Cordray was born in Grove City, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, in 1959. He attended public schools, and worked at McDonald’s for minimum wage. After graduating as co-valedictorian, he accumulated a long list of academic achievements, including graduating summa cum laude from Michigan State, first-class honours in economics from Oxford University, and editing the prestigious law journal at the University of Chicago Law School.
“I don’t remember that many students, but he really stood out,” says Richard Posner, a legal scholar and a judge on the federal Seventh Circuit Appeals Court, who taught Cordray at the University of Chicago.
Cordray’s professional career began on a similarly steep trajectory. He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He even became a five-time Jeopardy! champion, winning $40,303 in a week one week on the popular game show. (He used the money to pay off his law school loans.)
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After returning home to central Ohio, Cordray launched a campaign for Ohio House of Representatives seat, winning the race in 1990 by pummeling a six-time Republican incumbent. He served two years in the Ohio statehouse before Republicans used the 1990 Census results to draw new district lines that placed Cordray’s Grove City house in a deeply Republican district. At the time it seemed a temporary setback. Cordray immediately ran for Congress.
“He was a bright young man in a hurry,” says Montgomery, who was in the Ohio Senate when Cordray served in the House.
Cordray lost the election for Congress. In 1998 he ran for Ohio attorney general. Montgomery crushed him, 62%-38%. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2000, coming in third in a four-way primary.
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Pretty soon, Cordray had a reputation for biting off more than he could chew.
“Others might call him highly political and ambitious,” says Montgomery, but those labels are common for “somebody who’s got skills in the public sector.”
Even though he lost three races in a row, the years from 1992 to 2002 hardly count as a lost decade for Cordray. He quickly won respect from Democratic Party insiders as a dedicated campaigner. In the race against Montgomery, Cordray raised more money than any other statewide Democratic candidate, Haas says, including ones with much bigger profiles.
That kind of aggressive campaigning is critical in Ohio, a notoriously difficult state for candidates with its eight separate media markets, and disparate populations that span from Appalachia in the south to the Rust Belt in the north and the Corn Belt in the middle.
“I’ve seen him at chicken dinners with party activists in the most rural county seats,” says Mike Brown, a former spokesman for Mike Coleman, mayor of Columbus. Coleman also has run for statewide office in Ohio. “He’s willing to go everywhere, an he’s willing to work at it.”
Meanwhile, Cordray was also enjoying rare success as a lawyer. In 1993 Lee Fisher, Ohio’s attorney general at the time, appointed Cordray to be the state’s first solicitor general, making Cordray the state’s lead attorney in appeals cases before the Ohio and U.S. Supreme Courts.
“It takes a special set of skills to be ready to pivot on a second’s notice and answer questions peppered at you by justices who don’t care what you opening argument is,” says Fisher, who served as Ohio’s lieutenant governor from 2007 through this year. “I wanted somebody who was extremely bright and was a very good lawyer. Rich fit that bill.”
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