

Democrats believe that opposition to Cordray is a cynical move by Republicans eager to thwart President Obama’s agenda.

“There is no legitimate reason for not confirming Rich Cordray other than raw politics,” Ted Strickland, who served as Ohio’s governor from 2007 through this year, said in a recent interview.

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Image: ProgressOhio, via Flickr.com

Is Richard Cordray the New Elizabeth Warren? (cont.) »

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