WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Sunday chose former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the new agency charged with protecting U.S. consumers from abusive mortgage lending practices and hidden credit card fees.
The pick allows Obama to sidestep some of the controversy he would have faced had he nominated Elizabeth Warren, who is credited with conceiving the idea for the new consumer agency but is viewed by many on Wall Street as a foe.
The president is still likely to face a big fight with Republicans on the pick of Cordray, a close Warren ally who has a record of cracking down on the financial industry. His selection requires Senate confirmation.
“He’s from the same mold as Elizabeth Warren but he is easier to get approved,” said Matt McCormick, portfolio manager at Bahl & Gaynor Investment Counsel Inc in Cincinnati, Ohio.
He said Obama was “bowing to the inevitable” in choosing the lesser-known Cordray over the more controversial Warren.
Though Obama’s fellow Democrats control the Senate, Republicans could use a procedural move to block a confirmation vote. An event is planned at the White House on Monday at 1:05 p.m. ET to formally roll out Obama’s choice.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will open its doors on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s signing of the Dodd-Frank financial oversight law.
Obama will meet on Monday with heads of financial regulatory agencies to hear updates on the law’s implementation.
Republicans and the banking industry have disparaged the consumer agency as an unnecessary layer of regulation that, if overzealous, could restrict consumer choice and lending.
Senate Republicans signaled on Sunday they would be reluctant to confirm a new head of the bureau unless their demands were met for major changes to the agency’s structure.
As an adviser to Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Warren has led the effort to set up the new agency.
Her outspoken criticism of Wall Street has made her a lightning rod for conservatives and the industry.
But Warren is a hero to many Democrats and consumer advocates who were disappointed at Obama’s decision not to name her. She welcomed Cordray’s nomination in a statement in which she called him tough and smart -- “exactly the combination this new agency needs.”
Warren will leave her role in the Obama administration, a U.S. official said. A professor of law, Warren will return to Harvard University after helping with the agency’s transition, a person familiar with the matter said.
Some Democrats are urging Warren to challenge Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, whose seat is up for re-election in 2012.
“With her track record of standing up to Wall Street and fighting for consumers, Elizabeth Warren was the best qualified to lead this bureau that she conceived,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. She said she hoped Cordray would continue Warren’s legacy.
Cordray -- whom one bank lobbyist called “all the hard edge and ambition of Warren without the charm” -- is known as a vocal critic of the banking industry.
“I would not expect a ton of pro-business policies. I would expect him to be very aggressive,” Bahl & Gaynor’s McCormick said about Cordray, who is a five-time champion of the television game show “Jeopardy,” which tests contestants’ knowledge.
In Ohio, Cordray was known as a leader among state attorneys general in a probe of dubious mortgage foreclosure practices. He lost his re-election bid last year and in December, joined Warren’s team working on enforcement matters for the new consumer agency.
In a 2009 interview, Cordray told Reuters it was his duty as Ohio attorney general to hold Wall Street to account. He said taxpayers were focused on creating wealth while banks, brokerages and insurers were trying to shuffle around that wealth for their own profit.
“It’s a badge of honor for us,” Cordray said then about his litigation against major financial firms, including Bank of America.
Obama views the consumer bureau as one of the most important parts of the landmark financial regulation law he signed in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 markets meltdown.
“American families and consumers bore the brunt of the financial crisis and are still struggling in its aftermath to find jobs, stay in their homes, and make ends meet,” Obama said in a statement on Sunday. He said Cordray had “spent his career advocating for middle class families.”
In May, 44 Senate Republicans vowed to block confirmation unless the consumer agency’s leadership was changed to a board instead of a single director and other changes are made.
“Congress raised concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability, but the Obama administration still hasn’t addressed those concerns,” John Ashbrook, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said in a statement after the news broke that Cordray would get the nomination.
Additional reporting by Dave Clarke and Karey Wutkowski; Editing by Eric Beech, Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham