All eyes on one Democrat yet to make decision on run for governor

Some believe former attorney general, state treasurer Richard Cordray would become the Democratic frontrunner if he jumped in.

Even as Richard Cordray declines to say a word publicly on whether he will run for governor, a number of Democrats are increasingly convinced that the head of the federal consumer bureau will return to Ohio and compete for next year’s Democratic nomination.

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Although Ohio Democratic hopes may be based on wishful thinking instead of direct knowledge, they believe that as a former state attorney general and treasurer, Cordray would quickly become both the favorite to win the nomination and be a strong candidate against the eventual Republican nominee.

Because of federal law, Cordray is prohibited from even discussing future political plans. On a conference call last month with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Cordray tersely deflected questions about politics, saying he would only discuss his work as head of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Related: What issues do you want Ohio’s next governor to tackle?

“He has not made a decision,” said Joe Rugola, director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees and a longtime Cordray ally.

“He’s concerned about walking away when he believes there are important pieces he could put in place despite the obstacles he faces,” Rugola said. “I know he is wrestling to reconcile those two impulses.”

Former State Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, said “most people who know Rich believe he will run. I do. However I do not know a soul who has actually heard him say that.”

RELATED: Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley announces run for governor

“He’s been extremely careful about whatever federal rules he is under, regarding not engaging in politics,” Curtin said. “He is following events in Ohio very closely.”

Republicans react

Republicans dismiss the “will he or won’t he run” talk as a charade. Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign adviser to President Donald Trump and who is raising money for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci, called on Trump to fire Cordray.

In an interview last Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, Lewandowski charged Cordray “is a person who is now all but running for governor in the state of Ohio and he’s sitting in federal office right now.”

RELATED: 5 things to know about Republican governor candidate Jon Husted

Adding to the drama, the Republican Governors Association last Wednesday filed a Freedom of Information Act request to determine if Cordray has violated the Hatch Act, a 1936 law that barred bureaucrats from using their office to seek future offices.

The Republican governors demanded Cordray turn over all e-mails between his office and a wide variety of people in Ohio, including former Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland, Democratic fund-raiser Melissa Barnhart, (Cleveland) Plain Dealer political columnist Brent Larkin, and Gatehouse Media.

Democratic race goes on

As Democrats wait for Cordray to decide, other Democrats are raising money and hiring campaign staff: former state Rep. Connie Pillich, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

“I think a lot of people are waiting to see what decision he makes,” said Leland, now a state representative from Columbus, adding Cordray “would be a very strong candidate.”

Rugolo said Cordray’s work at the consumer bureau has resulted in “a national base right now. There are progressives all over the country who value the work he has done at the bureau.”

RELATED: AG Mike DeWine makes it official

“If he does decide he’s going to run, he’s got natural advantages that none of our other good friends running could claim,” Rugola said. “He has a national fund-raising base that the others don’t have.”

As much as state Democrats hope Cordray run, as a candidate he has a number of deficiencies. In particular, nobody has ever described his campaign rhetoric as electrifying.

“The Democratic Party in Ohio is a clown show,” said Corry Bliss, who managed the re-election campaign last year of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

“You have a handful of losers running who can’t raise any money and who nobody knows so their savior is Richard Cordray moving back from Washington?” Bliss said. “It’s laughable.”

Trump and Cordray, meanwhile, are engaged in a deadly duel to determine who blinks first. If Trump fires Cordray, he all but guarantees Corday will run for governor.

RELATED: Who has the most money in the race for Ohio governor?

But if Cordray resigns, he risks infuriating progressive Democrats across the country, who regard him as the last bastion of hope against the Trump administration.

No matter whether he resigns or is fired, the reality is Cordray’s time in office is coming to an end. His five-year term expires next July and there is no possibility Trump would nominate him for a second term.

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