Richard Cordray, Jeopardy! Champion. Photograph courtesy of Merv Griffin Productions.


Richard Cordray: The Man Who Could Be Governor Part I of II

Can the Jeopardy! Champion parlay his skills all the way to the Governor’s Mansion?

By John Corrigan


(GROVE CITY) 2018 was supposed to be one of fresh faces on the Democratic side. Three female candidates and a young state senator aggressively emerged as Gubernatorial candidates last year at this time. Yet, coming out on the top of the heap of the blue forces was a familiar face, Richard Cordray.  He is hoping that voters want to change from Republican governance to a Barack Obama-lite style championed by the one time State Representative, Treasurer, Solicitor General, and Attorney General.


Cordray knows his general election Republican opponent Attorney General Mike DeWine very well. He sought to run against him for the U.S. Senate in 1998, only to lose to trial lawyer Joel Z. Hyatt in the Democratic Primary. The two squared off eight years ago for Attorney General, the job that Cordray earned from voters in 2008 after the scandal that chased Marc Dann from office, only to lose to DeWine the next year. Will the third time be the charm for Cordray?


A product of the Baby Boom generation, Cordray’s father was in charge of a program that benefited mentally challenged people, while his mother was a social worker whose commitment to foster children was so great, that she too founded an agency to help foster kids. He has worked for Judge Robert Bork, whose very name elicits extremist partisanship, as well as Obama. Cordray was born on May 3, 1959 in Grove City, a suburb of Columbus. His flashes of brilliance were early, as he worked at the local McDonald’s to earn money for school.


Cordray’s first notoriety was on Columbus television with success in the high school quiz show known as In The Know, representing Grove City High School, and becoming a quiz show champion. He demonstrated deep knowledge on many topics and was able to quickly recall facts and figures, a skill that has proven beneficial on the campaign trail.


His educational credentials are impeccable. Earning an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University in legal and political theory, Cordray then excelled at Oxford. Cordray graduated with honors from Oxford with an M.A. in Economics, even finding time to play basketball for Oxford and earn the English equivalent of a varsity letter, known as a “blue” across the pond.


From Oxford, Cordray landed at the University of Chicago for law school, graduating in 1986, also serving as editor of the school’s Law Review. The law fascinated Cordray, and he excelled at it. His smarts and law school connections landed him a clerk’s job at the United States Supreme Court, where he clerked for Justices Byron “Whizzer” White, a Kennedy appointee and the recently retired Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy.  He worked with Judge Bork on the Court of Appeal’s for the District of Columbia. Cordray was off and running for an opportunity in law that would be afforded to someone of his credentials. That time came in 1988, when Cleveland’s Jones, Day, Reavis, and Pogue called.  Jones Day is one of the nation’s most prestigious firms and Cordray accepted a position in its Cleveland office and then in Columbus.


Before his career took off, Cordray played his cards right and earned a spot on the Merv Griffin television production, Jeopardy!. The game show is a quiz show styled similarly to In The Know.  Cordray proved that he really was in the know.  The college student became a five- time champion on the popular television program in 1987. Cordray racked up a five day total of over $40,000 - money that he used to pay for law school and buy an automobile. On a subsequent tournament of champions, he earned another $5,000.00.


Politics was always a passion for Cordray. He worked in college as an intern for U.S. Senator John Glenn (D-OH), and chose to enter elective politics in 1990, challenging State Representative Don Gilmore, who represented an urban-suburban district in southern Columbus.  Backed heavily by Speaker Vern Riffe’s (D-New Boston) majority, the neophyte candidate defeated Gilmore by a whopping 61%-39% in an off year election that saw Republicans lose suburban districts all across the country but saw George Voinovich elected to the Governor’s office.


Cordray would serve only two years as a State Representative. With the election of Voinovich and Republicans in charge of the redistricting process, his 33rd Ohio House district was redrawn before he could make a major impact at the Statehouse.  He chose to attempt to continue his political career in the United States House of Representatives in the 1992 election, challenging Columbus Municipal Court Judge DeborahPryce, the GOP nominee who earned the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie (R-15) who retired in the face of the U.S. House Bank check kiting scandal.


Cordray fought a hard race, raised a respectable amount of money, but lost in a 3 way race by 7% of the vote.  His race did catch the attention of the Democratic establishment, and upon leaving the Ohio House of Representatives in 1993, State Attorney General Lee Fisher would appoint him as State Solicitor General, a new job created to assist the AG with the handling of appeals.  He would hold that position until 1996. He argued cases for the state that included questioning the legality of news media representatives riding along with local law enforcement and participating in police activities. Hanlon v. Berger (1999) was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by Cordray. Cordray’s work also allowed for direct appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court on death penalty cases, rather than the traditional process that shortened the appeals process in capital cases.


A string of political losses in the 1990’s and early 2000’s put a cloud over Cordray’s electoral abilities.  Unopposed for the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General in 1998, Cordray was easily defeated by Republican incumbent Betty Montgomery by a 62%-38% count.  Cordray garnered less votes than any other Democrat on the statewide ballot that year. In 2000, Cordray tried again for Federal office, throwing his hat in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate to take on incumbent Mike DeWine. That too was an unsuccessful effort as Cordray lost to Ted Celeste, the brother of the retired Governor Dick Celeste (D-OH), falling short by nearly 200,000 votes.


Not being able to connect with statewide voters, Cordray found his calling back in Franklin County politics.  In 2001, popular Republican incumbent County Treasurer Bobbie Hall retired, and the local GOP appointed Wade Steen as County Treasurer.  In the 2002 election, Cordray threw his hat into the ring, and voters voted to break the hold that Republicans had on the office that included political powerhouses like Dana G. “Buck” Rinehart.  Cordray defeated Steen on the 2002 ballot by 3000 votes. Cordray went to work to fill the unexpired term, and went on to win the 2004 election handily, becoming a trusted Franklin County vote getter.


Cordray was praised as an innovative Treasurer. He sought and worked with Republicans in the General Assembly to provide additional powers to County Treasurers as well as the State Treasurer to modernize the investment portfolios of government.  


Cordray said of his time as Franklin County Treasurer in a 2006 campaign document, “During my tenure, we have saved over $9 million by refinancing bonded debt, broken all records for delinquent tax collection, eliminated the prior backlog of delinquencies, maintained the top county bond rating (AAA) in the State, required competitive bidding of banking contracts for the first time in 59 years, and created the first County Land Bank program in Ohio to revitalize abandoned and distressed properties and return them to productive status. For these reasons, American City & County magazine named me its County Leader of the Year nationally for 2005. I will bring this same spirit and energy to the State Treasury.”


Next up, part two of this feature on Richard Cordray.